Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Only you can prevent... dog bites

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 dog—even your own—without 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.


Irreverent Antisocial Intellectual said...

And well worth the wait, Mrs. C. Well worth it.
Thanks for the tips!

Crunchy Carpets said...

Thanks for going to the effort...I am going to cut and paste that if you don't mind.....

I need to share it with my neighbours..epecially the one's whose dog just bit my son this weekend.

He was ok...it was a nip on the ankle.

Scared him though.

And this is the third time this dog has done that to a kid.

The kids around here don't know about NOT running.

And they are our in our court playing and running and this dog is kept in the yard watching and waiting...when he gets out he make a bee line for the kids.....they are fun to chase!

The dog was rescued, but by clueless people...the dog hasn't been neutered nor have any of them attended obedience classes.

The whole family needs a lesson.
Before it is more than a nip on an ankle.

We have been teaching Adam about not running...he AND Caity know about the hand sniff thing...THANK goodness.

And many animals have agression when it comes to food and toys.

My old cat used to growl if you even THOUGHT about her food!

Thanks for sharing your expertise.

halloweenlover said...

Thanks for the post! We have two brussels griffons and I'm pregnant, and although I'm not so nervous about the biting situation, I am generally nervous about introducing the baby into the family. Do you have any book recommendations for new baby/dogs?

Thanks again, I'm really enjoying your blog!

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

We saw many dogs this weekend on our trip to Breckenridge, and I'm pleased that I followed all the rules (and helped my girls follow them) without even having read your post yet.

What a sad example you shared - I knew it had to be a gentle breed of dog that was involved (my guess was a Golden Retriever). It goes to show that any dog can react harshly when feeling threatened.

Another personal example is that of a friend of my parents who was bitten by her elderly Chow (whom she'd had since he was a puppy). She approached the dog from behind while he was eating - not even to touch him, just to put something else in his bowl, and he bit her. If I recall correctly, she had to spend a couple days in the hospital. You just never know.

carrie said...

Great post Chicky! I think responsibility is the key that all dog owners should hold firmly in their hands.

That being said, I need to share this randomness with you if only to help people understand that sometimes, even if you are doing everything "right" a dog will bite, and it is always safe to steer clear of strange dogs, period.

2nd year at college, a weird looking poodle had been wandering around around our campus all day (I later learned that it was a standard poodle) looking seemingly like it belonged there. I was meeting my dad in the parking lot of our dorm (he was picking up a load of my stuff) and I see this dog saunter over towards us. I don't really like poodles and was not inclined to pet this one, but it walked RIGHT UP TO MY HAND!! Very calm, totally non agressive and on MY turf, not the dogs. So, I put my palm out for the dog to sniff and it quickly clenched on to my middle finger with it's teeth, bit me, and then calmly walked away! Then my dad fainted (seriously, he can't stand the sight of his children's blood), the ambulance came to take HIM to the hospital, and I drove with my dorm "Mom" to get a my finger looked at. So, you never can tell what a dog is going to do, even if all the signals point to "all clear".

Crazy, and sorry for the hijack, but thought you'd find this story interesting!


Chicky Chicky Baby said...

Well said, Carrie! A lot of the signs were pointing to that dog being safe, but you should always trust your gut instinct. If a dog doesn't look like something you would trust, then don't engage the dog - or, unfortunately for you now, don't let the dog engage you.

A good rule of thumb (sorry, no finger pun intended) be wary of the unsupervised dog.

Chicky Chicky Baby said...

CC - Gah! Those people sound like every trainers and shelter employees nightmare! If you're concerned you have every right to approach the family and tell them that if they don't take responsibility for their dog you'll be forced to contact the necessary authorities. That sort of behavior (the dog's) is unacceptable.

Heather Bea said...

We did a lot of training with our dog when our girls were born. He has become very accustomed to them hanging around and playing with him. However it is also very important for our girls to respect other dogs. To always ask permission before approaching and never petting an animal without the owner and one of us around. This is a very important post, especially for those that do not have pets and may think it is not their responsibility to educate their kids.

Heather said...

Yep our dogs will never be unsupervised with children. I guess all we can do is keep socializing them around little ones and be extra careful.

P.S. I will definitely be writing, desperate for advice when we have kids on how to manage the "two cats, two dogs, one kid" household.

Mamacita Tina said...

Thank you for all the time and effort you put into this to educate us. We don't have a dog and I feel this is good info to teach my kids since pets/animals are everywhere.

Radioactive Tori said...

