Downeast Dog News
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Dogs and Kids: Ouch! He bit me!

By Christine D. Calder, DVM, DACVB | Sep 01, 2020

Dog Bite Statistics in the United States:

• The Centers for Disease Control estimates 4.7 million people each year are bitten by a dog

• The majority (51%) of bite victims are children

• Most bites are to children between the ages of 5-9 years

• Over 77% of dogs that bite children belong to family or friends

• Approximately 80% of bites happen in the home

As you can see from the statistics, dog bites are common in the United States, and these are only the ones which have been reported to the Center for Disease Control. The actual number may be much higher due to unreported bites. Dog bites to children are most common and these typically happen during everyday activities with familiar dogs. The question is why? And what can we do about it?

Why do dog bites occur?

This is a good question! Most often it is because children are poor readers of dog body language but then so are many adults. On social media sites, it is not unusual to see dogs displaying various indicators of discomfort such as: licking of their lips, yawning, avoiding direct eye contact, whale eye (more exposed whites of their eyes), lowered head, stiff body, tucked tail when around children. Some dogs even show their teeth and/or growl. These are all clear indicators of discomfort from the dog’s perspective. It is very rare that a dog will bite “without warning.” In fact, it is much more common that we humans are the one’s at fault by misinterpreting or not identifying our dog’s communication with us.

Often the dog’s first choice is to not bite. Many dogs show excellent restraint and tolerance for our rude human body language and invasion of personal space. Some dogs are punished when they growl as it is believed “they should know better.” In other situations, the dog may have an underlying medical condition causing pain and discomfort which then reduces the dog’s tolerance level and increases irritability. Regardless of the cause, it is important to remember that any dog has the potential to bite, and once they do, a bite is much more likely in the future.

Do I punish the growl?

Growling often comes before a bite so remember a growl is a gift. It should be rewarded not punished. We can work with a growl as it is a clear indicator that the dog is uncomfortable. This gives us time to remove the child and/or the dog BEFORE a bite can occur.

My dog has bitten my child, what do I do now?

The first step is to separate the child and dog quickly and place barriers to keep everyone safe. Assess the situation and look at the interaction from the dog’s perspective. What happened before the bite occurred? Was the dog asleep on her bed or the couch? Did your child grab her ear? Tail? Paw? Is your dog in pain?

Step One:

When a bite occurs, a trip to your veterinarian is a priority for a thorough physical examination with any diagnostics needed to identify any underlying causes, especially if this is a new behavior for your dog.

Step Two:

Management, management, management! This means direct adult supervision at all times along with safety tools like basket muzzles, gates, crates, leashes, and tethers. Kids are unpredictable and often scary. With these tools in place, a serious bite is less likely to occur should a break in management occur.

Step Three:

Educate. Educate. Educate! Learn to look for early warning signs of discomfort and stress in your dogs and teach children how to politely interact with dogs. Many dogs might not like hugs and kisses (although they might tolerate it to a point) and some dogs need more personal space. Provide your dog with a “child free” safe haven and encourage your dog to seek out this space. It is better for your dog to choose the avoidance strategy over the aggressive one. Encourage your dog to move away and reward it when it does.

Step Four:

Seek professional help. There are several programs and resources available to you at little to no cost.

• Family Paws Parent Education (familypaws.com) has a free hotline and resources on their website to help navigating life with dogs and kids.

• Pooch Parenting (Poochparenting.net) and The Family Dog (thefamilydog,com) offer free videos for you and your children on body language recognition and how to interact with dogs more appropriately.

• Doggone Safe (doggonesafe.com) provides many resources on becoming a Dog Bite Prevention Expert and their “Be a Tree Program,” They also offer a book titled “A Kids’ Comprehensive Guide to Speaking Dog!”

• Emily D. Levine DVM DACVB and Sarah Rachel Glazer recently published a children’s book titled “Doggy Do’s and Don’ts” which helps teach your kids how to be safe around dogs.

• Sophia Yin and Lili Chin published a book titled “How to Greet a Dog and What to Avoid” along with various posters that can be found here (https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/free-downloads-posters-handouts-and-more/)

Step Five:

Seek out the help of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. We are always here to help and can assess your dog for both medical and mental health conditions that could result in the use of aggression. Sometimes daily and/or situational medications can be helpful in reducing your dog’s emotional discomfort.

Should I give up my dog or have him euthanized?

The short answer is “it depends.” Bites from dogs can be serious. Depending on the root cause rehoming your dog, surrendering your dog to the shelter, and/or euthanasia may be the answer. The long answer “not always.” Once a root cause for the bite is identified, a management strategy and higher level of awareness can be very successful in reducing future bites.

 

Christine D. Calder, DVM, DACVB

Director of Behavior Services at Midcoast Humane