Image via iStock.com/Daniela Jovanovska-Hristovska
By Monica Weymouth
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, each year in the United States, there are more than 4.5 million people bitten by dogs. Of those 4.5 million bites, the majority of them happen to young children. Not only are kids more likely to be bitten, but they’re also likely to be more severely injured due to their fragile and small size.
The good news is that many of these bites can be prevented with some canine know-how and proper training for both kids and dogs.
How Serious Are Dog Bites?
Dog bites in children require immediate medical care. Even if the wound doesn’t appear to be severe, there’s a chance that it could become infected.
“When a child comes in for a dog bite, the first thing I do is assess the risk of infection,” says Dr. Andrew Katz, a pediatrician with Mercy Medical Group. “It is wise to start antibiotics as soon as possible after any animal bite, to prevent serious complications.”
In addition to infections, children who are not immunized can be at risk of tetanus. Although rare in the United States, rabies could be a concern if the dog is unknown and can’t be found. In these instances, the child may need to complete a series of rabies vaccinations.
In his own practice, Dr. Katz sees dog bites a few times a year, the majority of which are not serious. In many of the cases, the incidences could be avoided. “Most bites occur in younger children who do not know any better,” he says. “I advise parents to educate their children.”
Teaching a Child How to Greet a New Dog
An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure. Protecting your child from dog bites begins with teaching them the proper way to interact with dogs.
Be sure to always ask the dog’s owner if your child can pet their dog. If the dog and dog’s owner are okay with the interaction, the next step is helping your child understand how to correctly approach, interact with and pet a dog.
Let the Dog Approach You First
Pooch Parenting owner and dog behavior consultant Michelle Stern taught children prior to training dogs and specializes in helping families create safe, supportive environments for kids and dogs. One of her first rules for preventing bites is to teach your child to never run up to a dog.
“Don’t approach dogs—let dogs approach you,” she says. “The dog deserves the opportunity to say ‘no.’ Not all dogs want to be pet, and you should never assume they want your attention,” says Stern.
Be Calm and Confident
First, it’s important that you set a good example for the child. You should be calm and confident, says Kim Paciotti, a professional trainer and owner of Training Canines. Make sure your child knows to do the same.
“Children are either scared or overly exuberant when meeting dogs,” says Paciotti. “Both situations will change how the dog will react. If the child is coming at the dog full of excitement, the dog will react with that same excitement.”
Approach From the Side
When petting a dog, it’s important to note that dogs don’t see the same way humans do, says Paciotti. Our canine companions have a wider degree of peripheral vision, and they’re more comfortable being approached from the side.
Paciotti says that reaching over a dog’s head may cause a dog to jump. “How you approach a dog has a huge impact on how that dog will react,” she says.
Pet the Dog Underneath the Chin or on the Chest
Offer a pet under the chin or on the chest, and never reach over the head—you’ll temporarily enter the dog’s blind spot, possibly startling him.
Guide your child’s hand slowly, always going along with the grain of the fur. After a couple pets, take a break and see how the dog is enjoying the experience.
“It is crucial to teach our children about the dog’s perspective,” says Paciotti.
Tips to Encourage Positive Interactions Between Children and Dogs
Keep in mind that while you find your kids adorable, to a dog, excited little hands and high-pitched laughs can be scary. Even children-friendly dogs are liable to become stressed by their unpredictable behavior.
This is especially true when it comes to toddlers. To a dog, “Toddlers are weird—they act unpredictably; they make strange noises; they move erratically,” says Stern. “A lot of dogs don’t know how to react.”
To make sure your child or toddler has a positive interaction with the dogs they meet, consider the following tips.
Respect Your Child’s Wishes
It’s important to not assume that your child wants to pet every pup. Some parents, says Stern, have a tendency to project their love of dogs onto their children. By forcing these interactions, parents can unwittingly create an uncomfortable situation for both the child and the dog.
“Not all toddlers want to interact with dogs,” says Stern. “Respect what your kid wants, and respect what the dog wants.”
Observe the Dog’s Body Language
The vast majority of the time, a dog who doesn’t want to interact with a child makes his wishes very clear. The more you know about dog body language, the more you can recognize a dog’s comfort level and teach your child about safe interactions.
“Dog body language is so important,” says Stern. “There are a million signs that dogs give to show they’re anxious and uncomfortable. If you respect those signals, the situation won’t escalate.”
Tips for Pet Parents
If you’re a dog owner, keep in mind that not all parents teach Dog 101. Having a well-trained dog who responds to cues can help to de-escalate stressful situations.
It is also important to know your own dog’s body language and comfort levels. If you see your dog getting tense as someone approaches, do not hesitate to tell them that it is not the best time for them to interact with your pup. You are always allowed to tell people they cannot pet your dog, especially if you feel like your dog is uncomfortable.
By saying no, you are protecting your dog’s comfort and helping to foster only positive relationships with strangers. You are also ensuring that there is no chance of a dog bite.
Home Safety Tips for Dogs and Kids
Bites, of course, don’t just happen at the park with unfamiliar dogs. If your family includes a dog and young children, it’s important to be proactive about proper dog interactions around the house, as well.
Toddlers, in particular, can be challenging, as they tend to be curious and aren’t yet able to follow rules. Remember, even dogs who are good with children may not appreciate grabby hands.
For promoting safe interactions between your young child and your family dog, Stern offers the following tips for parents of toddlers:
- If your dog is playing with a favorite toy or eating, don’t allow your child to approach. Some dogs are protective of their most valued dog toys or dog food and won’t appreciate being interrupted.
- Always supervise interactions between toddlers and dogs. When this is not possible, set up barriers—like dog gates—to prevent interactions.
- Think about situations ahead of time. For example, before you attempt to make dinner with a toddler and dog clamoring around the kitchen, think through possible issues and solutions. Maybe it’s better if your pup or child spends this time having playtime in a separate room.
- Educate babysitters (including grandparents) about how your dog and toddler should and shouldn’t be allowed to interact. Oftentimes, bites happen when the primary caregiver isn’t supervising.
Remember, young children can be stressful for dogs. As a parent, it’s important to set aside some time to consider how your four-legged family member is feeling.
“Naturally, parents think a lot about their kids’ feelings, but they don’t necessarily think about their dogs’ feelings,” says Stern.
Stern explains that by just knowing your dog’s body language and comfort levels, you can help keep both children and dogs safe. “When you understand your dog, you can understand how to create positive interactions.”