Nearly 4,000 people are hospitalised in Australia every year due to dog-related injuries, with dog bites amongst the most common. We often blame the dog and, in so many instances, we’re right to do so. However, it’s important that everyone, especially children, are dog safety aware. Some dog bites can be prevented with the right precautions.

We spoke to Richard Cross, editor of TheDogClinic.com about the importance of teaching children how to interact with a new dog, both for their safety and the dog’s wellbeing:

Sadly, I’ve known many dogs who have ended up in rescues because they showed aggression towards a child. This is a terrible situation for the family and dog, especially as it’s often avoidable,” Richard tells Mum Central.

“One example was an adolescent cockapoo that had bitten a child’s arm. Fortunately, the bite wasn’t hard, and there was no lasting damage. But it understandably caused the family to lose trust and feel they had to give up the dog for adoption.

During the behavioural questionnaire, it became clear that the child had been picking up the dog from its bed without warning. The dog usually tolerated this behaviour, but he was deeply asleep this particular time. So when the child grabbed him, he was startled and reacted instinctively with a defensive bite.

The result was that the dog ended up in a rescue with a history of aggression, even though the reaction was understandable given the situation. This history makes dogs challenging to rehome.

The good news is that teaching your child a few simple rules can drastically reduce the chances of a negative interaction. Richard shares his top dog safety tips below:

First and foremost, never leave a child alone with a dog

Young children should never be left unattended with a dog – even a family pet. Keep the dog and child separated if an adult isn’t in the room. Nothing can replace supervision.

This isn’t just important for your child’s safety. As dog owners, it’s our responsibility to ensure our dog feels comfortable and happy. A child can’t be expected to know when a dog needs a break, so it’s essential to manage their interactions to keep everyone safe and content.

Respect a dog’s space and independence

A dog isn’t a toy. It’s vital to establish good habits early on, as behaviour that a puppy might tolerate could become a trigger later in the dog’s life.

microchip children

This is why bites can seem to come without warning. In reality, they are often the result of a child repeatedly doing something the dog didn’t enjoy until eventually the dog felt forced to escalate.

Children shouldn’t pick up a dog (even if it’s a puppy) or pull it around. Likewise, if the dog walks away, the child shouldn’t follow or chase them. It’s also important for the child to understand that the dog can only play for short periods before it needs a break.

Additionally, you should watch for signs of stress or fear when your child is playing with a dog. These can include:

  • Yawning
  • Lip licking
  • Turning away from the child
  • Hunched posture
  • Lowered tail
  • Whining
  • Growling
  • Snarling

If you notice any of these signals, ask your child to move away and give the dog some space. As your child gets older, you can also teach them to watch for stress signals themselves.

Allow the dog the option of moving away

Feeling trapped is one of the most common reasons a dog reacts negatively to a child. A child may try to give a hug, but this could make the dog feel unable to move. Or the child might accidentally block the dog into a corner of the room when they want to escape.

The dog will often signal they are uncomfortable with the situation, but it’s easy for a child to miss body language clues.

Be gentle!

Teach your children how dogs like to be petted. Most dogs prefer a gentle stroke on the chest, rather than being patted on the head. You should also teach the child not to pull on any part of the dog, including hair, ears, or tail.

Don’t try to take their toys 

Some dogs become possessive of their toys or other objects. This can happen quickly and unexpectedly. For example, it’s not uncommon for a dog to ignore a toy for hours, only to suddenly act as if it’s his most prized possession when a new person enters the room. Quite similar to toddlers, actually.

Dogs usually provide body language signals to warn when they are protective of an object. These include turning their heads away, a hunched posture, a tense body, and lip licking.

However, it can be challenging for children to notice these body language signals. Therefore, teaching them never to take anything from the dog is much safer.

Let sleeping dogs lie 

One of the most important rules for children is that they should never disturb a sleeping dog. No one likes being woken up unexpectedly – and dogs are no exception.

jobs we put off - worming the pets

Leave the food bowl alone too 

Dogs should always be left alone when they are eating. This includes chew toys and treats, along with the dog’s dinner. Young children may find this rule difficult to understand, so it’s a good idea to put your dog in a separate room when eating.

On a similar note, children shouldn’t feed a dog from their own meals or snacks. This can quickly teach the dog to beg or steal food from the child.

Never approach unknown dogs without permission

A family pet can be a brilliant way to teach children not to be scared of dogs. The dog will quickly become part of the family, which has been shown to increase a child’s empathy and confidence around animals.

However, a potential downside is that young children may not understand that not all dogs are happy to be approached.

For this reason, teach your child that they must get permission from both you and the dog’s owner before greeting a dog.

If permission is granted, here’s the right way for a child to approach a dog:

  1. Allow the dog to move towards the child, rather than the child moving towards it. If the dog moves away or stands still, they don’t want to be approached.
  2. Keep the arms by the sides initially. Then, as the dog approaches, allow the dog to sniff the child’s hand while watching their behaviour.
  3. If the dog seems relaxed, the child can pet them on the chest or back. Avoid touching the head (and don’t allow the child to hug the dog).
  4. After briefly petting the dog, ask your child to stop to check if the dog has had enough. Two common signals are that the dog moves away or freezes. If the dog stays close to the child and appears relaxed, they can continue to be petted.

What if a dog is showing aggression? 

“Aggression” is nearly always caused by fear, stress, or anxiety.

Growling or snarling is the dog’s way of communicating that he’s upset, so don’t scold the dog for these behaviours. Punishment just causes extra stress and makes the situation worse. It can also cause a dog to skip growling next time and bite without warning.

Instead, give the dog some space and work out what caused the response. If it’s something that can be avoided (such as the dog getting defensive of its food bowl), put in place a plan to stop the situation from happening again. But if the behaviour happens regularly, contact a dog behaviourist who can help you develop a behaviour modification program.

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