Dogs can be a wonderful and integral part of childhood: they get rid of the evidence when you don’t eat your vegetables, keep all of your secrets, and most importantly, love you completely and unconditionally!
If you are thinking about bringing a dog into your home with children, you need to make sure the new dog, your family, and your home are all adequately prepared for the introduction. Even if your family isn’t ready to adopt a dog of your own, teaching your children how to interact with every dog they meet is key to preventing any incidents of biting from happening.
Why Do Dogs Bite?
A dog bite out of the blue is exceptionally rare. Usually, even if the owner didn’t notice them, there are signs that a dog may be in danger of biting. These are extremely important to recognize when there are children in the home. So, why do dogs bite, and what are the warning signs?
Fear – Dogs, especially adopted adult dogs, may be easily startled or frightened. You may notice your new dog getting up and moving away from your child, or turning their head away from the child. This is usually because the dog is nervous or frightened by the child. Other signs are not so obvious, such as yawning when the child comes to play with the dog, wide eyes, or shaking (either trembling, or shaking like they just got a bath). If you notice any of these signs, separate the dog and your child immediately, and allow your dog to calm down before attempting another introduction.
Pain – Dogs can bite out of reaction to pain. You may notice that your dog gets snappy when trimming their nails, or if they have an injury. Children are often bitten when they pull on dog’s tails, ears, or fur, or when they poke dog’s eyes. Sometimes they hit dogs when they are trying to pet them. Make sure your child is able to interact gently with your dog, without pulling on body parts.
To Protect – Dogs can become protective over not just people, but also toys, food, places (such as their yard, crate or bed), and other animals, especially their own puppies. If you notice your dog guarding certain items, places, or people, remove them when introducing your new dog to your child. It is advisable to have them meet in a neutral place, such as a new park. Never have young children unsupervised around dogs with young puppies, or when they are eating, or playing with their toys.
During Play – Sometimes dogs will nip and bite when they are playing, especially when they are young. Be sure to warn your child not to roughhouse with your dog, and if you notice the dog getting excited and wanting to chew and play, try to calm it down before continuing to let them around children. Taking your dog on a walk or run before interacting with children allows it to burn off excess energy, allowing the experience to be more calm. Never allow your child to trap or corner a dog, and allow the dog a path to leave if it becomes uncomfortable. A dog that is tied up or otherwise unable to “escape” may resort to biting.
Illness – Aggression can happen because of a genetic disorder, such as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Disorder (also known as CCDD, which is similar to Alzheimer’s in humans)If your dog is aggressive without a clear “trigger” take them to a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical issues
How to prevent biting incidents
Remove triggers – Any known triggers, such as certain toys, food, or people, should be removed before the child and dog are allowed to interact. If you make the environment as calm as possible, the chances of a bite are much lower
Sometimes, dogs can be extremely protective over children as well, so when family or friends come over and the children are around, it is best to put the dogs in a separate space.
Teach your children to understand the warning signs – Teach children that they should never chase a dog that is running away from them. They should back off if a dog widens its eyes, or repeatedly moves its head away. They should know to never get between a dog and its food, or try to take something out of a dog’s mouth.
Respect the dog’s space – Children should stay out of dogs’ beds, away from their food, and, if the dog is territorial or protective over things outside, out of the yard when the dog is outside.
Teach children not to approach unknown dogs – Teach your children to never approach strange dogs without asking permission from the owner. This is especially important for very young kids who are right at face-level with dogs. It is not uncommon for dogs to nip at children when they startle or scare them, and even a small nip can land your child in the hospital needing stitches and the dog to be taken away by authorities because of it. Avoid this situation entirely by teaching your children to never approach dogs without permission from the owner.
Safe Interactions Between Dogs and Kids
Children, at different ages, should be taught how to appropriately interact with dogs. Toddlers and young children should be supervised when with dogs, especially if the dog is newly adopted, recently injured, has shown signs of fear or aggression, or recently has had puppies. Older children require less supervision, but with that comes more responsibility.
