Here boy! Dog proofing your kids
In a country with a population of 20 million, it’s astounding to discover that there are over four million dogs out there – that’s one dog for every five Australians. Australia has one of the highest incidences of pet ownership in the world with an estimated 2.8 million households owning a dog. It will be no surprise to any mother to know that typically the major carer of the pet is female, married with children, living in the suburbs and most likely employed.
Pets are an integral part of our lives as Australians. In fact, over 80% of Australians have had an animal companion during childhood. With so many dogs in our communities, it’s no wonder dog bites are common.
Young children aged one to four years are the most at risk group. According to the Monash University Accident Research Centre, injuries most commonly occur in the home (74%), and in public places such as streets and parks (20%). Young children are most often bitten on the face and head.
Those statistics draw the obvious conclusion - with dogs, it’s not stranger danger that is the worry. Most bites are from dogs that are known to the child – the family dog or a neighbourhood dog. Dr Cam Day, a Brisbane vet who specialises in animal behaviour, writing for A World of Petcare says that no matter what dog you have, you have to be careful when it is interacting with your children – any dog can be dangerous.
He points out that toddlers and children are more at risk because of their size and behaviour. Children are noisy and not predictable in their behaviour or movement. When a large dog knocks into a small child, it’s the child who topples. As well, toddlers are the same height as many dogs, and amongst other effects, the direct eye contact between dog and child at that level can disturb many dogs.
If a child squeals and runs away, many dogs will give chase. If the child then squeals or screams again, it’s similar behaviour of a prey animal and may trigger an attack form some dogs.
Bearing all this in mind, what should the family do to teach children and dogs to interact safely? If we start with the premise that every dog can be dangerous, the first thing parents must do is to give the dog obedience training so that the dog understands from the outset that it is at the bottom of the family ‘pack’.
All dogs should, on command, sit, stay, heel and come. They should also obey the command to ‘drop it’. Obedience will go a long way, but it won’t protect the dog from children who have not been taught to respect animals or to treat them cautiously (but without fear).
Dogs ‘n’ Kids, a resource kit produced by the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne has the following tips :
- Sleeping dogs should be strictly left alone – dogs woken suddenly can react in fright and snap. To wake a dog up, call them by name from a distance and give them time to become oriented.
- Just like people, dogs don’t like anyone taking their food! Children should be taught not to approach a dog that is eating or gnawing on a bone. A puppy can be conditioned not to react if its food is removed while eating. This is done by putting a hand on their food bowl; if the puppy is happy and doesn’t growl, reward it with a treat in the bowl and a pat. This training should continue throughout the dog’s life, particularly if there is a possibility of children being around eg grandma’s dog.
- Always ask the owner of the dog first before patting. A dog should be approached quietly and on an angle, never from the front or the rear. Once closer to the dog, curl the fingers and slowly extend the back of the hand. Allow the dog to sniff the hand before tickling under the chin or the side of the chest. Don’t pat a dog on the top of the head – some find this a very rude gesture!
- Supervise children around dogs. Teasing a dog is never acceptable and rough-house games should be stopped immediately, especially if the dog shows any signs of excitement such as mouthing, yapping or barking. The dog and child should be separated.
When approached by an unfamiliar dog, teach your children to stand very still like a statue with their arms by their side – the dog will most likely sniff the child and walk away. Don’t look a dog directly in the eye as this can be seen as challenging behaviour.
Another tip is reminding children to look at their own feet when approached by a dog, until a relationship has been established. Never run away from a dog – you won’t outrun them! If a dog is interested in a child’s food, teach them to throw it as far away as possible.
A dog should be left alone if it:
- lifts its lips
- backs off
- raises the hair on its back
Many dogs do not like to be hugged as it makes them feel trapped. They may struggle to get free, scratching in the process.
Never pull a dog’s whiskers, ears or blow in its face. Some dogs find this very annoying and will snap at the source of the annoying breeze – the face!
While dogs communicate by sniffing each other’s bottoms, children should stay well away from the rear end of a dog. Some dogs will defensively snap when touched in these sensitive areas, and because they can’t easily see who or what is happening.
5 things dogs like
- being with the rest of their family (or pack).
- going for walks
- eating dog treats, biscuits…or anything, really
- rolling in smelly things
- getting on to furniture, especially couches and beds!
5 things dogs don’t like
- being told to get off furniture
- having a bath
- being left alone
- being told they’re bad
- loud sudden noises, especially when they’re asleep
Dogs ‘n’ Kids. A resource kit for health professionals promoting responsible dog ownership and dog bite prevention. The Safety Centre, the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.
Handle with care – Making Friends with animals by Dr Paul McGreevy 2002
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2006. Updated July 2009.