News On Dog Attacks Is Scary – Is Your Dog “Child Friendly”?

This year alone, we seem to be hearing more and more stories in the news about dog attacks, even among us trainers we notice the increase of instances! But no headline stops our hearts as much as when we see ‘Child Mauled by Family Dog’. So it stands to reason that parents who were not concerned before, are now (understandably) worried if their own lovable family pet they’ve had for years would be capable of inflicting harm to their child, and question if they would be able to tell the difference between a ‘typical’ puppy teething nip, and when it may be a pre-curser to a more serious issue.

The fact is, young puppies have sharp needle-like teeth, and It hurts when they nip! And if they happen to get just the right spot, or nip a child’s tender fragile skin, a puppy meaning no harm can still draw blood from a nip! So how can you tell the meaning behind it and when you should be concerned?

The first place to start in answering some of these questions would be to better define certain words that are thrown around in the media a bit too quickly…. The top two being “Attack” and “Aggression.” When I’m talking to a customer, and they say, “My dog keeps attacking my son” I have to consciously remind myself to ask many questions… because usually, after a few simple answers from them, I can ascertain that they just mean the dog keeps running up to and jumping on their child… not that this is okay or acceptable behavior, but definitely a far cry from the dog ‘attacking’ their child.

In Miriam Webster’s Dictionary, the words aggression and attack go hand-in-hand with the words “forceful”, “hostile” and “offensive against”.  If this doesn’t sound like your dog, then before we get into some of the things you may want to keep an eye on, hopefully this will help ease your worry about two things that probably shouldn’t keep you up at night.

So now that we have a better understanding of these two words, often, it all boils down to intent. There are many signs your dog will emit regarding their intent long before an actual bite occurs. Although on occasion it does happen, it is very rare that a dog will suddenly strike out without provocation or warning signs. The problem is for the average every day person, those signs can be very subtle. To learn more about what your dog’s body might be telling you, please read my previous article.

But for now, let’s break down some things to be wary of, and then add in some important ‘do’s and don’ts’.

First…if you have a puppy:

  1. Warning signs you might want to be aware of:
  • A pup that is guarding their food or Toys: When they are eating or chewing a toy, if they suddenly stop and their body seems to ‘freeze’ whenever there is movement around them, it can be cause for concern. If you see this behavior, do not allow the kids around the pup until you investigate further. A safe way for YOU to test this is to tie the leash to something strong, solid and unmovable. Before attaching him to the leash, see how far the leash extends in any given direction. Now put him on the leash, put his food bowl down within his reach and walk away. Once he starts eating, calmly and assertively walk by (taking care to remain outside of the leash’s reach) and watch his reaction closely. If he reacts negatively in any way (growling, lunging, freezing, etc.) or you are unsure, it might be a good idea to call in a professional to evaluate him. A great resource to find a professional trainer near you is the International Association of Canine Professionals
  • A pup that is relentlessly biting, no matter how often you correct it: Again, this could be a major issue later on. Many scientists did extensive research on this and found that there are many vital and valuable lessons a pup receives through play with the mother and littermates. Sometimes when a pup is separated from them too soon (prior to eight weeks of age) there are certain behavioral issues that are often very difficult to break because they do not learn bite-inhibition… they don’t understand that biting really hurts!  In this scenario, early intervention is essential.
  • Any pup showing early signs of neurological deficits: Walking with their head constantly leaning to one side, their gait unsteady, etc. Make sure you discuss any concerns you may have with your vet.
  1. Some Important Do’s:
  • Encourage calm, gentle interactions and petting of the puppy by all members of the family. Just like you did “Tummy Time” with your baby, encourage “Back Time” with your pup. Put them on their backs and while holding them there, gently stroke them. This is a submissive position for a dog/pup and allows you to be the ‘alpha’ (or top dog). Make sure to also gently rub and message their paws… including the pads… on a regular basis right from the start. You’re building trust and bonding with your puppy
  • Remember that at this stage, everything is a learning experience for your pup, so start setting the rules and boundaries in place immediately. At this life-stage, they are thirsty for knowledge and desperately want to please you!
  • Make sure everything ‘matches’: Your body language, tone, and your words. If they are doing something wrong, don’t say the word ‘NO’ softly to them while continuing to pet them. When we tell a child no, it is usually coupled with a denial of a privilege or the removal or refusal of something they want. Thus, the word quickly gains its meaning for them. But if you are petting your pup and cooing, “no, no” you confuse the meaning of the word. Stop the petting, stiffen your body slightly (this clearly tells them you are not happy with their actions) and say “NO!” very clearly. When they stop what they are doing, relax your posture, lower your voice and praise calmly.
  1. Some Important Don’ts:
  • When playing, don’t wiggle your fingers in their face or make your hands a toy. Remember, teaching them first that this is an okay form of play, then getting upset when they’re biting your hand is a very confusing mixed message for them.
  • Be aware not to just replace your hand with a toy when they’re nipping without including a correction first. Correcting before replacing is a very important step you don’t want to miss… otherwise the message they get is ‘if I want their attention or a toy, all I have to do is bite their hand first!’ Remember that pups are all about cause and effect – action and reaction.
  • Don’t forget that even in play, your pup is learning the do’s and don’t of your world. Playing fetch? Don’t just throw the ball, grab it out of their mouth when they return and throw it again…. This is a great opportunity to teach them, “DROP IT,” “SIT,” and “STAY.” It helps them learn boundaries, limits, impulse control, and builds trust that you’re not trying to ‘steal’ their toy, but if they give it to you, the game can continue and is much more fun! Add in that if you have youngsters in the house, teaching your pup to give you what is in their mouth on command is vital: it reduces the chance of ‘possession aggression’ and the possible risk of your child going to take something from their mouths and getting bitten.
  • Lastly (for this article anyway, because a pup’s training never really ends!) don’t wrestle with them or allow them to jump on you during play. A 5 lb. pup at eight weeks old jumping on you may not seem like a big deal, but it will be hard for them to understand why you suddenly do not want it anymore when they are 40 lbs.!

