It’s important to understand that dogs communicate how they’re feeling mostly through body language. It’s also equally important to realize that even the most well-balanced dog will sometimes feel conflicted in certain situations when faced with stressful and fearful things, and communicate with a variety of body signals. When dogs give off warnings that they’re stressed and have no option to escape the situation, they may feel that biting is their only option.
Why do dogs bite?
There are several reasons why a dog may bite a child:
- The dog is protecting a possession, food or water dish or puppies.
- The dog is protecting a resting place.
- The dog is protecting its owner or the owner’s property.
- The child has done something to provoke or frighten the dog (e.g., hugging the dog, moving into the dog’s space, leaning or stepping over the dog, trying to take something from the dog).
- The dog is old and grumpy and having a bad day and has no patience for the movement of a child.
- The dog is injured or sick.
- The child has hurt or startled it by stepping on it, poking it or pulling its fur, tail or ears.
- The dog has not learned bite inhibition and bites hard by accident when the child offers food or a toy to the dog.
- The child and dog are engaging in rough play and the dog gets overly excited.
- The dog views the child as a prey item because the child is running and/or screaming near the dog or riding a bicycle or otherwise moving past the dog.
- The dog is of a herding breed and nips while trying to “herd” the children. ©Doggone Safe
How do dogs warn us?
There are always warning signs before a bite occurs, but these can be very subtle and may be missed by many people. A dog may appear to tolerate being repeatedly handled by a child and one day bites, surprising everyone. In most cases, your dog has given warning signals for months or even years before he finally loses his tolerance and bites. Children should never approach a strange, unfamiliar dog, and adults should always supervise interactions with a dog belonging to a “friendly stranger”, friend or family member. In addition, children under the age of 6 should never be left alone with a dog, family or otherwise.
Below is a short list of signs you should take very seriously that indicate your dog is saying “I have been very patient with this child, but I’m close to the end of my patience”. These signs are called Stress Signals, and are usually out of context to normal behavior. For example, if your dog shakes as if he’s wet, but isn’t wet from a bath or swimming. For a more complete list of Stress Signals, click here.
- The dog gets up and moves away from the child.
- The dog turns his head away from the child.
- The dog looks at you with a pleading expression.
- You can see the “whites” of the dogs eyes in a half moon shape, indicating stress and fear.
- The dog yawns while the child approaches or is interacting with him.
- The dog licks his chops or flicks his tongue over his nose while the child approaches or is interacting with him.
- The dog suddenly starts scratching, biting or licking himself.
- The dog “checks out” and starts sniffing odd objects like the ground or a wall.
- The dog does a big “wet dog shake” after the child stops touching him.
Click here to view contrasting photos of 13 different dogs that illustrate the difference in expressions of happy dogs and dogs that want to be left alone. Green means go, red means STOP! ©Doggone Safe
Below is a rough age guide to help you and your kids as they grow:
- Birth to six months: A quiet time for the animal/child interaction. No small child should be left unsupervised with an animal.
- Six months to a year: Keep pet food and feeding areas away from crawling and toddling children. A child of this age will grab at whatever is in his or her path, so ears and tails are a target, and children have to be carefully supervised around animals to avert any unexpected reactions.
- 1–3 years: A time of exploration and for putting things in the mouth. A dog or cat who is possessive about his or her toys and food can be potentially dangerous to a child. The child is eye level with a medium to large dog, and dogs can see that as a threat. This age group is especially vulnerable to a biting dog.
- 4–6 years: By now, a child has mastered quite a lot of language and can understand more about how to interact with another living being, but a firm eye on the situation is still needed.
- 6–10 years: Your child can now help look after a pet – feeding, cleaning up, walking, and playing with a cat or dog or any other animal in the house. ©Best Friends Animal Society
©Best Friends Animal Society
You may think that your dog loves to have the children climbing all over him and hugging him, but if you see any of these signs, then you are being warned that a bite could occur. Please intervene if you notice any of these signs and give your dog some space.
Preventing dog bites:
- Teach your child how to properly interact with dogs.
- Teach your dog how to properly interact with children.
- NEVER leave a baby or a child under the age of 6 alone with a dog
Guidelines for children to follow around dogs:
- Always ask permission before petting a dog
- Approach slowly
- Pet gently – palm flat, do not pull on fur or skin
- Dogs do not like to be hugged
- If you see stray dogs – Go down a different street if possible, Don’t make eye contact, sudden movements or loud noise, Be a tree: Stay still until dogs lose interest and then slowly move away
- Don’t disturb a sleeping dog
- Don’t disturb a dog while it is eating
- Don’t tease a dog
- Don’t reach through, over a fence or though a car window to pet a dog
Guidelines dogs should follow around children and adults:
- Don’t jump on people
- Walk politely on lead
- No nipping at people – even in play
- Wait – before going through doorways, for food etc.
- No stealing food
For more information, please see below:
www.trainyourdogmonth.com – Useful articles about dog training
www.doggonesafe.com – Information about how to read dog body language and child safety around dogs. Also find presenters in your area to schedule a seminar.
www.familypaws.com – Promoting safety for families with dogs. Dogs & Storks, Dog & Baby Connection, Pets & Storks
Drsophiayin.com – information, articles, videos on dog behavior and behavior problems
Dog Bite Prevention PSA – A great 30-second animated PSA that shows common mistakes made when children are bitten.
Books, Articles and Movies
Reaching the Animal Mind, Karen Pryor
Don’t Shoot the Dog, Karen Pryor
Clicking With Your Dog, Peggy Tillman
Perfect Puppy in 7 Days, Sophia Yin
How Are Dog Bites Like Tetris? by Casey Lomonaco
Tip Sheet for Kids and Dogs by Gail Czarnecki‐Maulden
Puppy Training for Kids: Teaching Children the Responsibilities and Joys of Puppy Care, Training, and Companionship by Colleen Pelar and Amber Johnson
May I Pet Your Dog?: The How-to Guide for Kids Meeting Dogs (and Dogs Meeting Kids) by Stephanie Calmenson
Tails Are Not for Pulling (Board Book) (Best Behavior Series) by Elizabeth Verdick
How to Train Your Dragon, Dreamworks, 2012
*This page was written with help from Gail Czarnecki-Maulden and Kate Dolnick