My kids are all terrified of dogs. A lot of times it is extremely frustrating to me to hear them scream when a dog on a leash across the street is "looking at them", but a lot of times it is slightly comforting to know I would never ever have to worry about them running up to a strange dog. Hopefully they will grow out of their fear of dogs and if so, you have given me some great tips to teach them how to behave.

Bimbo said...

When my parents got a Bassett (a moment of adoration for the uber canine god that is Monty), my sister thought we should 'desensitize' him immediately for the sake of the three granddaughters. While teaching them how to respect him and his animal nature, he also needed to be used to the way kids sometimes play. So my sister and I made it a point to tug on his tail and ears, squeeze his muzzle, paws and belly, and generally invade his space. Of course we didn't hurt him in the process, but it's interesting behavior for two women who are so ardently pro-choice. Your body is your own! ...unless you're the dog. Do you think there's any validity behind this theory?

Christina said...

Great tips! Sadly, I think Steve Irwin (the crocodile hunter) taught us all this past weekend that any animal, no matter how "harmless", can be unpredictable and can hurt us in the wrong circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Mrs. Chicky.

We don't have a dog, but I use the same "see and sniff" rule with my girls when they want to approach the cats. I know I don't like having someone sneak up upon me and grab me from behind, so I want my girls to extend the same courtesy to the cats. As a result of this habit, my normally shy younger cat LOVES my older daughter -- she knows that Mimi will approach gently.

With respect to dogs, we have friends whose family has a very vocal and active Australian shepherd. Because the kids are used to approaching their dog without fear, they will run off and approach any dog without a moment's hesitation. Their mom has tried to teach them to ask first, but they're not great about it. All it would take is a skittish dog and... well, I don't like to think about it. (Sometimes I'm very glad that my girls are a little bit cautious around dogs!)

Her Bad Mother said...

I'm so glad that you posted this. I'm a longtime dog lover and consider myself well up on dogs but even I hadn't been clear on the don't-pat-the-head-first thing.

Cristina said...

Good information here. Thanks for this post. We're working on this stuff. Slowly but surely.

Creative-Type Dad said...

Wow, that's some info there.
I can honestly say I've never met a Lab I didn't like.

Sandra said...

I think you should start a second blog just dedicated to dog advice and info. This is incredibly helpful and I think people would totally dig it.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff here! I'm going to pass it along to others.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that. Our neighbors have a dog that they let roam around (we live in a duplex, so she's really close). She seems pretty old, and she is very friendly, but reading this made me realize exactly what you said- any dog can bite. I will be sure to take precautions (just to be safe) when she's roaming around and carry my daughter.

Anonymous said...

You've got great things here. I linked you up in my blog post, Dog Bites and What to Consider Before Getting a Dog. Hope you don't mind with that.

Thanks so much,


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the 411! I am always wary of dogs because they are unpredictable.

Anonymous said...

That was a great post! Thanks! We've been lucky (or perhaps just smart) to research this stuff prior to bringing dogs into our house. Now we are enjoying two great dogs and a happy, happy kid.

Kristin said...

i second sunshine scribe's dog-blog idea... this is some really valuable information.

Jess Riley said...

Excellent post. As a fellow dog lover and owner, I found myself nodding my head as I read this post. We've got lots of kids in our neighborhood, and they love to approach Daisy for a pet when we're on our walks. Most do ask if they can pet her before doing so, which is good. But there are a few that don't; this lesson can't be shared enough.

Mama en Fuego said...

Excellent PSA

I had a dog almost rip my face off as a kid. My mom and I were going to yard sales and this particular person had their golden retriever out on the drive way where all the stuff was and off a leash. Although I was always careful about dogs, I assumed because the dog was out with everyone else that he was a "safe" dog. Negative. As I got with in petting distance of the dog, holding my hand out for a sniff - it jumped up and snapped inches from my face.

I will forever teach my kids, there is no such thing as a "safe" dog.

Fresh Mommy said...

This subject has been on my mind a lot lately. I never gave much thought to it before, but since my daughter was born, I've been really concerned about dogs and biting. My husband works in insurance and sees and hears about a lot of dog bite cases, so the two of us try to be very cautious. There was a lot of great information here (I did not know about *not* petting dogs on the head), so thank you!

Anonymous said...

Good timing b/c recently we had a close call w/our friend's new Pit and Julian. The only time in my life I had a fear of a dog. He loves dogs, a little too much w/no fear of them. I need to get better about him approaching them properly.