So what about the dog you already have? 

  1. Warning signs you might want to be aware of:
  • Not sure you can predict how your dog is going to react by their body language? Here are some suggestions: When it comes to your dog, you need to keep an eye on the overall picture. Don’t go by just a wagging tail. How they are holding their tail? Is it standing straight up, or tucked between their legs with just the tip wagging? Is the fur standing up on the back of their neck? Is their head up or lowered and level with their back? If you are not sure… please do not take chances.; call a professional in to evaluate them.

I recently had a client who called me in for their dog’s aggressive issues, and told me, “He bites without warning.” After working with him for 45 minutes, he was lying down and nodding off.  I asked them all to look closely and tell me if the dog looked relaxed to them. They laughed and all agreed he was very relaxed. Then I pointed out what I saw…. The muscles in his shoulders and back legs were tight and rigid, toes were curled, ears were back… I did NOT see a relaxed dog. To prove my point, I made sure they had a good hold on the leash, then I got up and took a few steps forward. The owners were shocked as the dog sprang to life in full defensive mode. If I had moved without making sure they had a firm grip on the leash, he would have successfully gotten to me.

  • What if your dogs actions indicate they’re highly fearful?
    • First, don’t assume in the ‘fight or flight’ scenario, they will always choose flight and run away! This can be a very dangerous assumption! It gives you a false sense of security when your dog typically ‘slinks away’ from something they are afraid of, allowing you to lower your guard. You never know what ‘trigger’ might put them over the edge. I’m not sure the exact number, but I do know a huge percentage of dogs that bite strike out of fear. It is vital that you work on confidence building skills with them such as following commands. Dogs who are focused, mentally stimulated, and understand exactly what is expected of them are much more solid and stable animals.
    • Second, and most importantly, do not coddle or pity them!! This is the worst thing you can do! It encourages the negative behavior even more! In the wild, there is no empathy or sympathy. Pack members instinctively align themselves with and respect the “strong” pack leader. They know… A leader will keep them alive…. a weak member may get them killed. The pack leader keeps order by setting clear cut boundaries, limits, and rules. Your fearful dog will gain a sense of security when they know exactly what it is you want and expect of them.  When you become the pack leader they will respect, depend on and listen to you.

Finally, I will say what I always say: Children should NEVER be left alone and unattended with any dog.  Even the most calm, stable, and non-reactive dog can ‘have a moment’ where they do not want to be bothered, or they might be having some pain you are unaware of, or not feeling well. Remember, a bite can happen in the blink of an eye!

To wrap this up, remember that choosing the right puppy from the get-go really can make a huge difference in the relationship with your entire family, especially the kids. But if the pup or dog is already established in the household, there are many things you can do to establish and maintain a peaceful  and safe home. And one last note to add…. A nipping pup is normal…. They are teething… and just like it did for your human baby, the chewing helps soothe the pain. Correcting the behavior and giving them something you deem acceptable to chew on will help your dog to understand that you are in charge, that there are boundaries and limits they must adhere to and will help them build a healthy respect and bond with you and your family that will last their lifetime.

About the Author

I trained as an EMT in NY, than recertified in Atlanta. I loved being an EMT and was involved with it for several years. I worked on the “Rainbow Response Unit” at Egleston’s Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, and when not on a call, worked in the PICU and NICU, which was both a blessing as well as a heartache because I learned and saw so much. Helping to create a child safety seat for ambulances was my way of making sure children who were already compromised health-wise, would not be put in any more danger. When I realiized I could no longer be an EMT due to medical reasons, I found an alternate outlet for my desire to nuture and protect; I became a dog trainer...something that was always a second love and passion for me. Now, whenever possible, I combine my passion for children and canines by working to make the world a safer place for both. Suzanne is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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