If you are a parent or owner of a dog it is your responsibility to teach your children how to behave around dogs and vice-versa. In many cases, if proper training and education are not taken seriously from the beginning, disasters can occur. The safety and well-being of both child and dog involved are far too important to leave this to chance.

When a child or young person is bitten by a four-legged family member, it understandably causes major anguish and trauma in the household. You may well hear comments from the owners like “They sleep together all the time” or, “He even lets my son sit on him.” So sadly in a majority of cases, the bite incident seems completely out of the blue. The owners can’t believe that their once-trusted companion would bite one of their children. Unfortunately, if you are very familiar with how dogs give off their “signals” or can objectively see the happenings from the dog’s point of view you probably would say that you weren’t surprised and that it didn’t happen sooner.

In a lot of these cases, the bite occurs because children, are often allowed to be quite badly behaved around their dogs and do not show them the respect they deserve or are entitled to. Also, some parents may view their child’s behaviours of climbing on their dogs, pulling their ears etc. as cute and unfortunately assume that because their dog is tolerating this, he will continue to put up with it. In other words, parents think their dogs should behave like saints, enjoy being pulled, and poked and have endless patience and not react inappropriately.

There are too many examples of small children pestering and following their dogs around incessantly, tugging at their collars or pulling ears or tails, or trying to put their food in their mouths and then take it out etc. and instead of the parents intervening and teaching the child that this is not the way to behave they smile, think it is “cute” and leave it. The problem arises in many of these instances because the dog has no way of escape and all the signals he is giving are not being adhered to and then the inevitable happens.

When a dog is feeling uncomfortable and wants to get away from a situation he will give off many warning signals like lifting his lip, turning his head away, barking and if his signals are being ignored he will begin to snarl and then to growl but now it has and will escalate to the next step and the next thing the dog bites. This is of course tragic often more so for the dog as he will be relinquished to a shelter or may even be euthanised after a quarantine period. The sad part of the incident is that this could have easily been prevented just by understanding the types of actions that drive a dog to feel bullied or pestered so much that he feels he has to bite.

Here are some of the actions that might cause the family dog to bite

In fact, understanding what can provoke a dog to bite a child is basic common sense and often very similar to things that drive humans to need a break and take time out from their stressful lives.

  1. For instance, people would not like to have sticky fingers in their meals and similarly, dogs don’t like it either and would far rather eat in peace.
  2. We teach children that it’s wrong to steal toys from each other. Well, it is rude to steal toys from the dog. Children need to understand that they should leave their dog’s toys alone. However, with the correct obedience training, you can help your dog learn to give up their toy for a reward or even a sequence of rewards. That way, they will willingly give the child the toy instead of feeling possessive.
  3. Children have a habit of putting their faces right into a dog’s face and this can be extremely irritating to the dog, especially when the dog has no control over what the child intends to do.
  4. Most people dislike being disturbed when they are resting or sleeping. Luckily humans are able to close or lock their bedroom doors but dogs can’t but they do need a safe location where they can be away from children. The children should be taught to avoid bugging them in their “private” location or any time they are sleeping or resting.  If they call the dog from far away and the dog chooses to come over to play this is fine but if the dog chooses to be left alone, he should be.
  5. Children dislike being man-handled and so do dogs. Dogs can be trained to enjoy being handled but generally, children should be taught to be polite.
  6. It’s rude to climb on, step on, or invade someone’s personal space and similarly it’s bad mannered to do the same things with dogs.
  7. Loud screaming can frazzle both people and dogs and again children need to be taught that dogs are far more sound-sensitive and that loud noises are very stressful for them.
  8. We humans often forget that some friendly gestures, such as being hugged, are inappropriate for most dogs unless they have been trained to enjoy close handling so it is important for children to know the types of interactions their dogs like and also to realize that other dogs may not have the same tolerance levels as their own dog does.

Interactions that are appropriate

With all of these Don’ts, it seems like children can’t interact with dogs and pet at all yet in reality, they just need to be taught to be polite and kind to their dogs and pets, instead of treating them like he’s stuffed toy. Parents can help their children so much and show them how to read the signs when their dog is fearful or anxious so that the child knows when to leave him alone and back-off.

Once the children understand that they should be kind to their dog, they can be taught and shown many great games to play. For instance, fetch where the dog willingly gives the toy and remains polite before it’s tossed is fun for dogs who love to retrieve.

Children and their dogs can have great fun learning tricks that result in rewards such as yummy treats or bits of the dog’s meal/kibble. All dogs need their exercise, and children can be a part of this too if the dog is trained. Hide-n-seek is a great way for dogs to learn to have fun, and the dog is practising his search and rescue skills.

Adults need to ensure that the dog has lots of positive associations with children. It is great for the children to regularly give food rewards for the dog’s calm, polite behaviour, such as automatic sits.

Yet it is essential for all of the interactions to be supervised even if the child is generally well-behaved to avoid any accidents happening.

The key is to teach both the dog and the children to be polite. Make sure your children interact with your dog the same way you want them to interact with you and be respectful at all times.   When children and dogs get along and respect each other, the trust and bond that develops over time can be quite profound.

By Joanna, Trainer at DogtownSA