How to Keep Dogs and Children Bite-Free

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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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