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How to Keep Your Child Safe Around Dogs (and Vice Versa)

SinDelle runs the Georgia Herb & Egg Co. in Dublin, GA, and has lots of experience doing DIY around the farm.

With the proper training, attention, and care, dogs and children can get along famously.

With the proper training, attention, and care, dogs and children can get along famously.

Dog Body Language

A child with a dog is about the most beautiful thing anyone can imagine—best friends through thick and thin, totally loyal to each other no matter what. Dogs are man's best friend for a reason; we love them and they love us. However, sometimes terrible things happen with even the most gentle dogs. This is usually because humans and dogs don't speak the same language. Most bites happen simply because of miscommunication. It doesn't have to be that way, though, and a little bit of knowledge can help ensure that your family never has to go through it.

What exactly do we mean by miscommunication? Dogs are not people. They don't talk, so they rely very heavily on body language in order to communicate. Their tails and ears are like sign language and can be used to decode how a dog is feeling. The miscommunication usually occurs when the dog has clearly signaled that he is uncomfortable or afraid but it has been ignored, leaving him no choice but to bite to get his point across. If you learn to read the signs, a miscommunication is less likely to happen.

Below are a few guidelines you can follow to prevent miscommunication between a child and a dog.

Dog behavior interpretation chart.

Dog behavior interpretation chart.

What Are the Signs a Dog Has Had Enough of Your Child?

As stated above, dogs cannot talk. They rely on body language to be understood and sometimes it's very subtle. It may be missed if a person is not paying attention.

Signs a dog is uncomfortable or nervous:

  • Yawning
  • Turning their head away
  • Licking their lips
  • Rolling their eyes so the whites can be seen
  • Low tail that wags only a tiny bit at the end

These signs should not be ignored. For instance, if your child is hugging a dog and he yawns, this can be a signal that the dog is nervous about what is going on. The child's behavior should be stopped immediately and the child should be redirected to another activity which doesn't involve the dog.

Signs a dog is afraid:

  • Tail between the legs
  • Cringing posture, low to the ground
  • Whining
  • Growling
  • Rolling their eyes

A fearful dog is a dog that will bite if he is not left alone. Never ignore a growl and don't discipline your dog for growling when he is nervous or afraid. This is often the last warning before a bite happens. If you take this behavior away from your dog, there is no more "last warning." He will simply bite and you may not see it coming.

How to Teach a Child to Approach a Dog

  • Most people know not to bother a dog when he is eating, but many people don't realize that dogs possess an instinct which can cause them to attack if they are threatened or bothered in their sleep. Many, many bites occur because a dog has been bothered while sleeping and he bit before he was fully alert. Teach children to respect sleeping dogs and not to bother them.
  • Excited dogs can become dangerous because they are already very stimulated. If someone reacts to their exuberance with fear or nervousness, this will only amp the dog up more and can result in a bite, especially if the person runs. Teach children to react calmly to excited dogs and to never run from any dog. This will engage the dog's prey drive and he will give chase. If your own dog routinely becomes overexcited, he likely needs more exercise. Remember: Tired dogs are well-behaved dogs.

Be Especially Careful of These Dogs:

  • Dogs that are not neutered are more likely to bite. More than 75% of bites involve intact (not neutered) male dogs and virtually all attacks that result in the death of a person involve animals that have not been spayed or neutered.
  • Dogs that have a litter of puppies will also attack and have been known to kill smaller animals or children because of it. Spaying or neutering your animals is not only better for their health and society, it is better for your family.
  • Dogs on chains make up a disproportionate number of severe and fatal attacks. Do not keep your dog tied out on a chain and teach children to never approach a dog that is chained up for any reason, even if they know the dog.

How to Recognize Dominant Behavior in a Dog

Dominance must be recognized as well and dealt with accordingly. It should never be tolerated. A dog who believes he is dominant in the household can develop into a dangerous bully and a dominant dog may attack—not bite, attack—a small child. Attacks are different from bites. A bite is a warning or a reaction from too much stress. An attack is a purposeful attempt to severely injure or kill the person/animal the dog is attacking. It is very important for the dog to know that he is a dog, not a human being.

The dog must never be allowed to put himself in a position that is physically dominant over a person.

Behavior That Encourages Dominance:

  • Leaning against people
  • Forcing his way to sit in between people
  • Standing over a prone person on the floor
  • Bumping or pushing people out of the way
  • Attempting to intimidate people
  • "Humping" people

Stopping these behaviors when your dog is a puppy eliminates power struggles before they ever happen.

NOTE: Trying to stop dominant behaviors in an adult dog can be dangerous, especially if the dog is large. Get professional help if necessary, but address the problem. These behaviors will not go away by themselves, and dominant dogs are dangerous.

Dog Safety Tips

If you follow the following guidelines, you and your family will be much safer with dogs, and in turn, the dogs will be safer. Dogs that bite are often euthanized, regardless of the reason.

  • Have your pet spayed or neutered. Most bites involve dogs that are not fixed
  • Both children and dogs must be taught to respect each other
  • Never leave any child alone with any dog, even for a moment
  • Do not allow children to lay on or hang on dogs
  • Do not allow children to kiss dogs or get in their faces for any reason
  • Never allow children to bother dogs when they are asleep
  • Never allow children to bother dogs when the dog is eating
  • Teach children never to run from dogs
  • Teach children never to pet or approach unfamiliar dogs
  • Teach children never to approach a dog on a chain, even if they are familiar with him
  • Do not allow a dog to be in a position that is physically dominant over any person

If you can remember these things and make them a part of how you teach your children to behave toward dogs, it will go a long way toward guaranteeing that your family stays safe.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2016 The Little Shaman