Next week (April 7-13) is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, and as we start heading outdoors to enjoy the better weather the potential for strange dogs and children to interact increases greatly.
We all love the idea of children and dogs romping happily in the sunshine, but it can be pretty nerve-wracking to watch someone else’s kid barreling towards your dog, squealing and flailing and being generally frightening (especially to the dog). It can be a dangerous situation, and if you aren’t constantly vigilant, something unfortunate can happen in mere seconds. It could just be a snap or a growl, but it could be something much worse.
Now that I’ve terrified all of you into never going outside, let’s take a look at why dogs bite, and what you can do to make sure you know what your dog needs to function successfully in these situations.
Remember – all dogs have a pointy end.
Dogs bite because they can. Sometimes they bite because they need to. Most of all, they bite because they are animals. Lack of or poor socialization is one of the leading reasons that dogs bite. Dogs may bite when they are unsure or unfamiliar with a particular type of person. For example: if a dog has never met a toddler, he has no idea what to expect, and that flailing-squealing-whirling dervish can be completely outside of his experience or ability to cope.
No matter what any dog’s bite trigger is, it is very important to consider the dog’s perspective when interactions occur.
An elderly dog just rescued from a puppy mill is not likely to have “coping with children” in her skill set, unlike a mature collie raised in a family with six kids. Just like humans, some dogs are hard-wired to be shy, fearful, or sociable, and you have to know your dog’s strengths as well as weaknesses before putting her into any given situation.
Socialize your dog.
Socialization is the process of introducing your dog to hundreds of people, places and things while he is a puppy. The window for socialization closes at a very young age for dogs. Using positive reinforcement methods of dog training and behavior modification puts your dog at the lowest risk for biting. The use of harsh or punishment-based training methods can inflict pain or discomfort to your dog, as well as send him messages that people are not always safe or friendly. Using hard-handed training methods can cause your dog to make incorrect associations with his world. For example, if your dog is pulling on a leash to investigate a group of children playing in the park and you give him a harsh correction, he could interpret that as "kids = trouble”. Although this is not the message you were trying to convey, it is what he experienced.
For those of you who have adopted an adult dog from a shelter (congratulations! and thank you!), don’t expect that your dog will be able to cope with everything the world can throw at him right off the bat. Give him a couple of weeks to settle into his new home, and then gradually introduce him to new things. Example of what not to do: adopt a dog on Sunday afternoon, and then take him to the kindergarten playground after school lets out on Monday. Even a dog who has a confirmed history of being friendly with children in his previous home is going to be overwhelmed in a situation like that. Always think about the best ways to set your dog up for success.
Socialize your kids.
It’s just as important to socialize your kids to dogs, and to teach them appropriate interaction. Whether it be your family Golden Retriever or a stray mutt on the street, kids need support and instruction.
Teach your child to ask before touching. Dogs need personal space as much as you do. Some dogs are not okay with being touched by children. If there is an owner with the dog, children should be taught to ask “Is it okay for me to meet or pet your dog?” If the answer is no, be supportive of the dog owner. Use it as a springboard for discussions about dog safety with your kids. Explain that not all dogs like to be touched, and they should respect whatever choice the dog’s owner makes.
When greeting a known dog, it is important to approach the dog from below his muzzle, as some dogs are hand shy when being petted on the top of the head.
No child should ever approach a stray dog, or a dog that is not under the direct control of his owner. The best thing to do when an unknown dog approaches is to make no eye contact and remain still. Train your child to roll into a ball and remain still and quiet if a stray dog knocks her over.
Also teach your children not to disturb dogs that are sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies. Kids should never try to take anything from a strange dog’s mouth, even if the dog seems to want to play. Even knowledgeable adults can get bitten when trying to remove a high-value item.
Most dog bites are preventable.
Along with appropriate socialization and positive reinforcement training, common sense is the single most effective tool in preventing dog bites. Below are some basic guidelines and tips for preventing dog bites:
- Don’t leave your child unsupervised with any dog. Even a known pet can bite.
- Don't leave your dog tied out in the yard. Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that a dog that is tied or chained up is more than twice as likely to bite than an unchained dog.
- Heed warnings. Most dogs will give warning signals before they deliver a bite. Warning signals include lip curling, growling, or snapping without contact. Remember, dogs don’t “miss”. If a dog snaps at you without making contact to the body, most likely he intended to warn you. Never punish a dog that warns appropriately, because he will quickly learn that lesson and can go straight to biting the next time.
- Aggression breeds aggression. Very simply put, if you utilize harsh or violent methods with a dog, you are teaching him that aggressive behavior is acceptable.
If you observe any aggressive or questionable behavior from your dog, especially if it's new behavior, contact a professional immediately. A dog's tolerance levels can change with age, due to such issues as increasing deafness, chronic pain, poor eyesight, or other progressively degenerative diseases.