Updated: Mar 13
The statistics of dog bites to humans are fairly well documented in the USA. According to the Center for Disease Control, most dog bites are to children between the ages of 5 and 9 years old. Eighty percent of bites to children are from the family dog, or from a dog belonging to a neighbor.
This is not new information for me. As a former humane educator who ran a dog bite prevention program in many classrooms, camps and daycare centers, this was information that I kept in mind when creating my lessons.
Traditionally educators presenting a dog bite prevention program have focused on what children should do if they encounter a loose, stray dog. Considering the fact that the majority of bites are from dogs that are known to the child, it doesn’t make sense for us to spend a lot of time teaching children about stray dogs, when what they really need to know is how to avoid dog bites from the dog that lives in their home.
You might be thinking “Why not teach them about both topics?” I am a firm believer that children will only retain a certain amount of information. I would rather teach them dog safety rules for situations that they’re more likely to encounter, then the situation that may never even happen. I believe that by limiting the material to the more likely scenario, that children will be more likely to remember when it’s important.
So, what should we teach children about how to stay safe around dogs? I have a whole slew of ideas, but I would sum it up with the fact that we need to teach children to respect dogs, just as we would teach children to respect any human being that they engage with.
There’s this idea some people have that dogs should tolerate anything that children do to them. Unfortunately, there are a lot of videos and photographs on the Internet with children doing things with dogs that are extremely inappropriate. I’ve seen photographs with children riding on the back of the dog as though it’s a pony. I’ve seen videos of children grabbing a dog’s face, and laying down on top of it.
These photos and videos get a lot of likes and exclamations about how cute they are. However, to a professional dog trainer, in many cases the dog is exhibiting body language that indicates that the dog does not like what’s happening.
I’ve seen comments on some of these postings in which somebody will indicate that the dog is not happy, and these types of comments get a lot of backlash from people who comment in response that the person being too negative; that the dog is fine.
Maybe the dog is “fine”, and is extremely tolerant, and the child is perfectly safe. But just because the dog is “fine” and wouldn’t ever think of snapping at, much less biting a child, it doesn’t mean the child should be allowed to do whatever they want to the dog.
We spend a lot of time trying to teach children to respect others through helping them develop empathy. We want them to learn self-control by understanding that just because they want to do something, it doesn’t mean that they can or should do it.
Additionally, teaching children about consent at an early age has become increasingly popular. Allowing them to reject hugs and kisses from distant relatives is encouraged, and teaching them that when other children ask not to be touched or want to be left alone, they need to honor that.
Interacting with pets is a great way to start teaching a child about all those values. Here are some examples of simple ways we can help children learn about respect and empathy:
• When the dog is on his bed chewing on his bone, he’s communicating he wants to be left alone.
• Dogs are not horses and it’s disrespectful to try to ride them, and additionally you can hurt the dog by doing so.
• Don't go to the dog to give attention, pat your leg and call the dog's name. If he's in the mood to play with you he will come to you. If not he will stay put and you need to respect that and leave him alone. • If the dog tries to get up and leave, you need to let him. He’s telling you he doesn’t want to interact with you right now.
Why do dogs bite?
Dogs always have a reason for biting, and despite claims to the contrary, dogs do not bite unprovoked. And remember that the dog decides what is provoking. Just because you thought you were being friendly, or that you weren’t doing anything scary doesn’t mean that’s how the dog interprets it.
Dogs communicate primarily through body language. If the dog didn’t growl or bark, it doesn’t mean the dog didn’t attempt to give a warning signal. There are all sorts of warning signals that dogs give off that may be missed if you aren’t educated at “reading dog.”
Dogs usually bite because they are frightened, are feeling threatened, are concerned about a resource, or are in pain. By teaching children what they could do that may make a dog feel they need to bite, and teaching them to respect the dog’s feelings, we can prevent most dog bites from happening.
One common way in which children are often bit by a dog is when they try to interact with the dog when the dog is not in the mood. Children often want to pick up puppies or small dogs as if they are stuffed toys, go up to the dog as it's resting or chewing on something and give it a kiss or a hug, or even just try to pet a dog as it's relaxing.
Children should be taught not to go to the dog, but to ask the dog to come to them. This is the way that children can find out if the dog actually wants their attention, or if the dog wants to be left alone. If the dog wants to be left alone it will not go to the children and they need to learn to respect that.
There are other things we should be teaching children about how to interact with a dog that will not only impart a message of respect, but will also prevent a dangerous dog interaction.
How to properly greet a dog
A common instruction to children on how to approach a dog that doesn't know you, is to ask the owner for permission. Sometimes the next step in this advice is that once the owner gives permission, the child should approach, and let the dog sniff their hand before petting.
While the first part of this advice is reasonable, it doesn’t go far enough. And the second part should be eliminated altogether.
I like to tell children that the proper way to greet a dog is to first ask the owner and once granted permission, they need to ask the dog. While it’s true that dogs cannot verbally consent, through their behavior dogs can indicate if they would like attention or not.
Children should remain where they are and verbally address the dog while patting their leg. If the dog doesn’t come towards the child, that means “no”. And “no” should be respected. If the dog comes closer to the child that means yes.
There is no need for a person to place their hand in front of a dog’s nose to let them smell you. Dogs have an incredible sense of smell and are easily able to pick up a person’s scent from quite a distance away. If they really want a sniff when the child approaches, the dog will do so without needing a hand 2 inches from their face.
