Are Children Safe With Your Dog?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN SOUTH AFRICA
TWO-YEAR-OLD Sydney wandered too close to an aggressive Rottweiler that was tied up. The dog attacked, damaged Sydney’s scalp, and almost removed his left ear. He will need a series of skin grafts.
Because more people use dogs for protection, there are increasing reports of dog attacks on children. Some dogs that have been known to bite children are Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, bullmastiffs, Alsatians (German shepherds), and bullterriers. A survey conducted in South Africa revealed that of the cases examined, the majority of children bitten were attacked by dogs they knew. Nearly half of those were victims of neighbors’ dogs, and one quarter were bitten by their own dogs. Stray dogs accounted for only 10 percent of the attacks. Often the victim, perhaps without realizing it, had provoked the dog in some way. Evidently, many dog attacks can be avoided if dog owners and parents take some basic precautions.
Train the Child
Many dog trainers stress that small children and dogs should not be left alone without adult supervision. Small children do not know how to treat animals. They must be taught. Thus, many people apply the rule that if a responsible adult cannot be present, dogs and small children are kept in separate areas. Trainer Brian Kilcommons observes in the book Childproofing Your Dog: “From the stories we hear, the majority of problems occur when adult eyes are elsewhere.”
Often, animals need protection from children! Kilcommons was called for help when one family’s dog snapped at a child. The distraught father explained that his two-and-a-half-year-old son ran up to the sleeping dog and gave it a sound kick. The dog, obviously in pain, responded by snapping at the child. In this situation the dog showed commendable restraint in not biting the child. This trainer advises parents: “Do not allow your child to do to a dog what you would not allow done to another child.”
Teach your child how to treat animals kindly. Teach him never to tease a dog. Parents need to be alert to spot any possible dangers when children and dogs are together. If you notice the dog trying to get away or hide from a child, stop the child from pursuing it. If the child follows and corners the dog, its only defense is to bark, growl, or even bite. Parents should discipline consistently, so that both dog and child know that the parent means what he says.
Do not treat the dog as an outcast. When a married couple with a dog have their first baby, the tendency may be to ignore the dog and banish it to the backyard. While it is sensible to take precautions, trainer Richard Stubbs advises: “The dog should not be treated as an outcast. Rather, maintain the dog’s routine as far as possible, and give it a reasonable amount of attention.”
Consider how your child will respond to strange dogs. If he sees a stranger walking a dog in the street, what will he do? Run up compulsively to pet the dog? Teach him not to do this. He must first ask the owner’s permission. Then, if the owner agrees, he can move toward the dog slowly, so as not to frighten it. He should introduce himself by standing a little distance away and speaking calmly to the dog. The friendly dog will approach your child. Dogs walking the streets unattended are best left alone.—See the box “Dog Body Language,” page 22.
Train the Dog
Always praise your dog and be positive. Punishment or harsh words do not speed up learning but rather have the opposite effect. It is good for a dog to learn to come when it is called and also to obey basic commands like “sit!” The dog learns submission to its master, and this gives the owner better control in tricky situations. Simple words and phrases work best. Stick to the same ones. When your dog performs the desired action, give a reward immediately in the form of praise, a pat, or a tidbit. To have the desired reinforcing effect, the reward must be given immediately after the act. The next important element is repetition until the behavior is firmly fixed.
If you acquire a dog, either a puppy or an older dog, it may need assistance to get used to children. Children react differently from adults. They are noisier and more impulsive and are likely to rush at a dog, which may give it a fright. It is good to get your pet used to such erratic behavior. When the children are not around, get the dog accustomed to sudden noise. Make the training into a game. Shout a command at the dog, and rush toward it. Then, immediately reward your dog. Make your shouts progressively louder. Make a fuss over your pet. Soon it will enjoy this game.
Small children like to hug dogs, but they should be taught not to do this, since some dogs feel threatened by such close contact. In case children do hug your dog, you can train it to accept this. Give your dog a hug for a brief period, then a tidbit and praise. Gradually make your hugs longer. If your dog growls or snarls, get help from a qualified trainer.
The Aggressive Dog
Some dogs seem to be aggressive by nature and may be a danger to members of the household. Male dogs are more likely to manifest these aggressive characteristics.
