Dogs and Kids

It's sound advice given frequently: Supervise your dogs and kids while they are together. Breeders warn parents, "Don't leave the dog alone with children, no matter how friendly the breed." Veterinarians advise, "Never leave a dog and a child in the same room together." Dog trainers explain, "All dogs can bite so supervise your dog when you have children over." Everyone knows the drill. So why doesn't it work? Why are there an estimated 800,000 Americans seeking medical attention for dog bites each year, with over half of these injuries to children ages 5-9?

The bites are not a result of negligent parents leaving Fido to care for the baby while mom does household chores, oblivious to the needs of her children. In fact, I've consulted on hundreds of dog bite cases and 95% of the time the parent was standing within 3 feet of the child watching both child and dog when the child was bitten. Parents are supervising. The problem is not lack of supervision. The problem is no one has taught parents what they should be watching.

Parents generally have not received any education on what constitutes good dog body language and what constitutes an emergency between the dog and the child. Parents generally have no understanding of the predictable series of canine body cues that would indicate a dog might bite. And complicating matters further, most parents get confused by the good intentions of the child and fail to see when a dog is exhibiting signs of stress. The good news is all of this is easy to learn! We can all get better at this.

Here is a simple list to help you improve your supervision skills:
  • Watch for loose canine body language. Good dog body language is loose, relaxed, and wiggly. Look for curves in your dog's body when he is around a child. Stiffening and freezing in a dog are not good. If you see your dog tighten his body, or if he moves from panting to holding his breath (he stops panting), you should intervene. These are early signs that your dog is not comfortable.

  • Watch for inappropriate human behavior. Intervene if your child climbs on or attempts to ride your dog. Intervene if your child pulls the ears, yanks the tail, lifts the jowls or otherwise pokes and prods the dog. Don't marvel that your dog has the patience of Job if he is willing to tolerate these antics. And please don't videotape it for YouTube! Be thankful your dog has good bite inhibition and intervene before it's too late.

  • Watch for these three really easy to see stress signals in your dog. All of them indicate you should intervene and separate the child and dog:

    • Yawning outside the context of waking up
    • Half-moon eyes - this means you can see the whites on the outer edges of your dog's eyes.
    • Lip licking outside the context of eating food

  • Watch for avoidance behaviors. If your dog moves away from a child, intervene to prevent the child from following the dog. A dog that chooses to move away is making a great choice. He's saying, "I don't really want to be bothered, so I'll go away." However, when you fail to support his great choice and allow your child to continue to follow him, it's likely the dog's next choice will be, "Since I can't get away, I'll growl or snap at this kid to get the child to move away." Please don't cause your dog to make that choice.

  • Listen for growling. I can't believe how many times I've heard parents say, "Oh, he growled all the time but we never thought he would bite." Dog behavior, including aggression, is on a continuum. For dogs, growling is an early warning sign of aggression. Heed it. If growling doesn't work, the dog may escalate to snapping or biting. Growling is a clue that you should intervene between the dog and the child.

To pet owners, particularly those who also have children, thank you for supervising your dog! As a dog trainer and mother of two, I know that juggling kids and dogs is no easy feat. It takes patience, understanding, and a great deal of supervision. I hope these tips will help you get better at supervising.

Robin Bennett, USA

The following two case stories describe such a critical situation where something could happen if you don't intervene in time.

Linda Kerr, USA
When I visited my sister in Indiana I took Roxie who loves children. I watched her body language closely with a 2 yr old boy. At first she was fine and I was taking pictures of them together. The last picture I took clearly shows she was beginning to get stressed out. Her eyes were looking away from the boy and her tongue flicked out. I immediate told the child that Roxie needed a rest and removed her from the situation. Roxie is the sweetest Corgi but they can only tolerate so much.

Roxie to start with, relaxed

Roxie later on, showing signs of stress

Especially dogs, who are not used to small children chasing them and pulling their ears and hair, could reach their limit of tolerance quickly. I saved that picture as a reminder because it clearly shows in a snapshot second what I could have missed if I weren't watching carefully.

Mary Kaminski, USA
Both of my Cardis have been wonderful with kids. There are always kids in my yard playing with my corgis. But... it's true, dogs give lots of warnings, if only we pay enough attention to what they're saying and understand their language.
A friend came to visit us with her 4 year old. My Yankee was exceptionally good with the little ones. After greeting the child warmly and playing with her for about an hour, Yankee clearly had enough and retreated to her favorite chair in the living room. The child, as children will, wanted to play some more. We distracted the child a few times with other activities, and repeatedly told her to leave the dog alone.

Yankee (Aragorn's Yankee Doodle Dandy)

But she continued to go back to Yankee, who would turn away, squirm and otherwise show her displeasure. Finally, Yankee gave her a very close "air snap" warning; never touched the child but close enough to scare her. Much crying ensued.
Luckily, this child had a very dog-savvy parent who totally understood Yankee's behavior. She even disciplined her child, appropriately for that child's age. Needless to say, had my dog language skills been better back then, I would have taken Yankee upstairs to her crate (her safe space), long before it escalated that far.
In the 16 years we had her, that was the only time she ever did anything like that. But I learned a good lesson that day - every dog, no matter how sweet, can bite when pushed far enough.