Preventing Bites: To a Dog, a Child is Not a Little Human

For a growing majority of American families, life just would not be complete without the family dog or cat. Per a recent Harris poll, more than three in five American families have pets and 95% of those families consider their pets to be part of the family.

But as our lifestyles tilt more and more toward interspecies inclusion, we must understand that our four-legged friends do not perceive our “modern family” as we do. And therein lies the potential for danger. This is especially true with dogs given their broad range of size and power.

Though dogs form hierarchical relationships with other dogs, they do not do so with humans. Dogs readily differentiate between their species and the adult members of ours and have no inherent desire to be the boss of us (how we sometimes inadvertently train them to manipulate us is another story!). However, dogs do not draw the lines of human/canid distinction when it comes to children.

To a dog, a child is not a small human. It is neither human nor dog; rather, it is a third kind of quizzical being inhabiting the family unit. It is a benign curiosity at best and a threat at worst. Depending on the age of the child, the dog and child are on a much closer physical scale to each other than the dog is to a full-grown human. Frequently, dog and child literally see eye-to-eye.

This parody in size and innocence can be adoring - especially when the child and dog are cuddled close together - and has unleashed floods of unforgettable Facebook and Instagram postings.

But in such closeness there is also room for misunderstanding if the child does not know, for example, that one should never approach a dog head-on and with hands raised. Such an act can be interpreted by a dog as a sign of aggression and the dog - however well-trained - may revert to a biting instinct to protect him or herself against a perceived threat.

In many families the child is too young to understand how to approach and/or play with a dog and close supervision is vital. Infants and toddlers are particularly wrapped in an alternately alluring and confounding package of smells and behaviors unlike our own making them vulnerable to seemingly “random” attacks. Children aged 5-9 years are most at risk, possibly because they are prone to sudden or erratic bursts of activity that may startle a dog.

According to CDC statistics, 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites each year (about half are children). A wide range of dog breeds is involved. These attacks are largely preventable - a fact that is of no consolation to the injured child the stunned family and the dog that may be destined for destruction.

When it comes to pet behavior, many homes are governed by a one-strike-and-yer-out rule. Tragically, shelters are brimming with dogs surrendered because of a lapse in our attention.

An environment in which children and pets can bond provides a wondrous opportunity for sound and loving family values to flourish. Both the child and pet deserve to share safe, secure and happy lives together. This can readily occur if common sense, education and vigilance prevail.

Odor is a powerful identifier for dogs. One can prepare the family dog(s) for the arrival of a newborn by bringing home a swaddling cloth (or some other item carrying the baby’s scent) in advance of the baby’s homecoming. Early mentoring in respect for sentient beings of a different species teaches the child that no one likes to be taunted, have their hair or ears pulled or eyes poked. Teaching children and other adults about a dog’s unique “body language” is an excellent strategy to promote family harmony.

The responsibility for understanding, respecting and reconciling the fact that dogs distinguish children from human adults falls squarely on the human’s shoulders. Using our best judgement, we must decide if, when and how we include pets into the family unit.

No pet within an established place in a family should ever have to suffer the trauma of surrender for lack of human awareness, forethought, and planning.