Last week, after my post about my friend's toddler being bitten by their own dog, Mothergoosemouse asked if I could write a post about how to appropriately introduce children to dogs. There is much to write about this subject so I have to warn you this post got really long. Take some time, grab a cup of coffee, and settle in for a bit. There's a lot of important information in here.
As always, I am not an expert. And I don't whisper. I am a woman who trains dogs in obedience. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me, but if you have a particularly tough case you should seek the counsel of a licensed dog behaviorist. However, there's a lot of research put into this post. I never fly fast and loose with dog-related topics as there is too much at stake. One resource in particular that I spent some time with was the Humane Society of the United State's website. Good stuff there.
Okay, enough yappin'.
One night, while holding the leash of a dog who, along with her owner, was enrolled in one of my basic classes, a little boy, about six years old, who was attending the class with his dad and his new puppy approached me.
"Can I pet that dog?" he asked, already leaning in to tap the dog on top of her head without waiting for approval.
"Thank you for asking permission," I said, moving the dog out of arms reach of the boy. "But you should never pat a dog you don't know on it's head. Do you know where the safest place to pat a dog that you don't know is?"
In typical six year old fashion he shrugged his shoulders and leaned in, once again, to tap the bemused dog on the top of her head.
"Please don't touch the dog on her head. That's very dangerous to do that to a dog you don't know. And I already told you that you should never do that."
The boy looked at me, incredulous, "I always pat my dog on his head."
Of course he did. The little boy assumed that since he could touch his pup's head that it was okay to do that to every dog he met. He didn't understand that patting a strange dog on the top of the head is the absolute worst place, except maybe grabbing a tail, to engage contact.
Then again, young children also think it's okay to take candy from strangers. Until we, their parents, teach them otherwise.
At least he asked permission first. Sort of.
According to the Humane Society of the United States "Every year, more than 4 million people in the United States are bitten by dogs. Most of those victims are children under the age of 13." Knowing this statistic it makes me alternately sad, angry and a bit frustrated to see so many children running up to strange animals and thumping them on their foreheads. Usually there is no parent in close proximity. The parent(s) and child are putting their trust in the owner of the dog and, more to the point, in the dog itself to not react negatively or violently. That's an awful lot of trust to have in an animal. Would you let your kid run up to a strange horse or goat or cow without being close by and a little worried that the animals would step on or kick your child?
In case you think that this post is solely about children approaching strange dogs in parks and pet stores, I'd like to share another story with you.
Three years ago a dog breeder, who had made a habit of bringing the puppies she was keeping to the facility where I teach, brought one of her pups to a beginning level class. This puppy was gorgeous, all silky coat and big brown eyes. Enormous paws and beautiful head. And major puppy attitude. He was smart as a whip, you could tell that by looking at him, but he was, as some trainers would refer to him as, a dominant male. The breeder, a seasoned veteran herself, had a tough time training the dog but as time went on she had him responding to all the appropriate commands. He needed a strong, consistent leader to teach him the ways of the family dog as well as how to behave in the conformation ring. For one reason or another, the breeder decided not to keep him and adopted him out to a local family with two children.
Fast forward a year. The puppy, now a full grown dog and still a tough cookie from time to time but a wonderful companion to his family, was living the simple life in suburbia. His family adored him. One summer day the dog was lying in front of his home, on his property, gnawing on a bone. When up from behind him came the neighbor's 8 year old son. The specifics were unclear, but the general consensus was the boy tried to take the dog's bone away from him. Why he thought that was appropriate I don't know, but the boy didn't take more than one step away before the dog reached up and bit the boy on his arm.
Was he (the dog) reaching for the bone or did he truly mean to do harm to the child? No one knows. But a child was hurt and the neighbors, who were long time friends of the owners of the dog, were threatening legal action. The dog was quarantined for a month and, after the quarantine, had to find a new home. The woman who owned the dog was so distraught over the entire situation that she could not bring herself to bring the dog back home.
I've written about my feelings on dog bites, but who was really to blame in this situation? Why was the child, who didn't own a dog, never taught how to behave around one? Why did he think it was right to sneak up on an animal and take away a such a coveted item? I'll let you draw your own conclusions.
And in case you're wondering what kind of a dog would bite a child over a bone, I'll also let you draw your own conclusions as to what type of breed the dog was.*
Such a waste.
The dog, with help from the breeder, found a new home. Not a perfect situation, as it turns out, but more drama than I'm willing to get into in this post. That's another cautionary tale for another day.
The point is, any dog can bite. A neighbor's, a stranger's, even your own. They are, after all, animals. The only way to reduce the chance of dog bites is to always supervise your child around dogs. If the dog is your own (from the HSUS, go here to read more):
- You should make sure the dog is properly trained. Consult an expert, take a class, or do a lot of research and reading and then apply your research correctly. In almost all cases that research will point you in the direction of training classes or private lessons.
- Make sure your dog is spayed or neutered.
- Socialize your dog with lots of different people and other dogs.
- Be a responsible dog owners. License, vaccinate, and make your dog a member of your family.
- At the very least, err on the safe side. If you don't know how your dog will react to certain situations, leave the dog at home or give the dog a safe spot in your home if you have a large group in your house.
If you want to teach your child to act appropriately around dogs (and you should) these are some guidelines, also from the HSUS (btw, these are good guidelines for adults, too.):
- Never approach a strange dog, especially one that is tied, confined behind a fence or in a car.
- Once permission is asked of the dog's owner, don't pet a dogÂeven your ownÂwithout letting him see and sniff you first.
- Once the dog has sniffed you and is accepting of petting, scratch the dog under the chin or on the side or back.
- Never turn your back to a dog and run away. A dog's natural instinct will be to chase and catch you.
- Don't disturb a dog while she's sleeping, eating, chewing on a toy, or caring for puppies.
- Be cautious around strange dogs. Always assume that a dog who doesn't know you may see you as an intruder or a threat.
Whether you want to get a dog for your family, already have one, or just want to introduce your children to dogs it is your responsibility to make sure that all contact between dog and person is as safe as can be. Trust me, I know how difficult it is to wrangle a dog and a kid together. Check that, two dogs and a kid. It's a lot of work, but no one said it would be easy. And a little work now will save you a lot of grief later.
*The dog was a black Labrador Retriever. The AKC's number one registered breed for the past 15 years. He is a well bred, well trained dog and didn't fall under the list of "dangerous" breeds (I'm not even going to post a list here. There are too many variables that make the list a little skewed in one direction) that a lot of people would expect to bite. He didn't come from a backyard breeder or puppymill via a petstore. Again, draw your own conclusions.