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Dog Bite Prevention Week Part 2: Bite-proofing your child

A dog can be a boy's best friend.

A dog can be a boy’s best friend.

Every year, 4.5 million people in the United States are bitten by dogs. 50% of these bites are to children 12 and under, with the highest rate among children between the ages of five and nine years old. Fortunately, of all dog bites treated in emergency rooms, 96% are treated and released (source).

While few of these bites are serious, dog bites to children are a serious and scary problem. Thankfully, there are many steps a parent and a child can take to lower his risk.

The first, and I think the most important, is for parents to closely supervise their childrens’ interactions with dogs. This is especially important with new or strange dogs, but it is also important with the family dog. Dogs are animals. Sometimes they lose their patience. Sometimes their warnings go unheeded and they end up warning more strongly than tender human flesh can tolerate. Sometimes they’re in pain.

The best way to counteract this unpredictability is to learn to read and understand the dog’s body language and comfort level. While some dogs will tolerate a child climbing all over them, but for most dogs it is very stressful. So even though the dog is putting up with it, he might be trying very hard to communicate how uncomfortable he is with the situation.

We have fallen into the habit of “Disney-fying” dogs. Yes, dogs can be man’s best friend, but they are still living, breathing, feeling animals who don’t always respond in the ways we want or expect.

Here is an excellent guide to understanding how to read stress signals from your dog. Often the easiest to see are yawning, tucked tail, pinned-back ears, nose-licking, and trying to avoid the situation. All of these need to be cues to parents that it is time to intervene now because the risk of something bad happening is steadily increasing.

Children, especially older ones, can be taught to recognize friendly vs stressed vs go away messages from dogs. Doggone Safe’s Learn to be a Dog Detective is a terrific child-oriented webpage for helping kids understand what a dog is feeling at any given time and what the best response is.

Teach your child that if he is approached by a strange, loose dog, do not run but instead Be a Tree. Running or screaming makes a child more interesting and a more appealing target. Being still and quiet is boring, and less interesting to a dog.

It is also vitally important to teach children not to approach strange dogs without the owner present. Statistically, dogs who are chained, kenneled, or contained in a backyard are a high bite risk. They are often poorly socialized with people and protective of their space. This can be a recipe for disaster if a child approaches. Between 1976 and 2001, at least 98 people were killed by chained dogs. 92 were children.

If an owner is present, the child must know to ask first before trying to pet the dog. Not all dogs are comfortable with children, and some dogs, such as service dogs, should not be interrupted from their work. If the owner says it is ok, the child should be taught to extend a fist for the dog to sniff and to let the dog come to him. If the dog wants to say hi, he will!

Let sleeping dogs lie! Teach your child that if the dog is sleeping, chewing a bone, or otherwise occupied by himself, it is best to leave him alone.

Give your dog a safe place to go when he wants to be left alone, and teach your child to respect that. I cringe when I see pictures of kids in crates with dogs. If things were to go bad, they could go very bad very quickly with neither dog nor child able to quickly escape.

Teach your child to never try to take something from a dog that the dog will not willingly give up. A hard stare, a stiff body, crouching over the item, and growling are all signs that your child needs to back off and go to an adult if the dog has something that he shouldn’t. Also, a wagging tail is not necessarily a sign of a happy dog! A loose, full-body wave is a sign of happiness. A stiff or slow wag is not.

Dogs should be fun, not scary.

Dogs should be fun, not scary.

Some older children can be taught to “trade”. Trading is taking something that the dog values highly (food, a favorite toy), and offering it to the dog in exchange for whatever he is guarding. If the dog shows desire for the trade object, toss it several feet away so that you are able to retrieve the item while the dog is occupied away from it.

Resource guarding can become very dangerous, so getting in contact with a trainer or behaviorist as soon as possible is highly recommended.

Last but not least, please do not ever leave an infant alone with a dog, even if the baby is in a crib. Babies smell funny, they sound funny, and they move funny. All of this has the potential to trigger prey drive in a dog who would never hurt someone he recognized as a human.

With all of these things in mind, it is possible to minimize the risk of your child being bitten either by a strange dog or the family dog. Kids and dogs can make a great combination, but keeping safety in mind is a must!

Other resources:
Doggone Safe!
Be a Tree!
And for all things dog-bite-statistics, The National Canine Research Council

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Posted by on May 22, 2014 in Dogs, Safety

 

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Dog Bite Prevention Week Part 1: Bite-proofing your dog

My dogs are family.

My dogs are family.

