Dogs and Children: Facts and Suggestions
Note: This information is intended for adults to use when teaching children the proper way to approach and interact with dogs. It is not intended to be distributed as a handout to children.
Dogs and children conjure up the same warm feelings as grandma and apple pie. At Guide Dogs for the Blind, we understand, highly value, and promote the human-animal bond, regardless of age. People and dogs both derive health and well-being from the relationship and perhaps are the better for it. But meaningful, healthy relationships often require solid foundations and continued attention. For those reasons, we encourage parents to take the time to educate themselves to the realities of the relationship between children and dogs.
Children and dogs – what are the facts?
- Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States seeks medical attention for a dog bite–related injury. This accounts to 800,000 Americans a year; half of these are children.
- The majority (80%) of dog bites incurred by children are inflicted by a family dog (30%) or a neighbor's dog (50%)**.
- A dog bite-related injury is highest for children ages 5 to 9 years. Almost 2/3 of injuries among children ages 4 years and younger are to the head or neck region. Injury rates in children are significantly higher for boys than for girls.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control, children are at greater risk of injury and death from dog bites. Because of their stage of cognitive development, children are often impulsive and unable to judge the safety of a situation (assuming that an unfamiliar dog is friendly, for instance). Their size may also put them at risk. Because they are small, they may be seen as an easy target for dogs prone to attack. Childrens' inabilities to fend off attacks may put them at additional risk.
- Many children do not know how to behave around a dog. Because of the higher rates of dog bites in this demographic, prevention programs are often targeted at children.
- In addition to educating children properly, prevention efforts should encourage responsible dog ownership, including training, socializing, and neutering family pets.
What are some pointers adults can teach children to be safe around dogs?
- Do not approach an unfamiliar dog.
- Do not run from a dog and scream. Dogs naturally love to chase and catch things. Don't give dogs a reason to become excited or aggressive.
- Remain motionless (e.g., "be still like a tree") when approached by an unfamiliar dog.
- Do not encourage children to approach a dog if they are not comfortable.
- If they do wish to meet the dog, teach them to approach the dog slowly from the side with an extended fist for the dog to sniff.
- Teach them to only touch a dog after it has seen and sniffed the child.
- Show children how to nicely pet a dog: slow, gentle strokes with a flat hand on the head, shoulders or back are what doggies like best.
- Teach children that if they are knocked over by a dog, they should roll into a ball and lie still (e.g., "be still like a log").
- Do not play with a dog unless supervised by an adult.
- Immediately report stray dogs or dogs displaying unusual behavior.
- Avoid direct eye contact with a dog.Looking straight into a dog's eyes can be a little scary for the dog.
- Do not disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies.
- If bitten, children should immediately report the bite to an adult.
- Dogs should not be thought of as "little people," capable of reasoning.
- Dogs have feelings – they can feel hurt and be sad. Dogs can feel joy and like to play. However, dogs play differently than people. Children play by using their hands; dogs play by using their mouths.
- Dogs can't talk, but they do communicate through body language. Watch for cues indicating the dog's comfort level.
- Friendly dogs can accidentally hurt children with their mouths or scratch them with their nails when excited during play.
What are the points to consider when adopting a dog?
- Consult with a professional (veterinarian, animal behaviorist, or responsible breeder) to learn about suitable breeds of dogs for your household.
- Dogs with histories of aggression are inappropriate in households with children.
- Be sensitive to cues that a child is fearful or apprehensive about a dog and, if so, delay acquiring a dog, until the child achieves a comfort level around dogs.
- Spend time with a dog before buying or adopting it. Use caution when bringing a dog into the home of an infant or toddler.
- Spay/neuter virtually all dogs (this frequently reduces aggressive tendencies).
- Do not play aggressive games with your dog (e.g., wrestling, tug of war).
- Never leave infants or young children alone with any dog.
- Make the realistic decision, not the hopeful one. If your children plan to have friends over to play, put your dog on leash and/or confine him appropriately before guests arrive. Do NOT assume your dog will be friendly and tolerant of a new child. Exercise pens, crates or baby gates are excellent tools to achieve separation between children and dogs.
- Properly socialize and train any dog entering the household. The dog should reliably learn, understand, and obey the following commands: "No", "Come", "Down", "Sit", "Stay." Teach the dog submissive behaviors (e.g., rolling over to expose abdomen and relinquishing food without growling).
- Immediately seek professional advice if the dog develops aggressive or undesirable behaviors.
** Beck AM, Jones BA. Unreported dog bites in children. Public Health Rep 1985;100:315--21 (CDC.gov website).
Additional sources: Aforementioned statistics and certain sections of information have been obtained through Centers for Disease Control (CDC), National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) websites.