Question: I'd like to get a medium to large breed dog for my family but
I'm worried. I've heard so many stories about dogs biting children. How can I be sure that
it will be safe for my kids?
Answer: You have good reason to be concerned. Statistics show that most
dog bites causing serious injury involve medium to large sized dogs and children under the
age of five years. The dog is usually known to the child or is the family's pet.
To understand how these bites occur, what causes them and how to prevent them, a little
education in the nature of dogs and the nature of small children is in order.
A dog's basic temperament, instincts and training have the biggest effects on how that dog reacts to the world around him and his levels of
tolerance. A dog's temperament is first inherited, then modified by events in his life and
proper training. Some breeds and certain bloodlines within breeds are friendlier,
more tolerant and more adaptable to training because they were bred to be that way. A
responsible breeder wisely puts emphasis on good temperament when selecting breeding
stock. Breeders without adequate knowledge of dog behavior may not understand what a
correct temperament is and use unsuitable dogs for breeding.
Unscrupulous breeders sometimes deliberately breed dogs with poor temperaments. There are
also some dogs, just like there are some humans, that are mentally disturbed or have an
illness or physical defect that affects their behavior.
Very few bites happen without provocation -- but the provocation may exist only in the
dog's mind! We need to realize that dogs are not little people in furry costumes. They
don't think in the same way that we do. They look at the world around them with a
different perspective. Most of their actions are instinctive. A dog will react to
situations according to what his instincts tell him unless these instincts are overridden
by the consistent training and socialization he needs to receive from his owner throughout
Here is one of the most commonly reported scenarios in a bite case:
A very young child sees a pretty dog he'd like to pet. The dog may not want to be
petted. The dog's first instinctive reaction is show his displeasure by giving a warning
-- growling. The growl means that something more unpleasant will follow if the warning
The type and number of warnings given can vary. Many dogs faced with a child like this
would just walk away. Walking away can be considered a warning. If the child keeps trying
to pet the dog, a sterner warning, usually a growl, will follow. Some warnings are more
subtle -- a stiffening of the body, for example. Few dogs bite without giving some
Small children (and some adults) don't recognize a warning when they see or hear one. A
very young child (under age six) doesn't know what a growl means. What may be obvious to
an adult isn't understood by the child. The child continues to pet or follow after the dog
even though the dog has now clearly told him what will happen if he doesn't stop.
Dogs instinctively set up an invisible "fight or flight" boundary around
themselves. The size of this boundary depends on his level of confidence and tolerance. A
fearful dog will give itself a wider area than a more stable one. When someone who the dog
perceives as threatening or unwelcome enters that area, the dog has two choices -- it can
run away or it can defend itself. If it feels that it can't run away, it will fight
instead, no matter how afraid it might be. Some dogs will choose to fight first, rather
A small child that's petting or hugging a dog has already intruded well within the dog's
flight or fight boundary, the dog's safety zone. If the dog has tried to leave or has
issued a warning with no response from the child, the dog (in his mind) has no other
recourse -- he bites. This is normal, instinctive behavior -- to the dog. He is responding
to what he perceives as a threat and is doing what his instincts tell him to. Remember
that dogs don't think in the same way that people do. A child's innocent action, petting
the dog, can be provocation for a bite when seen through
the eyes of the dog.
There are other circumstances that can provoke a dog to bite a child. Running,
playing, screaming kids can trigger an instinctive predator-prey reaction in some dogs.
Children who rough house and wrestle with dogs unknowingly encourage them to use their
teeth. Dogs equate this kind of play with littermates or other dogs where using teeth is
allowed. Startling a sleeping dog or petting him when he's eating can also provoke a bite.
What can be done to prevent dogs from biting children? I feel that, first, it's essential
to understand that almost any dog will bite under the right circumstances. Second, a dog
is a dog, an animal whose behavior isn't the same as humans and can't always be predicted
with 100 percent accuracy, no matter how friendly or reliable he is.
Obedience training and socialization are absolute musts for a dog who'll be spending time
with children. Remember that a dog will act according to his instincts if he doesn't
receive proper training or if that training isn't kept up through regular practice. The
dog needs to be taught to obey commands under all conditions no matter how distracting.
Just as responding to the command to "come" could save the dog's life someday,
an immediate response to the command "leave it!" could save a child from serious
Just as children need to be taught how to be well-behaved around other people, they need
to be taught to be well-behaved and respectful around animals. They need to learn what
kinds of games are appropriate, how to touch the dog properly, how to interpret the dog's
body language and when the dog is not to be disturbed. When they're old enough to
understand, kids should be involved in the training process. They should learn to give the
dog commands and be able to enforce them.
Adult supervision is essential! Small children should never, ever be left alone
with any dog, no matter how reliable the dog has been before. A responsible adult
needs to be on the scene to prevent any aggressive behavior by the dog and to keep the
child from putting him or herself in danger. Telling the toddler to stay away from
the dog isn't enough! Remember that young children don't recognize when they may
in trouble. It's up to the adult to keep them safe from the dog and to keep the dog safe
from the children. I can't stress enough that adult supervision around
children and dogs is absolutely critical! If you can't be right there to handle whatever
might come up or if you have any doubt about the dog's behavior around children, the dog
should be put away out of reach of the kids.
Almost all of us would agree that it would be nice for our children to grow up with a dog.
Kids and dogs are wonderful, almost an American tradition. If you're thinking of getting a
dog for the children or already have one, here are some guidelines:
...Consider postponing the purchase of a dog, especially a large one, until your
children are at least six years old.
...Take your time when looking for a dog. Do your homework. Learn the differences in the
various breeds and choose one best suited to your lifestyle and experience.
...Be honest with yourself about the amount of time and work you're willing to put into a
dog. If you don't have time to raise and train the dog properly, don't get one.
...Buy your dog from a reputable, responsible breeder who puts priority on good
temperament and health and consistently produces dogs that excel in those areas. Choose a
breeder who's experienced and willing to guide and advise you about care and training
throughout the dog's life.
...Train and socialize your dog properly! Get help if you run into
problems. Don't fool yourself into thinking the dog will "outgrow" it or that
the problem will go away on its own.
...Teach your children how to behave correctly and safely around animals and to respect
...If your children are too young to understand, it will be up to you to physically
supervise them and protect them from potential harm. Don't take chances with their safety!
If you can't be right there to take care of a problem or if you can't control your dog or
your child -- put the dog away.
...Remember that what your dog tolerates from your own children may not be tolerated from
someone else's. You need to take extra safety precautions when other children visit and
make sure that the children obey your ground rules.
...Never, ever leave a child alone with any dog, no matter how harmless the dog seems.
Kids and dogs are wonderful together -- when adults use common sense and put safety first!
This article, originally published in Dog Owner's
Guide, was the winner of a 1993 Dog Writer's Association of America Maxwell award for best
article in a canine newspaper. It was written and copyrighted by Vicki DeGruy and
appears here with permission. Contact us
for permission to reprint.
Adding A New Baby To
The Pet Household
Help! My Puppy
Who's In Charge
Here? A Lesson in Becoming Alpha
Obedience Classes For
Socializing Your Chow Chow