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When the Dog Bites...

by Linda Aronson DVM

There’s a certain inevitability implied in that line of Richard Rodger’s. How he should have finished it was, "….he usually bites a child." Now I’m not saying that Beardies are biters, fortunately most of them are very tolerant of kids, but most any dog has a threshold and if it’s crossed he will bite, and 50% of the time those bitten will be children under the age of 14. So what can we do to prevent it?

First some more statistics: One third of all dog bites are from dog’s owned by the child’s own family. Children aged 7 to 9 are twice as likely to be bitten if their family owns a dog. This isn’t to say that children don’t benefit from owning dogs, they certainly do. Dogs give love and companionship. Children that own dogs are more likely to read and engage in social interactions. They generally grow up to be more humane. However, what is it about having a dog that puts these kids at greater risk? Could it be their attitude to dogs has become more casual – familiarity breeds contempt? Of course, opportunity must exist in order for a bite to occur, and these are the kids that are exposed to dogs most. Fearful parents make fearful kids and they avoid dogs and are less likely to be in harm’s way. An article in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (August 15, 2001) by Molly Love and Dr. Karen Overall looked at the stages of development of dogs and children to see how they might influence the risk of being bitten. It’s a novel approach and quite instructive.

Canine Development.

Puppies use their mouths and paws to explore just as infants do, but lacking opposable thumbs they tend to rely more on their teeth and mouths. Even though he’s not being aggressive the mouthy puppy can still inflict painful bites and become a real nuisance if his teething isn’t redirected to appropriate objects at this stage. Persistent mouthiness in adult dogs is harder to retrain and liable to be much more destructive and painful. My favourite game with a mouthy puppy is to act like a litter-mate, if he nips squeal with the appropriate force depending on how much it hurts, if it persists, stop the game. You can give him a bone or chew toy, but he doesn’t get to play with you. This is a tough game for children though, they should never be left unsupervised with a young puppy or the games can get out of hand really fast.

When the dog reaches puberty (6 to 9 months usually) he becomes more interested in social and sexual behaviour. He is smelling everything, he becomes more inclined to roam, mark and fight. He may also start mounting behaviour. This is generally more about social signalling than sex, but kids can encourage it – they find it funny, or are scared by it. The dog is harder for the child to control at this age. Spaying/neutering and walking the dog in a Gentle Leader head collar will make him easier to handle and for the children to be actively involved in his training.

Dogs reach social maturity at about 18 to 24 months (range 12 –36 months). They have fine-tuned their social skills with humans and other dogs, and may have assumed very different identities than those they had as puppies. Behavioural problems tend to manifest now or become more intense. Dogs that were previously tolerant of children pushing or pulling them about and forcing them down, may be less so now, and take such assaults as challenges to their social status.

The older dog may be beginning to get arthritis, his eyesight and hearing are going and his reflexes and responses are slower. Patience and desire to interact with children may be reduced, especially if the dog is in pain. It is hard for kids to appreciate that the elderly don’t have their energy and healthy young bodies.

Child development

Piaget and Erikson have defined 5 stages of development in children from infancy through age 12. These are based on gross motor, cognitive and social skills.

The newborn to 6-month-old infant arrives in a flurry of new smells and sounds. Parents are tired and especially if this is the first child the dog may go from being the centre of attention to out in the cold. Schedules fall apart at the very least.

As the baby grows she may reach out and grab – and we know how tight they can hang on – bits of hair, an ear, tail or a lip. Towards the end of this stage they are sitting independently and some are creeping or crawling. (Then there are the terrors in the baby walkers!) Most dog bites at this stage are to the face, neck and head. A dog can bite with a force of 400lbs/in2. It’s no wonder that the death rate from dog bites in infants is 340 times that of 40-year-old adults. The flapping, flailing, squalling baby can look and sound an awful lot like a wounded prey animal too. Dogs that are anxious or uncertain in novel situations pose the most risk at this age.

For the 6 to 24 month old child mobility is increasing as she learns to crawl, cruise and finally walk. She is unsteady on her feet, and trips a lot. The dog can knock her down inadvertently even just by wagging his tail. Likewise when focused on a goal the toddler doesn’t let anything get in her way, even the old, cranky dog lying on the floor. She, like the puppy, explores a lot with her mouth, and this includes the dog itself, its food, toys, bones and other valued objects. This kid is unpredictable. For a dog that values consistency, that is anxious, has shown any tendency to guard his food or other possessions or one that is painful, this kid is hell on wheels. Parents need to pay close attention at this age. The dog needs to be protected from constant groping and grabbing at his body, the pencil in the ear or finger in the eye. Parents need to be aware of the subtle signals the dog is giving that he’s had it, because otherwise they may feel the bite was unprovoked, when they just missed the warnings.

The two to five year old period is a time when children learn to control their gross motor skills increasingly well. However, curiosity and exploratory behaviours increase. They are still very egocentric and are not great generalizers, they don’t learn from their mistakes. They do not understand consequences, but are beginning to show empathy. Imagination and fantasy play emerge, as the toddler becomes a preschooler. The family dog may find himself called upon to play parts in their self-scripted dramas – including being a stand in for the missing pony. He may be dressed up, forced to eat and drink at the tea parties at which his attendance is obligatory etc. His food may even be taken for the parties. His sleep is liable to abrupt interruption. Little friends appear on the scene increasingly and his tormentors can seem to increase exponentially. Now as never before this dog needs a place where he can get away and avoid unwanted attention. Children need to be instructed more than ever not just that they must be nice to the dog, but what exactly that entails. With our Beardies we may begin to see unwanted herding behaviour. While this can have positive results, it stopped my kids from running in the house until my son thought he could outrun the Beardies – he never could – some dogs will nip and become aggressive if the creatures they are trying to herd just ignore them.

