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How to Keep Dogs and Children Bite-Free

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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There are currently some 4.7 million dog bites per year in the United States, most sustained by children. The majority of problems occur when dogs are not properly controlled when they are off-leash and unsupervised. Under these circumstances, aggressive events are more likely to occur, though whether they actually do, or not, depends on the temperament of the dog and, of course, the behavior of the child. Not all dogs will bite children even under the most trying of circumstances. Some are gentle – but not all.

Dominance

Dominance-related problems can occur when the youngster reaches about one-and-a-half years of age and is finally toddling around confidently. This is the time when the child is likely to begin inadvertently challenging the dog by interfering with him while he is eating, patting him on the head, or disturbing him while he is resting. Some children may even try pulling the dog's tail or try to ride him like a horse. Avoiding injury to children through inappropriate behaviors such as these depends, to a large extent, on protecting the dog from the unwelcome onslaughts of children. (I.e. childproofing the dog).

For example, it makes sense to feed the dog in an area where the child will not disturb him. Avoid feeding him items like real bones or rawhide chews when the child is around, and don't give toddlers food like hotdogs or chips when they are "on the run." Small children are close to the dog's level. If they run around brandishing delicious food in front of a dominant dog, the situation is an accident waiting to happen.

Young children should be taught to pet dogs appropriately but only under close supervision. The dog should not be allowed on high places, like beds or furniture. Being up high increases the dog's confidence and the likelihood of aggression toward the child if the dog is disturbed. Dog toys should be put away and presented only during safe times when the child is not around to steal them. Children's toys should be labeled with a dab of clean-smelling antiseptic that will serve to deter the dog's interest in them. The dog's bed or crate should be in a quiet area that is remote from the toddler's warpath.

Until children are 6 years old they don't follow directions well and have to be protected against their own actions. A willful, dominant dog thus becomes another in a series of potential household disasters for the unwary parent. While electric outlets have to be fitted with protective plastic caps and stairwells and doorways have to be gated, you need to provide a safe place for your dog when you are too busy to properly supervise the child-dog interaction. A crate or X-pen may be the solution to keep childrens' wandering hands out of trouble. The added insurance provided by muzzles may also be helpful in some instances. But don't forget that, in the interests of safety, it is also possible to sequester children to limit their mobility. The use of play pens and kiddy reigns are two methods by which this can be achieved. A few simple rules help all of this fall into place:

  • Never leave dogs and young children unsupervised together. Work on the basis that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Don't get distracted by the phone or visitors at the door without first taking steps to prevent accidents.

  • Supervision means the dog is on a lead and the child is under a grownup's watchful eye. Dog usually do not suddenly attack a child for no reason. There is nearly always a trigger and it usually comes from the child's direction.

  • If there are children in the house there should not be testicles on the dog. Be smart; neuter all males that are not intended to be used for breeding.

    Fearfulness

    Fearfulness is different from dominance, though dominance and fear are not mutually exclusive. If your dog is fearful of strangers, or acts skittishly around children, take steps to prevent him from such exposure, except as part of a retraining program. The children of the house are usually relatively safe from attacks by fear-aggressive dogs because they are familiar thus non-threatening.

    It is your children's friends, when visiting, who are the most likely targets for this type of aggression. A meek and fearful dog will simply avoid the unwelcome visitors if he can – and you should make sure this is possible. However, if pursued into inescapable corners of the home by invasive children, even a meek dog may retaliate by means of aggression designed to drive the "bogeyman" away. This is clearly a fault of failure to protect the dog from the child, rather than the other way round. The trick is to know your dog and cater to his worst fears by protecting him from them.

    Predation

    Dogs are natural born predators, some more so than others. To find out whether your dog has high "prey drive" ask yourself the following questions:

  • What was my dog bred for? If the answer is hunting, chasing, killing small varmints, or even herding, score one point and move on to the next question.

  • Do squirrels drive my dog crazy? If yes, score another point.

  • Does my dog chase tennis balls to the point of exhaustion? If yes, score one final point for a predatory behavioral "full house" score of three.

    High prey drive is not in and of itself a bad thing - unless you happen to be a neighborhood cat or squirrel - but it can sometimes be misdirected. An extremely rare occurrence is when a dog of high prey drive suddenly finds himself confronted with an unfamiliar infant. The screams and cries of the baby can sometimes trigger the dog's predatory instincts with disastrous consequences. However, if such a dog is properly introduced to the infant over a week or so, the other side of the dog's personality, its natural instinct to protect a new family member, will win out. It's the transition that needs some thought and necessary action. Always play it safe by taking appropriate precautions.

    The other scenario in which prey drive can pose problems is when children are running around screaming and waving their arms around. It is as if this behavior awakens some primordial prey instinct in the dog that is then obliged to act out some predatory sequence. For herding breeds and "soft-mouthed" sporting breeds the result may be nothing more than an unwelcome nip or some torn clothes. Highly predatory breeds without "bite inhibition" can deliver much more serious injuries, particularly if they are in a "pack" of (typically) two to five dogs and are away from their owners. Such situations would never occur with responsible dog ownership.

    Some think there is no such thing as a bad dog, and mostly they are right. However, some breeds are more likely to get into trouble if their genetic inclinations are not fully appreciated by their owners. The axiom should be "know your dog" - even if you have to pay someone to help you understand him. Though genetics sets the stage, nurture (or experience) fuels the plot. Puppies should be socialized to children (as well as strangers) from a very early age to make sure that the story line is a safe and pleasant one.

    Before their eyes open, pups should experience pleasant consequences when children are around. They should also be protected against any adverse experiences with children or adults. Other key points are that intact male dogs should be neutered; don't expect too much of young children; and play it safe while the children are young. Once children are old enough to interact meaningfully with dogs, they should be coached on dog etiquette so that they project the right aura, treat the dog fairly, and can avoid conflict. With the child and the dog on the same page, and with a clear understanding of each other's agendas, there is no reason why the dogs and children should not become friends for life.

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