Keeping your kids safe around dogs

I checked the diary and saw my next patient was in for euthanasia. It’s a common part of our job so I don’t think too much would be different here until I walked out and saw a very happy, healthy border collie sitting in reception with its male owner.

Mum wasn’t there. She was at the hospital with their daughter. The dog had bitten the daughter on the face, so the dog was being put to sleep and the daughter had a lot of surgery ahead of her to treat the injuries.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a story I’ve made up. And a similar thing has happened several times during my career. All too often, kids are being bitten by dogs that are known to them, and these bites are almost always preventable.

So how do we go about preventing these types of incidents?

  • Adequate Supervision. ALWAYS supervise children under 10 years of age when around dogs, even family pets.

Anyone who knows my dog, Marvin, would know what a softy he is with people. I still don’t let my kids play with him when my wife or I aren’t around.

If you’re supervising your children around dogs, you have a chance to see the warning signs that the dog is not happy. The dog may stop panting, pull its ears back, roll its eyes or even try to move away from the child. If the child keeps following the dog, keeps jumping on it, or generally continues to upset the dog despite the dog telling the kid (in dog language that it’s not happy), the kid may be bitten.

  • Act early. If you are concerned that your dog may pose a risk to your kids, talk to your vet.

Often with the right information, training (for dog and owner) and careful management the risk can be minimised and bites prevented

  • Never approach a dog which is eating.

When I was a kid, we would be shouted at if we went near a dog which was eating. It was obvious they might bite. Now there seems to be a belief that the dog is at fault if it growls when a kid approaches its food.

For a dog that loves its tucker, food is a very important thing and it is actually being polite in dog language by growling – a growl like this is a dogs way of saying “please go away, this is mine”. Listen to what the dog is saying and respect it.

  • Teach kids to always ask permission before interacting with a strange dog, and respect the owner’s wishes if they say no.

Some dogs don’t like kids. They may be rescue dogs, have had a bad experience with kids, or just hate being crowded. Always check with the owner before patting a dog, and if they say no please understand that there may be a reason for it. Also, learn to look out for the dog becoming stressed – a dog can still bite even if the owner gives permission for you to pat it.

  • Learn to look for signs of discomfort in dogs – ears back, licking lips, eyes rolling, etc.

Dogs will rarely bite without warning, so learn what the warning signs look like.

  • Don’t let kids climb on dogs, lay on them or drape themselves over dogs.

I get so angry when I see “cute” photos on Facebook with a kid sitting on a dog or generally treating the dog badly. More often than not you can see signs of stress in the dog’s body language. Encouraging your kid to treat a dog inappropriately can lead to them being bitten.

  • Make sure kids don’t pursue a dog which is trying to move away from them.

We see a lot of bites occur when the child starts to annoy the dog and the dog moves away. The kid keeps chasing the dog and eventually, the dog can feel cornered. This is when the dog may give a bite as it feels it has no other option to get away from the kid. It may be a “gentle” bite, but the kid still may end up with severe injuries to their face and the dog put to sleep even though it tried to remove itself from the situation.

  • Teach kids to let dogs sniff them before they try to pat the dog.

Proper introductions are just good manners. When patting a dog for the first time, let it sniff your hand. It then has a chance to move away if it doesn’t want to be patted or move closed if it does. When you see dogs meeting each other for the first time they sniff each other and spend a bit of time getting to know the other dog before they start to play. It’s just good dog manners.

  • If attacked, try to keep calm – cover head and face with arms, turn sideways to the dog and try to keep calm.

Try not to scream, flap your arms around or stimulate the dog further. I know this is very hard to do but a lot of noise and movement will potentially make the attack worse.

  • If you are concerned that your pet is a risk to other people or animals, seek veterinary advice before it’s too late.

We find it is rare that there is no warning before a dog attacks someone. If you are concerned about your dog, talk to a vet. They can ensure there is no medical reason for the problem (for example, the dog may be in pain) and give appropriate advice. They may also refer you to an appropriate veterinary behaviourist.

Dog bites are almost always avoidable. Please make sure your kids don’t become a statistic.

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