This week is considered Dog Bite Prevention Week, a week in which professionals who work with animals strive to put out good and useful information about dog bites and about how to prevent them. In a country where more homes contain dogs than don’t, it’s an important topic. Dogs bite humans every single day. The good news is that according to the National Canine Research Council, greater than 80% of reported bites require no medical treatment at all. 19.4% of reported bites require minor medical attention, and the last 0.01% of bites are the ugly ones requiring major medical attention.

This is probably not the impression you get from the media. So frequently there are dramatic news stories about children attacked by vicious pit bulls, or police having to shoot attacking dogs. The truth is, a lot of this is media and attention-driven. In 2010, there were 33 dog attacks that resulted in fatality. In contrast, there were 33,041 unintentional poisioning fatalities, and 3,782 unintentional drowning deaths. (Source: NCRC).
According to Janice Bradley’s book Dogs Bite But Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning twice than you are to be killed by a dog. There are more cow-related human deaths every year than dog-related ones.

So why this great fear of dog bites?

I think it is just something primal in us. As a society, we have in many ways taken the “animal” out of dogs. We’ve tried to turn them into Disney characters– always affable, never dangerous. They are “man’s best friend” and they are supposed to fit neatly into our cultural expectations. But the truth is, dogs are living, breathing, thinking, emotional animals. They are the sum of their genetics and their environments, and when they get into serious trouble, it is almost always the result of human error in one way or another.

The next question: How do you bite-proof your dog?

First off, choose a breed or dog that is appropriate to your lifestyle and experience. If you’ve never owned a dog before, it’s probably not the best idea to go out and get a dog who is going to react to everything he sees in his environment by wanting to bite it. If you have kids, you are going to be better off looking for a dog who likes kids and is pretty go-with-the-flow, not a dog who is scared of his own shadow. If you plan to use a dog-park to exercise a dog, do not choose one whose entire breed is built around fighting with other dogs. Do your research! There are lots of breed-selectors available online that can point you in the right direction. Here’s one from Animal Planet that’s pretty nice. Iams has an interesting breed selector as well.

If you bring home a puppy, it is so very important that you socialize him so that he learns to roll with the punches and tolerate having to deal with new things. Helping him to have plenty of good experiences in all kinds of locations with all kinds of people will set him up to be more tolerant later on, and tolerance is always something we prize in a pet dog.

Buy your dog either from a responsible breeder who is breeding dogs who have been proven to have good temperaments or rescue one from an organization that temperament tests its dogs, and ideally keeps them in foster homes. Meet the dogs. If from a breeder, meet the dogs’ relatives. Make sure you are seeing dogs who are steady and engaged, not dogs who are shrinking back from the world, and not dogs who are aggressively approaching every person they meet. You don’t want to see hard eyes, raised hackles, stiff bodies. Look for fluid motion and appropriate interaction.

Please please do NOT buy your puppy from a petstore, online vendor, or a puppy mill or farm where the pups have lived their whole lives in cages or a pen, rarely handled, and not at all socialized to the world. Socialization in puppies is HUGE and if your pup is not exposed to a variety of people and sounds and experiences and textures under his feet at a young age, life is going to be that much harder for him, and he’s going to be that much more of a bite risk.

Whether your new dog is a baby or an adult, attending a postive-reinforcement-based obedience class dramatically decreases your dog’s future bite risk.

All dogs should go to school.

All dogs should go to school.

One of the biggest factors in serious dog attacks and fatalities is that they frequently involve dogs who are not considered members of the family. These dogs are referred to as “resident dogs”, and while they live on the property, usually chained or penned or relegated to the backyard, they miss out on the bond with humans, they miss out on the opportunity to learn appropriate behavior, and they miss out on the constant mental and physical stimulation of life shared with people.

The dogs with the highest risk of getting into trouble are those who are recently acquired, kept as “resident animals” instead of pets, are chained and rarely if ever let off the chain to lead a normal doggy life, who are not spayed or neutered, not trained, and have had little socialization.

So basically, to bite-proof your dog…. Do the opposite! Include your dog in your family, train him, teach him the ways of the world, let him have good experiences, protect him, and learn to read his body language and what he is telling you. Dogs are pack animals. You are his pack.

Family dogs who bite very frequently give you plenty of notice (unless this notice has been punished out of them) but you have to know what you’re looking for and you have to respect it. A dog is growling at you over a toy is communicating important information. And this should be a red flag that you need to contact a trainer ASAP so that you can learn how to change your pup’s reaction to your approaching his toys. A lot of bites could be avoided by learning to recognize stress signs in your dog and by seeking help as soon as you notice the beginnings of the problem, not after somebody gets bitten.

Hopefully this post gave you a basic overview of why dog bites happen and ways to “bite-proof” your dog. But what about bite-proofing your child? Stay tuned. We’ll look at that later in the week.

 

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