Children should be taught never to pet a barking dog. Dogs that are barking are over stimulated and not calm enough to control themselves. An over stimulated dog is one that is more likely to be mouthy, or jump and knock a child over.
Dogs also don’t like hands going up over the top of their heads, and so the best place for a child to pet is on the shoulders.
3 second rule
Some dogs will come closer to a person, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want petting. Teaching children the three second rule of petting is a great way to teach them about getting consent and respecting what other’s want.
The three second rule is easy to remember. Pet for 3 seconds, remove your hands and wait to see what the dog does. The dog may move closer or stay put, in which case you repeat the three seconds of petting, remove your hands and wait for the dog’s answer. If the dog moves away then the answer is that the dog does not want petting.
Dogs don’t like hugs
When I tell people this, I will very often hear the response “No, my dog LOVES hugs!” That may well be, or it could be that your dog puts up with your hugs because you’re family.
In any case, the interactions we have with our own dogs should be very different than the way we behave with dogs that don’t belong to us. This is no different than behaving one way with a parent, but a different way with the lady checking you out at the cash register at the grocery store each week.
Children should learn that because there is a relationship with the family dog, they need to behave differently with other people’s dogs.
Oh, and it is true that most dogs do not like hugs. This is not a natural way for a dog to express affection, and while our own dogs will put up with their human’s silliness, they may not put up with it from an outsider. Time and again I’ve heard stories of people going to hug a dog and getting bit in the face. Teach children not to hug dogs!
Teach children how to speak dog
Dogs communicate primarily through body language, and it can take knowledge and practice to be able to understand all of their signals. When I worked in humane education and first introduced children to learning how to read canine body language, I was concerned it would be too difficult for them to learn.
I was surprised and delighted that most kids ages 8 and up were able to pick up on even subtle signals being thrown off by the shelter dogs they saw in our programs. And when I presented dog safety for preschoolers, even 3, 4 and 5 year old children were able to understand the 3 or 4 signals I taught them.
Being able to speak dog is a great way for children to feel empathy for dogs because they can understand some of the emotions that the dog is trying to communicate. And coaching children to modify their behavior depending on the dog’s body language is not only a kindness to the dog, but will help keep kids safe.
There are some really great resources for teaching kids this important skill:
Doggone Safe has a fantastic website with free materials. They also sell the Doggone Crazy Board Game, which is tremendously fun and a great way for kids to learn.
Artist Lili Chin has some fun, amazing, free downloadable posters on her website that kids will love looking at.
She also has a book entitled “Doggy Language”.
The Family Dog YouTube Channel has some really fun videos that both kids and adults will enjoy.
Dog Communication Myths
A lot of people think that growling is “naughty” behavior, and even worse there are a number of people that punish a dog for growling. This may go back to the idea that dogs should tolerate anything that humans do to them.
Growling is actually important communication by the dog saying that they are extremely uncomfortable with the situation that they are in. The dog hopes that growling will be the only thing they have to do to deescalate the situation. However, if growling doesn’t work, most dogs are willing to escalate their behavior in order to reduce the threat they feel they are under. Unfortunately escalation many times means resorting to biting.
Growling should never be punished. It’s good information that lets us know what makes a dog uncomfortable. In the moment it means that we can back off and give the dog some space. It also means that it tells us what training we need to do to make the dog feel more comfortable in the same situation in the future.
Punishing a dog for growling may be effective in stopping the dog from growling, but it does nothing to remove the dog’s feelings of being threatened in certain situations. Since that ability to communicate vocally has been removed, many dogs go right to the next step which is snapping, nipping or even biting.
Children should be taught that when a dog growls, they need to immediately stop what they were doing, and move away from the dog. The child should also tell an adult what happened so that the dog’s owner knows there’s a problem and can prevent that situation from occurring in the future through management.
Dog tail wagging
One of the biggest myths out there is that a wagging tail means the dog is friendly. Unfortunately, I hear adults tell children this all the time. I’ve also heard many stories from people of all ages that they thought it was ok to pet the dog that bit them because the tail was wagging.
The fact is that dogs wag their tails through a variety of different emotions, with the tail carriage and type of wagging changing depending on what the dog is feeling. Dogs will wag their tails when they’re frustrated, over-excited, defensive, worried and happy.
One thing I like to tell kids is that a dog will chase a squirrel up a tree and then jump at the tree barking with their tail wagging. I’ll ask the kids if the squirrel should see that the tail is wagging, assume the dog is friendly and come down to say “hi” to the dog? The message hits home with that example!
Management and Supervision
Babies and very young children should never be left alone with a dog. Things can happen in the blink of an eye, or even in the amount of time it takes to throw a load into the washer. Creating a routine where the dog learns to be happy in a crate or separate room when you can’t watch dog/child interactions 100% of the time will help your dog feel safe, and keep your child safe.
As children get older and you see them consistently treating the dog with respect you can start leaving them alone together for a few minutes here and there, expanding the amount of time as your child ages and you see the dog/child relationship is one of mutual consideration.
Dog bites aren’t just physically painful, and potentially physically scarring, they also leave an emotional toll as well. The majority of children I meet that are afraid of dogs have had a bad experience with the dog in their past. Children who have actually been bitten by a dog can be traumatized and fearful of dogs for the rest of their lives.
Most dog bites are preventable. It just takes a little bit of education, and management to ensure that everyone stays safe.
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