Safe Interactions Between Dogs and Toddlers
Different age groups require different precautions, due to maturity levels and understanding. Toddlers, especially, as they learn to navigate the world around them (and the dogs they share it with!). What should you do when your dog is interacting with your toddler?
- Never leave dogs and toddlers unattended – No matter how good your dog is with children, you should never leave a dog and toddler together unattended, for any length of time. Even if you are just going to the restroom, or getting something from another room, it is enough time for an accident to happen.
- Teaching toddlers to pet dogs – Sometimes a toddler “petting” a dog may feel more like a slap to the animal. Have your toddler practice “petting softly” on a stuffed animal before allowing them to pet a real dog.
- Teach dogs AND kids – Toddlers tend to make sudden movements and loud noises, and may pull on a dog’s tail, ears, fur, or legs. While you are teaching your child how to pet a dog gently, also teach them how to properly interact with a dog without hurting or startling it. It is equally important to not reinforce bad behavior from the dog, as well. A dog will naturally growl if he feels threatened or is in pain, but snapping or biting should never be allowed. Do not reward your dog for negative behavior. If your child isn’t able to calmly interact with animals, or your dog consistently shows signs of potential aggression towards children, it may be best to avoid this situation entirely.
Safe Interactions Between Dogs and Young Children
As children get older, it becomes easier to teach them how to properly interact with a dog. What are the best ways to instruct a young child on safe ways to interact with dogs?
- Teach young children to respect the dog’s boundaries – As kids get older, they may be able to pick up on your dog’s cues better, allowing them to play fetch, or pet the dog without having to fear they will hurt them. Young children should be taught the visual cues for when a dog is scared, uncomfortable, or hurt, and told to get an adult if a dog is exhibiting warning signs.
- Teach dogs to respect children’s boundaries – Dogs need to be taught children’s boundaries as well. Dogs will oftentimes snatch food away from children, which can lead to a bite. Teach dogs to leave food alone, do not allow them to jump up on people (which can knock a child over), and if they chew, be sure to teach them “designated” toys which are theirs, so they don’t chew up a child’s toys.
- Playing safely – Young children will sometimes try to roughhouse with dogs, or even attempt to ride them. Be sure you are still reinforcing gentle, calm behavior.
Safe interactions between dogs and older children
Older children, while usually requiring less supervision with animals, still require careful and thoughtful lessons on how to interact with dogs. Here are some helpful tips on how to teach older children to interact with dogs:
- No roughhousing – Children of all ages should be taught not to roughhouse with dogs, but older children especially should know the limits of play when it comes to their pets. Older children usually are stronger than younger children, and even if the dog is used to wrestling around, older children may inadvertently hurt the dog, causing it to lash out. This is important, even if the dog has been around the child his whole life. Older dogs, especially, are prone to injury.
- Learning responsibility – Teach your older children how to care for their dog in different ways that require an increased level of responsibility. The proper way to give a dog a bath, clean its ears, or begin obedience training, are all important parts of dog ownership, but older children should be taught how to do these things with careful caution. Teach them the signs of biting, fear, and aggression, and how to counter those behaviors.
- Your Child’s Friends – As your child gets older, chances are he or she may want to bring friends around more often. New people in your home may trigger territorial behavior in your dog, so it is important to take precautions when guests are in the home. Your child’s friends may not know how to interact with dogs, and it is your responsibility as the parent to ensure the safety of both the children and the dogs. Keeping the dog separated from new children in the home is often the best bet, even for the most behaved dog. It is always, always better safe than sorry.
As adults, we often remember the dogs we knew in childhood fondly. The relationships we have with dogs in our childhood often shape how we care for dogs in our adult lives. By taking proper precautions and taking the time to teach both children and dogs, your children will have loving memories of their childhood pet that will last them for a lifetime.