Foster Based Rescue
Southern Ontario

Dog Training Tips: Children and Dogs

It is estimated that between 36-55% of people will be bitten by a dog at least once in their lifetime. Of these, 65% are children under ten years of age, putting them at roughly 200% the risk compared to adults. Around 60% of these dog bites are caused by the family dog. Yikes, those are a lot of numbers. Here’s what it comes down to: children under ten are the most common victims of dog bites, and said children are typically familiar with the dog that bites them.
Every year, more people around the world choose to keep their pets indoors, rather than contained outdoors, as pets are ever increasingly becoming part of the family. From where I’m standing, that’s great news! It does mean, however, that dogs and children in the same household need to be taught how to behave in each other’s company, and this goes beyond expecting that the dog be required to patiently tolerate constant pestering by the child(ren).
Dogs and humans don’t speak the same language, and this makes it difficult for many adults to properly interact with their pet dogs, children have an even harder time because they are also learning how to properly socialize with their own kind. Aggression towards children by the family dog is preventable, and it’s the adults’ job to make it so.
The following are simple rules to follow when children and dogs are in close proximity. These are valid whether you’re bringing home a new dog, baby, or introducing a dog to a child in general.
Let sleeping (and eating) dogs lie
This proverb really sums up how to prevent most of household dog bites, and is an especially important lesson to teach children: when a dog is resting or eating, leave him alone! A sleeping dog may be startled if he is rudely awoken, which can lead to a bite. If the children are too young to be instructed to leave the dog alone, the dog needs to be kept separate, like in a crate or pen.
While it is very important for dog owners to teach their dog to relinquish objects without showing aggression, this does not mean that the entire household should be taking objects away from the dog, or even coming close to him when he has a resource to guard. Some dogs don’t particularly mind, but it’s respectful towards even those dogs that they not be pestered when enjoying a chew toy, treat or meal.
The aforementioned resources should only be brought out in certain occasions, rather than being left on the floor. This is a good rule of dog-ownership in general, but is even more important when there are children that can be thought of as competition over a resource.
No chase games
Dogs are predators, and as such, an important part of their development is playing chase games, either as the chasee or chaser. While chase games where the dog is the chaser can be an effective part of recall training (the “come” command), they can also encourage predatory behaviour. If the dog is encouraged to chase in an unstructured game, where his excitement levels go unchecked, you increase your chances of winding up with predatory aggression. This type of aggression is most often expressed towards smaller animals, including other dogs, but anything that moves can trigger predatory aggression in a predisposed dog. When children are running around, they make high-pitched noises (laughing, yelling, squealing…) which really mimics prey. There are two ways in which this can end up in a bite:
1. The dog gets over-excited, and nips or bites. This is the most common scenario, and the less dangerous of the two. Most dogs enjoy biting, it’s why chew toys are as enjoyable as they are. The dog means no harm, but the bite can still be rather painful. As a rule, it’s a good idea to never allow teeth to make contact with anything on a human’s body: skin, hair, jewellery, clothing, shoes, etc…
2. The dog sees the child as prey, chases and bites. This is more dangerous, as it can result in serious injury, depending on the outcome the dog wants. Prey drive varies immensely among individual dogs, but it is present to a certain degree in all of them.
What starts out as play can develop into predatory aggression, so chase games should never be encouraged, even in puppies. Playing fetch gives dogs an outlet for their prey drive, and can be used to help teach various behaviours, such as the recall, dropping a resource on cue and calming down from excitement.
Hugs and kisses: gestures lost in translation
As humans, most of us display affection through hugs and kisses. Dogs must think we’re so weird when we do that, the same way you’d be if you saw someone greet their friend with a quick sniff of their derrier, a totally normal behaviour for dogs.
While some dogs will patiently tolerate being hugged and kissed, these behaviours are rather threatening, and these dogs have likely learned that they don’t mean anything concerning. Most dogs will show signs of discomfort, which, if ignored, can lead to biting when the dog is exasperated.
Rather than trying to decipher if a dog is okay with such forward behaviours, it’s best to not take the chance, especially when you consider that a hug and a kiss take place when the closest thing to the dog’s mouth is the person’s face, which is what’s going to get bitten in the event the dog does bite.
Most dog bites to children occur on the head for this reason. The child hugs the dog, puts his face close to the dog’s face, both being very confrontational behaviours in “dog-speak.” After what the dog believes to be very clear signals to be given some space go unheeded, he feels his last resort is biting.
Signs of discomfort and stress to look for, in increasing intensity are:
– nose licking, also known as “tongue flicks”
– yawning
– looking away: either just the eyes, so you’ll see the whites, or the whole head will turn away
– shaking without being wet (not every dog does this)
– growling
– air snapping (biting the air close to the offending person)
– biting
Some dogs will choose to just get up and leave, which is a great behaviour that should be encouraged. The child should not be allowed to follow the dog!
The last rule is likely the most obvious, but still warrants mentioning:
Don’t leave dogs and children together unsupervised! People ignoring this most fundamental of rules is how you wind up with a dog that bites “out of nowhere.” Dog’s don’t go from being lenient and sociable to biting without steps in between. It takes a second for a child to grab the dog or accidentally trip and fall on him, if you can’t supervise the two, they shouldn’t be together. Dogs can grab for food out of a child’s hand or jump and knock them over. Even a strong tail can hurt a child, so there needs to be an adult present to make sure everyone is safe!
Dogs aren’t toys, it’s not their job to be a source of (safe) entertainment for your children. Some dogs are calm around children, and a great bond can be formed between the two, but this isn’t always the case. That doesn’t mean that they can’t coexist, though!
Consulting a qualified canine behaviourist can help stop problems before they escalate, and a particularly good resource for new dog owners and fosters, as well as parents-to-be with a dog already in the household.
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