Since we rehabilitate aggressive dogs, there are so many different dog bites that we have dealt with over the years. In honor of Dog Bite Prevention Week, we want to address one particular type... when your dog bites a child.
This is a particularly difficult type of bite. When we bring a dog into our home and love them and treat them as a member of the family, it feels like a betrayal when they bite us. It is also a scary reminder that as much as we love dogs, they are an animal.
Almost all of these bites occur because of a miscommunication. Dogs can only speak to us in their own language. A dog will generally give you 3-5 different warning signs before a bite occurs. The problem is that most of them are silent. It generally starts with the dog freezing, then a hard stare, followed by a slight lip curl, a growl, then a warning snap and finally a bite. This is a very predictable pattern of steps but as a dog gets older, they will usually start skipping steps. They may go right from a freeze to a snap and skip the other steps in between.
If adults are not paying attention enough to see these signs, what are our children expected to do? We expect our dogs to put up with any behavior our children exhibit. I've met dogs who were literally looking at me begging for help to translate their message = "I'm NOT happy with this!". Children should not be allowed to hug dogs, hang on them or lay on top of them. I was attending a behavioral training seminar where they showed a video of a young child, probably around 5, hugging his older yellow lab. When they showed the video, everyone in the audience said "Awwww…how cute.". Then they showed the video in slow motion. You could see the dog's complete discomfort with the situation. The dog froze and was giving a hard stare. A room full of training professionals missed the dog's cues when the video was played at regular speed. Now, in their defense, most of them did not study behavior. They were obedience trainers and were not trained to look for this type of body language. Plus, this was a family's yellow lab. Yellow lab's don't bite, right? WRONG! Any dog can bite.
Think of it in personal terms. When you are having a bad or an off day, how do you feel about someone invading your personal space and hanging on you? Sometimes you want to just say no - even to your kids. Have you ever accidentally had an outburst at your kids, yelling at them because you were having a bad day? Every parent has done this. Dog's also have good and bad days. How do they say NO? Start to pay attention to your dog. If your dog is regularly getting up and moving away from your child, they are saying NO. If you do not teach your child to respect your dog's personal space, eventually your dog will say NO in a different way.
Hugging is a primate thing - we love to hug and enjoy the feeling of support and love. Canine's do not hug. Dogs will exhibit behaviors that may look like hugging, but it's not. They can learn to tolerate it from their silly humans but most do not enjoy it. It is also much different when your dog is initiating a snuggle compared to you or your child trying to initiate it. Children should not be allowed to hug dogs under any circumstance. Children should also not be allowed to climb on or lay on dogs. Most dogs view children as a lower ranking pack member or a 'litter mate'. In dog language this means your dog has the right to tell them NO. The way a dog says NO is much different than the way we tell a child NO.
Please start to pay attention to your dog's silent language. Please start to educate your children on appropriate behavior and interactions with your dog. I have seen too many dogs who have bite a child in the family because they just couldn't take it anymore and they can pay for that with their life. Once a dog has bitten, most families no longer feel safe with that dog in their home. Once a dog has bitten, most rescues and shelters will not rehome that dog. Spend a little bit of time learning more about dog body language to show your dog that you are listening to them and that you do understand. Your dog's life may depend on it!