By Colin C. Tennant MA
Chairman of The Canine & Feline Behaviour Association of GB
Statistics gathered in recent years show that dog bites are a significant child health issue in the UK, surpassing the total combined number of cases of measles, whooping cough and mumps each year. Dog attacks also stand as the most common cause of severe facial lacerations in children. Every year, around 28,000 facial dog bites are reported in the UK, with just over 19,000 of them requiring plastic surgery. Surprisingly, the majority of these attacks involve family pets.
It can be challenging to imagine your own family pet causing harm to a child because, quite simply, we tend to forget that dogs are dogs and remain domesticated animals. Domestication modifies an animal’s behaviour, yet they remain animals with their intrinsic drives, behaviours and social norms. Regardless of whether their names are Danny, Dolly, Dave or Daisy, dogs still follow a set code of conduct and a blueprint of behaviour distinct from human moral, ethical and legal standards.
So, if you have children or plan to have children and own dogs or are considering getting dogs, it is crucial to grasp some fundamental aspects of natural and normal canine behaviour. You need to understand that dogs are not just fluffy little people.
In the UK, there have been numerous incidents of dog-related fatalities, with dogs injuring and even killing children. This is a concerning trend, however, this is not the sole issue. Instances of nips, bites, growls and snarls are commonplace when dogs live with children. But why is this happening? What happened to the Walt Disney view of dogs and children living harmoniously?
Well, it appears that in the UK, we have somewhat lost touch with common sense as our lifestyles have undergone significant changes over the past few decades. Life has become busier, with both mothers and fathers working, leading to a more chaotic and time-strapped environment. Dogs’ lifestyles have also evolved, as they are no longer granted the freedom to roam and are often not treated or trained as dogs, but as commodities that enhance our social status.
Breed Matters In fatal dog attacks, certain breeds are commonly responsible, such as Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Pit Bull Type dogs, Mastiffs and Mastiff mixes, Rottweilers, and Akitas. All these breeds are powerful dogs with significant physical strength, which means they have a higher potential to inflict severe damage compared to smaller, less powerful dogs. It is clear, therefore, that a dog’s breed and size play a role in assessing the risk and seriousness of how to manage and train both your dog and your children. This does not imply, however, that smaller or less powerful dogs should be given more leeway than their larger counterparts.
Irrespective of a dog’s overall temperament or character, the intent behind a Pit Bull and a Chihuahua may be the same, but the outcome can be more devastating with the larger, more powerful breed, so it is important to understand this concept. Moreover, breed predispositions play a part. While all dogs can potentially bite, certain breeds, due to their genetic inheritance, may be more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviour in specific circumstances. This behaviour is usually linked to territory, possession (over objects like food, toys or bones), and position (over areas like beds, sofas or personal space). Guarding, baiting, fighting and terrier breeds are generally more prone to aggression than companion, toy or gun dog breeds. However, irresponsible breeding can alter breed predispositions both genetically and through early experiences.
Past Behaviour Predicts Future Behaviour
While a dog that has never displayed aggression in the past is less likely to do so in the future, dogs are still animals and certain circumstances can trigger them to act defensively or aggressively.
Why Dogs Bite
Dogs may bite due to dominance (when their resources are threatened) or protection (defending their owner, pack members, objects or territory). Fear, pain and defence are other reasons for dog bites.
Understanding the Differences
Dogs are fundamentally different from humans. They have their own set of rules and social norms. While humans may greet each other with handshakes, hugs and kisses, dogs approach interactions more slowly, closely reading body language, avoiding direct eye contact, sniffing each other and avoiding initial face-to-face contact. Recognising these differences can help you understand your dogs better and ensure that you respect some of the essential aspects of their lifestyle. Most dog bites on children occur when parents or caregivers are present; incidents take place in an instant.
Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other
Understanding how dogs interact with each other is just half of the equation. Effectively managing your children is the other half. Dogs raised with children from infancy need careful management during various developmental stages, especially when babies start crawling and toddlers begin to walk. Babies can crawl over to dogs while they are eating or sleeping and toddlers might use dogs as support when they are learning to stand. Some dogs will tolerate this behaviour, but many others will not.
Dogs should not be subjected to harassment or handling by children and it is not their duty to tolerate whatever children choose to do. Children need to learn respect for animals, just as they learn respect for other people.
When fostering or adopting children, especially those with challenging behaviours, it is crucial to establish ground rules for interaction with the dog from day one. Some people find it amusing when smaller dogs growl or snarl, but this is a serious matter that needs to be addressed.
Educate yourself about canine body language. There are plenty of useful online tutorials and books available on this subject. Generally, happy dogs engaged in enjoyable activities appear relaxed and almost smiling, with soft eyes. Stiffening, tensing and freezing are not good signs.
Lip licking, yawning out of context and changes in a dog’s eyes, such as showing more white on the outer edges or looking sideways, are signals that the situation may need adjustment.
Avoidance of children, whether physical (moving away) or emotional (looking away), should be supported by you to enable distance. If you take no action while the dog continues to be uncomfortable, you may inadvertently provoke growling, snapping or biting as the dog tries to create the necessary space.
Remember that, no matter how we treat our canine companions, they are still dogs and can only react as dogs. Growling, barking, showing teeth and biting are all normal parts of canine communication. Dogs should not be subjected to children climbing on them, jumping on them, riding them or pulling their ears or tails. It is essential to intervene and ensure that such behaviour never occurs.
Some dogs may form strong bonds with your children, but your children’s friends may be seen as intruders in the dog’s territory. The fact that your children bring their friends home does not change this perception. While some children may be accepted, others may not, depending on their behaviour.
How You Should Live with Dogs and Children in the Home?
Managing multiple children and dogs in the same household can be challenging. I recommend periods of separation when you cannot closely supervise interactions. For instance, your dog can spend time with you in the kitchen while the children play in the living room or garden. It is preferable not to allow free access when you are not fully focused. If the children are overexcited and playing, the dog does not need to be in the midst of it. Calm interactions are better for fostering a positive atmosphere.
Teach your dog where it is allowed to go within the house and where it is not. For example, dogs should not have access to upstairs or unrestricted access to the living areas where children spend most of their time.
Children should learn to leave dogs alone while they are sleeping or eating. During social events like barbecues and children’s parties, it is advisable to remove the dog to a safe room in the house or to a friend or family member’s home for the day.
The content of this article may seem somewhat negative to some, but statistics in both the UK and the USA indicate that more education is needed. Making an honest assessment of your dog’s interaction with your children is essential and then taking the necessary steps for the well-being of your family and your dog.