The five to nine year old child still has intense curiosity, and at least early on in the stage still tends to lack the ability to make generalizations. She is beginning to question authority increasingly and who and what will be obeyed. Parental supervision tends to decline at this stage. Kids may be more organized too and can gang up on the dog. Their interactions with the dog are more likely to include punishment and teasing. Their idea of training the dog may be to tie it up, drag it around or physically abuse it for perceived infractions. Often the child sees nothing wrong with her behaviour. She plays with the dog as she plays with her friends, she loves her dog, she just doesn’t realize that the dog has no idea they are playing for him this is all in deadly earnest. Five to nine year old boys have the highest rate of dog bite injury. This correlates with their high energy; need to control their environment; poor deductive and generalization skills; inability to grasp the concept of teasing; and decreased parental supervision. Little boys do tend to be more aggressive in their play, whether it is inherent or learned behaviour, than little girls.

The nine to twelve year old, preadolescent child has entered Piaget’s concrete operations phase. They can handle concepts, organize facts, solve problems and consider more than one aspect of a situation at a time. They are able to consider the feelings of others and their peer group is becoming increasingly important. At this stage kids can take a more responsible role in pet care, although no child is going to be able to take on full care of an animal and shouldn't be expected to. Sadly this is the stage at which purposefully abusive and rough behaviour can appear. They may test their own and the dog’s limits – Josh’s running speed was a fairly benign form of this, but it can involve excessive teasing, testing the dog’s physical tolerance and inciting the dog to violent behaviour. While kids this age are intellectually capable of understanding how to react in a given situation, freeze, make yourself small, look away when approached by a strange dog that is acting aggressively, their excitement and fear may over-ride this knowledge and they will flee in panic. While it is certainly a good idea to introduce kids in this age group to the concept of dog bite avoidance by teaching them to understand what a dog is saying by its body language, this may still not be enough to protect them from injury. Even with these kids avoiding situations in which they are at risk of injury, and supervision of the child’s interaction with the family pet is still advisable.

While kids in families with dogs get bitten more often, a child who is frightened of dogs may still be at greater risk. If she screams and flails around in fear she may make an attractive target, especially for predatory dogs. Some dogs may also perceive the behaviour as an invitation to play and jump up and knock the child down. For some dogs a human on its back may become a prey species at this point. Dogs come with different personalities; their breed and personal experience with children may colour these. Some dogs become intensely fixated and can get stroppy if their needs aren’t met, such as the retriever or terrier that has to have the ball thrown for him time after time. The personality of the child is important too. At first glance the highly active, Energizer bunny child, laughing and constantly on the go might seem at more risk. However, the focused child who fails to see the dog lying across her path as she walks reading or looking at the stars may be in equal danger. Clearly dogs with a history of aggression pose a greater threat, and children with ADD or AD/HD, oppositional defiance disorder or similar problems as well as those with a history of abuse or as abusers and children with mental or physical handicaps are at increased risk.

How to minimize the risk

Supervision – children under the age of 6 cannot be expected to show discretion in their handling of dogs. Even with older kids parents should keep a discrete eye on interactions between child and dog and make sure things aren’t getting out of hand. If there is no adult to closely supervise the interactions of young children and dogs they should be physically separated. Be particularly vigilant with visiting children or if the dog is sick or tired or if either or both are upset.

Avoid potentially dangerous situations. Any situation that could stress or make either the child or dog anxious should prompt preventative action. Examples would be car rides involving children and dogs – kids in car seats, dogs in crates; visits of strangers; illness; death; birth; parties and holiday celebrations – it is generally kindest to separate the dog entirely and put him in a crate somewhere quiet, especially at children’s birthday parties; the approach of strange dogs on walks with the family pet.

Education. Teach the child by example and help to pet the dog gently, to respect his space, not to take his food or wake him suddenly, not to jump on him when he’s pooping. Teach her never to approach stray dogs especially if they look sick or injured, and to only approach those with an owner if the owner gives the OK. Teach her not to try and break up dogfights, but go for help. Teach her not to tease, startle or mistreat dogs; not to reach for them over fences, in crates or in cars; not to run at them, roller blade or skateboard past them, not to get them riled up by barking at them or staring them down. Teach her how to be a responsible and reliable dog owner, one who respects her dog’s needs.

Learn to recognize warning signals that the dog gives which show the child is stressing him. These can include: an acute change in normal behaviour – withdrawal, circling, pacing, patrolling, change in amount or character if vocalization; change in appetite, or the dog will only eat if the child is absent, or he starts to guard his food; increased reactivity - barking, growling, patrolling, lunging; change in resting or sleep or the chosen location for these; signs of separation anxiety when left alone with child, whining, destruction, elimination, salivation, increase or decrease of activity; gastrointestinal signs of stress – vomiting, regurgitation, diarrhea; frank aggression around children.

We love our kids and grandkids and we love our Beardies. With careful supervision and paying close attention to what we are seeing they can be the best of buddies, but they need us to provide them with help and guidance. Sometimes the two just can’t get along. At such times it is kinder to find the dog a new home without children.

Copyright © 2001 [ Linda Aronson DVM].
All rights reserved 


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Last revised: November 11, 2010