This is part two of a four-part series on dog bites.
As a professional in the animal world, I hear it all the time. “Oh, Fluffy would never bite anyone. She wouldn’t hurt a flea!” “Rover loves my kids so much, he lets them climb all over him and jump on him.” There are too many variants to get into, but animal professionals all over are probably nodding as they read this. The problem with these statements isn’t that they are wrong, but that they are so widely believed that they get the dogs in question in trouble. “Why would a dog bite a child?” people wonder. After all, they are so innocent and sweet.
Well let’s explore that question. Why would a dog bite a child? The possible reasons are numerous. Dogs could be afraid of children, especially if they’ve never been around kids or have had bad experiences around kids. Secondly, dogs need to be taught the appropriate ways to act around children. Also, children, for all that we love them, can be incredibly annoying to dogs. And dogs far too often are not protected from children, and when they take matters into their own hands (teeth), we react with shock and betrayal.
First off, let’s look further at the fear factor. Dogs who have not been exposed to children in puppyhood with happy fun experiences may become afraid of kids. That’s because when they are puppies, their brains are open to new circumstances, new situations, and new species interactions. After that window closes, it seems that unfamiliar things often get categorized immediately as “unsafe” (this is an oversimplification, and it also depends on how much socialization overall the dog has had and the overall temperament of the dog). So when a dog sees a child for the first time, he has no idea that a child is a young human- they only see something that moves, acts, talks, and looks unfamiliar, and therefore that strange creature may be unsafe. This is why sometimes a dog reacts to seeing a child for the first time with obvious fear and anxiety, and other times reacts as if they are fighting for their very life, complete with barks, snarls, growls, and snaps. Both behaviors are motivated by the same feeling- fear. And it’s not enough to simply expose your puppy to children. You need to make sure the experience is pleasant, because if the puppy gets scared or stressed out, they can still categorize kids as “unsafe” even if the reason for the fear had nothing to do with the kids but was an unfortunate coincidence.
Other times, the puppy has great experiences with kids but is not taught how to act around children. This can still lead to a bite later in life. For instance, a herding breed likely will try to herd children around, possibly by nipping, if not taught to behave otherwise and well supervised. A dog who loves to roughhouse isn’t going to instinctively know that children are fragile and their skin can break easily. They also don’t know that a playful bite that accidentally breaks skin is still classified as a bite. A dog with a high prey drive may stop thinking when faced with a group of rowdy children who are running and shrieking like maniacs- and if he forgets himself and bites a child, that child might squeal like prey and add fuel to the fire. There is a known phenomenon called “predatory drift” in which a dog starts off playing (usually with another dog) but then gets over-aroused and triggered such that the play takes a predatory turn. Lots of self control and learning to calm down after excitement can help keep everyone safe while playing, while encouraging wild out-of-control play can actually increase the chances of a bite. Dogs need to be taught to play calm, gentle games with children and never to roughhouse with them. They need to be exposed to a wide variety of children to practice good manner and gentle behavior, and they need help to build up the self control NOT to join in a good game of tag (dogs may tag with their teeth, depending on the dog). They need to learn and practice different play skills and self control during play and learn that playing with children is different than playing with other dogs.
Then there is the well-mannered, well-socialized, fully integrated into the family, well-cared-for, well-trained and obedient dog largely considered “safe”. What would make him bite a child? Well, how would you feel if you had to put up with someone else’s youngsters crawling all over you, giving you no break, and pulling on various parts of your body? Kids can be so obnoxious around dogs, and it is our responsibility- parents and dog owners both- to teach them how to behave around dogs. We also need to focus on creating as many positive experiences as we can between dogs and the kids they interact with, because you are far more likely to tolerate annoyances from someone with whom you have a strong positive relationship, and the same is true for dogs. Even when they are free of malice, kids ignore personal bubbles (which is a huge no-no in the dog world), climb on dogs, pinch them, pull their hair, step on them, trip over them, jump on them, ride them, pull ears and tails, squeal in their ears, lay on them, accidentally hurt them, and stick their fingers in their eyes, noses, ears, etc. All of these things add up and create many tiny bad experiences for the dog, thus creating a progressively worse relationship between the dog and the child. There was a case I remember clearly several years ago of a boy around 7 years old or so who was bitten by their well-mannered dog. Just prior to the bite, he had spent many minutes repeatedly sticking a pencil into the poor dog’s rear. Finally, the dog had had enough and told the child exactly what he thought of that game- and ended up with a bite record.
That brings me to my last reason why dogs bite. They are too often poorly supervised, especially if they are considered “safe”. We need to pay attention to what is going on between the child and the dog if we are to create a positive relationship such that when accidents inevitably happen the dog doesn’t decide that’s the last straw. Teach kids to respect the dog and the dog’s space (personal space, crate, and bed). Teach kids to treat dogs gently (and not to pull hair, ears, and tails or stick fingers in eyes, ears, noses, etc). Pay attention to warning signs when they appear- looking at your kid or your dog with rose colored glasses only makes a bite more likely to happen. Learning basic body language helps you communicate with your dog so you know when they are okay with what is going on and when they are feeling stressed or afraid or angry. Teaching kids these skills so they can read dogs they interact with accurately can also help keep the kids safe. There’s good reason why professionals urge parents never to leave a kid and dog together unattended. But just being there is not enough- you need to be alert and proactive. Don’t wait for a child to power-slam a dog before intervening- act before the child gets away with it. That way when you inevitably miss something (and we’re human, so you will miss something) your dog has trust and a strong positive relationship to draw upon and so will more than likely tolerate the mistake.