With their boundless affection, endearing friskiness, and unconditional loyalty, dogs can be wonderful pets that greatly enrich the lives of their owners. Of course, many kids relish the thought of having a canine companion to grow up with. In some instances, however, encounters between children and dogs can take a decidedly negative turn, with the dog becoming aggressive and potentially delivering a nasty, painful bite.
In many cases, such negative encounters between kids and dogs can be attributed to owner missteps, such as failing to provide the dog proper training, socialization, and containment/control at home and on walks. However, educating dog owners is only half the bite-prevention equation. Even a well-trained, typically gentle dog can behave aggressively if it feels threatened or provoked, so it’s equally important for parents and other caregivers to educate their children on how to interact safely with dogs. That education should start at an early age—just as we start early teaching kids about traffic safety, fire safety, water safety, “stranger danger,” and other important safety issues.
The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) offers parents and other caregivers the following tips to keep kids safe around our canine companions (source: avma.org):
- Avoid unknown dogs. If you see a dog you don’t know wandering around loose and unsupervised, avoid the dog, consider leaving the area, and consider alerting animal control.
- Before petting a dog, always ask the owner for permission—even if it’s a dog you know or a dog that seemed friendly toward you before.
- If confronted by an aggressive dog, confidently and quietly walk away. If the dog goes after you, stand still, then take a defensive position. (To help a child visualize a good defensive posture, tell him or her to “be a tree”—stand quietly with their hands low and clasped in front of them, remain still, and keep their head down as if looking at their feet.) If you’re knocked down, cover your head and neck with your arms and curl into a ball.
- Avoid escalating the situation by yelling, running, hitting, or making sudden movements toward the dog.
- Don’t bother a dog in its bed or crate. A bed or crate should be considered the dog’s safe space where kids shouldn’t go. If you’re using a crate, it should be covered with a blanket and located near a family area, such as in your living room or another area of your home where the family frequently spends time. Do not isolate your dog or his/her crate, or you may accidentally encourage bad behavior.
- Educate children at a level they can understand. Don’t expect young children to be able to accurately read a dog’s body language. Instead, focus on gentle behavior, explain that dogs have likes and dislikes, and help them develop an understanding of dog behavior as they grow older.
- Teach children that a dog has to want to play with them. When the dog leaves, let it go. It will return for more play if it wants to.
- Never tease dogs by taking their toys, food, or treats or by pretending to hit or kick.
- Never drag a dog around or try to dress up a dog. Some dogs don’t like to be dressed up.
- Never pull a dog’s ears or tail or climb on/try to ride dogs.
- Keep dogs out of infants’ and young children’s rooms unless there is direct and constant supervision.
- As a parent, report stray dogs or dogs that frequently get loose in your neighborhood.
- Leave the dog alone when it’s asleep or eating.
- As a parent, don’t give kids too much responsibility for pets too early. They may not be ready. Always supervise and check on pet-care responsibilities given to children to ensure they are carried out.
When it comes to safe interaction between kids and dogs, the key is establishing appropriate boundaries and behavioral expectations for both. Dog owners are also urged to spay or neuter their pets (which helps to reduce aggression), license them, and ensure that their immunizations are up to date. Also, consider taking advantage of classes that cover the dos and don’ts of dog ownership, training techniques, and what to expect when kids and dogs interact.