The dominant dog does not like to be handled, especially around sensitive areas like the face and neck. At other times, though, the dog may approach you, nudge you, or even put its paws on your lap, “asking” for attention. It may guard strategic areas of the home, not even allowing family members access to them. It is often possessive of objects like toys and may growl or stop chewing when approached while it is busy with them.
To reinforce their leadership, such dogs will ignore known commands deliberately. They may bump into children or expect to go through a doorway first. They may also be inclined to mount people. This, states Brian Kilcommons, is “an act of dominance” and is “not about sex.” He warns that this “is always a sign that the dog thinks he is in charge. Trouble is most definitely on its way.” The dog may also develop the habit of taking its owner’s hand in its mouth to demand attention.
These signs of aggression should not be ignored. The aggression will not simply go away; it is more likely to increase, and children in the home may be in danger. Many trainers recommend having such a dog neutered, irrespective of its sex, as this generally helps reduce aggression.
It is not advisable to challenge an aggressive dog to show it who is boss. Aggressive confrontation and harsh discipline could, in fact, be dangerous. In more subtle ways, the dog can be shown who is in charge.
Every time an aggressive dog approaches you for attention and you give it, you reinforce the dog’s belief that it is in charge. So when such a dog demands attention, ignore it. The whole family must cooperate in this treatment. The dog will be bewildered at first and may even bark and look at you winsomely, but resist the temptation to give in. When it has backed off and perhaps goes to lie down in its corner, then is the time to give it a little attention. In this way your dog learns that you are the leader and you decide when attention is given.
Aggressive games like tug-of-war and wrestling can foster the dog’s domineering tendencies and should be avoided. Rather, substitute nonaggressive games.
It is better for the dog not to sleep in the bedroom. The bedroom is a privileged area, and sleeping there may elevate the dog’s perceived status above the children in the house. Rather, put the dog’s bed in the kitchen or in an outside kennel. It is often in their bedrooms that owners are first bitten by an aggressive dog.
If your dog does not respond to your efforts, or if while training it, or at any time, you feel threatened, get the help of a competent dog trainer. Your veterinarian may be able to recommend one. Talk to him first about his training methods, and ensure that you are happy about his abilities before you hire him. Trainer Richard Stubbs cautions: “While an aggressive dog may respond to a professional trainer, this is no guarantee that he will be the same with his owner.” The dog owner must be sure that he can maintain control of his dog in critical situations.
A few dogs will remain aggressive even after the best training, and keeping them puts the family at risk. After you have tried your best, you may feel it is better to get rid of the dog rather than risk injury. It is good to consult a vet or a trainer for advice. You may be able to find another home for your dog, but you are naturally obliged to tell the new owner of the problems you have had with the dog.
Trainer Peter Neville advises: “Dominant dogs must only be treated under very careful guidelines and with careful assessment of who will continue to be at risk and by how much. If safety cannot be guaranteed for the person in the family who is most at risk, then the dog is better off rehomed to a carefully selected new owner, or put to sleep.”
Children can learn and benefit emotionally from having dogs as pets. By providing responsible supervision, parents help to ensure that all their children’s memories of their pets are pleasant ones.
[Box on page 22]
Dog Body Language
The aggressive dog’s characteristic behavior reveals unfriendly intentions. By teaching your child to recognize this dog body language, you can help him to avoid dangerous situations.
● The aggressive dog will try to appear larger. The hair on the back of its neck may bristle. The dog may growl or bark with its tail pointing straight up. If the tail wags in a stiff, rapid wag of excitement, it does not signify friendship. This dog should be left alone.
● The fearful dog may crouch with its head and ears down and its tail down or between its legs. If this dog is approached, it may become aggressive out of fear. Leave it alone.
● The relaxed dog stands with head held not too high or low, mouth open, and tail a little below the line of the back, but not hanging down. The wagging tail is a friendly sign. It is generally all right to make friends with this dog.
(Adapted from the book Childproofing Your Dog, by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson.)
[Box/Pictures on page 23]
1. Supervise young children and dogs.
2. Teach your child never to tease a dog.
3. Ask the owner’s permission before petting a strange dog.
4. Train your dog to obey basic commands.
5. Get your dog used to being hugged.
6. Avoid aggressive games.