Let’s review some facts regarding dog bites and children.
- 359,223 children between the ages of 1 and 14 were bitten by dogs between 2010 and 2012.
- Children are the most common victims of dog bites and are far more likely to be severely injured.
- The Centers for Disease Control reported that from 2003-2012, dog bites were the 11th leading cause of nonfatal injury to children ages 1 – 4, 9th for children ages 5 – 9, and 10th for ages 10 – 14.
- Boys are bitten nearly twice as often as girls.
- 77 percent of dog bites come from a dog belonging to family or a friend.
Why do dogs bite? Is it because they are mean? Absolutely not! Dogs get irritated just as easily as people. I may raise my voice at someone because I’m having a bad day, but that doesn’t mean that I am generally a mean person. Here are some common reasons why a dog might bite:
- The dog is protecting something; this could be food, a toy, or even their space.
- The dog has been startled or frightened by something.
- The dog is having a bad day and has no patience for people, especially a small child.
- The dog might be sick or injured.
- You or your child are playing with the dog and it gets overly excited.
- The dog might be a herding breed and is simply doing a job, herding you or your child by nipping at your heels.
Remember when 4:30 – 6:30 p.m. used to be “Happy Hour” (pre-children)? This is now the most hectic time of a day in a typical household with children. Parents are tired, children are fighting or fussy, someone is trying to make dinner, the kids are chasing each other around the house, etc. Even if you don’t have children yet, this can be a time of day when you come home from work and perhaps have a headache or you are in a grumpy mood. This is a hectic time of day for anyone in the family…including the family dog!
I always tell children (and any adults that are present) that dogs have good days and bad days, just like us. The only difference is that dogs cannot use words to tell us when they need to be left alone. This is why their body language is so important.
There is a lot of information available to us regarding dog body language and behavior. You can start by watching one of our favorite videos:
This video is intended to first be watched by the adult and then watched by the adult and child together. Just remember: loose and relaxed is good; tense and stiff means you should give your dog some space. Dogs truly aren’t that different from us! We can easily read a person’s body language to tell if they are feeling good or if they are feeling stressed; apply this knowledge to a dog and you most likely will be able to determine how your dog is feeling.
Interested in more information? Attend one of our free dog body language and behavior sessions with your family (children included!) taught by Sarah Babcock, Chief of Education and Training at the Richmond SPCA on Wednesday, June 10 at 11 a.m. or 6 p.m.
With all of the information available to us on a regular basis regarding dog bite safety and dog body language, how do we then take this information and teach it to children?
Simplify it! While there is a lot of information, we can easily break it down in a way that can be easily understood by children. For example, we know that when dogs growl they are warning you that your behavior is making them uncomfortable. To explain this to a child, you could say that a growl is a “no!” or a “leave me alone!” Your child might be too young to understand exactly how to read a dog’s body language, but if you simplify the warning signs and teach those to your child then you will likely decrease the likelihood of biting.
Make it relatable! I have never met a child who is completely happy when another child takes a toy away in mid-play. This scenario typically ends in tears and yelling. Use this situation to explain to children why they should never take a toy away from a dog!
I frequently use this method when speaking to preschool and elementary aged children about the importance of asking the guardian before petting a dog that they don’t know. One of my “go to” questions is “How would you feel if you were walking down the street with your mom and a random stranger walked up to you and put her hand on your head?” Since we typically teach children that they shouldn’t interact with strangers they almost always answer negatively, explaining that they would be scared. I ask them to tell me what they would do if this happened to them. Many of the kids say that they would yell, run away, call for help, tell the person to stop touching them, etc. These are great answers! I then follow up with this: “How do you think dogs feel when strangers walk up to them and starts to pet them without asking?” Now they are relating it to their own feelings – they will usually say that the dog might be scared, too. Then I ask: “How do dogs ask for help if they can’t use words? How do they tell you to go away if they can’t talk?” They will explain that dogs will growl, try to walk away, show their teeth, and maybe even bite.
The big question then becomes: “So, if you are a stranger and you walk up to pet a dog without asking first and the dog gets scared and tries to bite you, whose fault is it?” I would say 90 percent of the time you can actually see the facts clicking as the kids think about the answer to this. Almost always the kids will say that it is their own fault. This is the “Ah ha!” moment that I love to see.
Use fun pictures and posters! Sometimes pictures really are worth a thousand words. There are so many fun infographics available for download (and for free!) on the internet. Many of these are geared toward children and use images and a small amount of text to explain how we should behave around pets. I have included a few of my favorites into this blog post, but there are others out there! Find a few that your kids might like, print them out, read over them with your kids, and then hang them up where they will be seen on a regular basis! There are also some really great videos available that will help teach kids about how to behave around pets.
Please click the thumbnail to visit the websites where each poster is available to download.
Practice makes perfect! Encourage your child to practice appropriate behavior around dogs both around the house and out in public. If you are walking down the street and you see neighbors walking their dog, take your child over and have him ask the guardians if he may pet their dog. If the answer is yes, then remind your child of the rules for petting a new dog (let the dog come up to you, hold your hand out flat for a sniff, and pet the dog slowly under the chin) and let them pet. If the answer is no then use this as a new learning opportunity! Ask the dog’s guardian to explain to your child why he can’t pet their dog. Most dog owners will be more than happy to help you teach your child about meeting new dogs.
Set the example! Let’s face it – even adults make mistakes when it comes to practicing good behavior around dogs. Make sure that you are setting a positive example for your kids (or the kids around you). Fight the urge to just reach out and pet that adorable puppy – ask the guardian first!
Kari Hosack is the manager of humane education for the Richmond SPCA. To read the biographies of our regular bloggers, please click here. Before posting a comment, please review our comment guidelines. Please note that our comment policy requires a first and last name to be used as your screen name.