It is an unfortunate fact that 50% of all children in the U.S. will be bitten by a dog by their 12th birthday. It is also unfortunate that many people blame this on vicious dogs running loose, and often on specific breeds, yet most bites are actually from the family dog or from a dog that the child knows.
To help prevent dog bites public education is critical. We must teach children (and their parents) the proper way to read a dog and to interact with a dog. When a dog bites, it is not out of anger or malice and believing that the family dog would never bite a family member is a dangerous misunderstanding of dog behavior.
When a dog bites, it is usually because everything else he has tried has failed and he feels he has no other option. Children especially, do things to dogs that dogs can find threatening such as hugging, kissing, and taking things away from the dog. If a person pushes a dog too far and ignores the dog’s warning signs (which are often quite subtle and admittedly easy to miss if one has not been taught about dog body language), the dog will bite. Every dog (yes, EVERY dog) has a bite threshold; that is, a point at which the dog will resort to biting. For many dogs, we never reach that threshold and we believe that those dogs are good dogs that would never bite. It is true they are good dogs and likely they have a solid socialization history coupled with good genetics, but that doesn’t mean they would never bite, only that we never push them to their threshold because it is so high. But other dogs with lower thresholds aren’t “bad” dogs. They just have a lower threshold, just like humans have different tolerance levels for adversity.
Rather than blame the dog (or as Karen Pryor wrote “Don’t Shoot The Dog!”), it important to educate ourselves on canine body language, teach children how to read dog body language and, very importantly, supervise children around dogs and be the advocate for both to keep them both safe when together.
So, what are some of the signs a dog will display when it is uncomfortable? Lip-licking, lifting one paw, moving away, yawning, or looking out the side of the eye so only a half-moon of white can be seen. If these signs are observed, the dog should be removed to safe place or the child should be directed away from the dog. Obviously the more overt signs, such as growling or snapping also indicate the need to separate the dog and the child or person. It is not appropriate to punish the dog when it displays any of these signs, as this only serves to reinforce in the dog’s mind that biting is it’s only alternative as none of the other signals have been understood.
Children should also be taught that when a strange dog approaches, they should stand still and straight, keeping hands next to their body and look down & away from the dog rather than maintaining direct eye contact. They should not reach out to the dog. They should not present their hand, not even the back of their hand to the dog to sniff.
Family dogs should be trained using positive-reinforcement methods without force or coercion. They should also be conditioned to accept the type of things that people and children especially tend to do such as picking up paws, tugging on tails, running or short, jerky movements, approaching their food bowl or bed, making noise, etc. While these do not guarantee that the dog will not bite, it does help raise that bite threshold. However, young children must always be supervised in the presence of any dog, including the family dog.
For any dog that has issues with strangers or with children, seeking help from a qualified trainer or behaviorist is essential for the safety of all.