Children and Dogs

How to ensure your child is safe with your dog

With the passage of a weekend with the tragic news of another fatal dog attack on a baby it is worth considering how these attacks happen and what could be done to prevent them.

A new baby is an exciting time for any parent but if you also own a dog you may have other worries to consider. How will your dog take to a new baby? This question, I know causes many a pregnant mum to have sleepless nights.

If you are worrying about this it is best to speak to a qualified dog behaviourist who also understands children well in advance of your due date.

This dog is worried, it wants to turn away but is standing its ground. Best not approach this is a warning signal.

So, here are a few golden rules.

  • Never leave any dog unattended with a baby or child, no matter how good you think the dog is.

  • If your dog has never been socialised with small children you will need to plan very far ahead to prepare your dog for your new arrival. As soon as you become pregnant you need to think about how you can socialise your dog with children. Do not just get all your friends' children to come around as your dog, if not socialised already will probably find this stressful and may make matters worse. Gradual and careful de-sensitisation will be necessary and professional advice should be sought, especially if your gut feeling is that your dog may present a risk. Do not take risks with other people's children to find out.

  • If you have a puppy and are planning to have a family, or grandchildren are likely, be sure to socialise your puppy with babies, toddlers and small children in the critical development period (approximately the first 12 weeks of a puppy's life) and continue with this for at least one year. Toddlers are a particular worry for dogs as they are so unpredictable and have different body proportions to adults.

  • Do not allow children to climb over your dog or play rough and tumble. Apart from anything, if your dog is ever in pain and has a child sitting on him he may bite defensively.

  • Buy the Blue Dog DVD (available on the internet) which is a brilliant training tool for toddlers and children and will teach them how to be safe around all dogs.

  • Do not let your children approach any dog unless you have the owner's permission to do so. And then, observe how comfortable that person appears. If they appear uncomfortable, then their dog will feel the same way and should be avoided.

  • If you are to baby sit for someone's child and you have a dog it is best to ensure they can be segregated via a dog gate to ensure that the dog has a safe space to go to. Most dogs, if fearful will remove themselves from a scary situation. However, if this option is not available then some will defend themselves which may mean a bite. If your dog is un-socialised with small children you may wish to re-consider putting your dog and the child through the stress that this is likely to create.

  • If you have a prey driven dog (many terriers are prey driven) they may become highly aroused at the little squeaks babies make. Have you seen how some dogs behave with a squeaky ball? We must not forget that some dog breeds are more predatory than others. With early and continued socialisation with small children dogs are generally safe around children. However, no dog should ever be left unsupervised with a child.

Finally make sure you understand your dog's body language.

This dog is highly anxious and looks submissive. Its paw is lifted and its ears are back with tongue flicking over its nose and it is in a freeze. It looks submissive as it is trying to keep others away. However, if pushed this dog could resort to defending itself. Never approach a dog displaying this kind of body language as you may push it over the edge.

What is your dog telling you about how he feels? As can be seen in these few photos dogs can show very subtle early signals such as looking away from the child, or freezing slightly, or licking their lips rapidly. These tiny signs can mean that your dog is very uncomfortable. If you have a child and your dog is following intently but runs away any time the child looks at him, has low body carriage and tail tucked down this dog is clearly fearful . If dogs feel under threat then they may bite. Equally if he has raised hackles, makes himself look big, has erect sharply wagging tail this dog may strike, however signs will have been displayed before and if he is displaying this strong aggressive body language then he may attack before you get a chance to intervene, watch for early signs of abnormal behaviour and remove him at this stage. If your dog growls at your child under no circumstances punish him, as this will make him more fearful and more likely to bite without warning in the future having learned he gets punished for growling. Remove your child immediately. If your dog is growling at your child or showing any of the above behaviours, seek professional advice immediately by asking your vet to refer you to a qualified dog behaviourist. Do not rely on advice given by telephone or e mail. It is impossible to safely give advice in these situations when the dog cannot be seen which is why I don't give advice in this way with aggression cases. If your vet is unable to refer you to someone then check COAPE or The APBC for qualified animal behaviour practitioners in your area.

If your dog seems to become highly excited when children arrive and rushes around like a mad thing it may not necessarily mean he is happy (although he may well be just very happy). Some dogs display this behaviour when very stressed. If he is doing this with drawn back lips and tail tucked down this is a clear indication of stress. This dog, if unable to escape may pose a risk.

Some people wrongly believe a dog with a wagging tail is safe to touch. This is not always the case. If the tail is highly erect and doing a staccato wag, this is more likely to signal agitation or a high state of arousal not happiness and this dog should not be touched.

Sometimes it may be that a particular dog will not be safe around children. Hard decision as this is, you will need to re-home this dog if you have children. Please do not take the risk as it may end up in the death of the child and/or the dog. However, if the dog has already badly bitten, options are less and it may be necessary to consider euthanasia if a sensible home cannot be found. 

All too often dog bites on children are on the facial area.

One single lapse can have a devastating effect which will be lived with forever by all concerned. The child in the picture above will be scarred for life. It is estimated that approximately 740 people per 100,000 population in Britain is bitten by a dog each year (according to Patient UK). According to the NHS nearly 3,800 people per year require hospital attention for dog bites and this figure increased by 40% over the four years leading up to 2008 most of these bites are on children. You can help to ensure this never happens to your family by ensuring you gently socialise your puppy with well behaved children as soon as you get him home from the breeder and keep on socialising for at least a year.