When dogs bite… What to do

Every so often we hear it on the news. A child has been seriously injured after being bitten by a dog. This is often followed by outrage and a lot of debate. Why did it happen? Who is to blame? What should happen to the dog?

The parents, the dog or the child – whose fault is it?

From a behaviourist’s point of view, we look at the underlying causes and what can be done to prevent similar situations happening in the future.

The main reason that dogs bite children is the fact that their interactions are not actively supervised! Parents are told to supervise their children around dogs, but not actually what to look for. As responsible parents and dog owners, we need to actively supervise any interaction between dogs and children. This means not just being in the same vicinity as them, but watching what they are doing. Teach both child and dog how to interact appropriately, manage all interactions, and be ready to intervene before things can go wrong. If a parent or caregiver cannot actively supervise for whatever reason, then it is best to keep the child and dog apart.

Another reason may be lack of space – homes and gardens are becoming more compact, which means there isn’t enough room for a dog to retreat to a safe distance when necessary.

Dogs, just like their owners, are leading more stressful lives. Most parents work full-time, and between the demands of work, home, school, children and the responsibility of owning a dog, the emotional needs of dogs are way down on the list of priorities. We expect dogs to fit into our lifestyles, and often they are unable to make sense of it.

Living with small children can be tiring for dogs. Just like us, dogs can have good days and bad days. We all have them – the bad day at work; rush-hour traffic; a headache; dashing to buy groceries; arriving home to find out that your child needs something for a project first thing in the morning – it’s possible you may ‘snap’ at someone you love too!

We live in an age of information. This does not mean all we read and hear is accurate. Misinformation does dog owners a great disservice – if they misconstrue a dog’s body language and handle their dogs incorrectly.

What will cause my friendly dog to bite?

Dogs bite because their body language signals to tell people that they need space, or are not enjoying an interaction, have been ignored or misread. Dogs may have been punished in the past for growling, so they begin to skip this early warning signal and go straight to biting.

Some dogs are fearful or unsure around children, as they haven’t had enough exposure to them during their critical socialisation period as puppies or their exposure was not a pleasant one.

Dogs may be injured, sick or in pain. Dogs may appear stoic about chronic pain, but that does not mean they are not sore – dogs who have joint or skeletal problems often cannot stand up or move away quickly when a child comes towards them – or furniture may be blocking a quick escape.

Dogs may be startled by a child jumping on them, or grabbing them when they are asleep or resting. There is a great deal of truth to the saying ‘Let sleeping dogs lie!’ Dogs may be defensive around food, toys and resting places if people approach too closely.

My dog has bitten someone – what should I do?

Before you make any hasty or irreversible decisions, establish the following:

  • What led up to the bite occurring?
  • Who was bitten?
  • Where did the incident happen – at home or in a public place?
  • Did the bite require minor medical attention/stitches/surgery/hospitalisation?

Contact a qualified and experienced animal behaviourist, and have your dog checked over by a veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical reasons for the behaviour – they will be able to give you an impartial idea of how to proceed and provide a risk assessment. No professional should ever guarantee that a bite will not happen again.

There was a case of a family dog who bit a toddler in the face. The distraught owner took the dog to the vet to be euthanised. On examining the dog, the veterinarian found the dog had an acute ear infection, which was why the dog had acted so out of character.

In certain circumstances, re-homing may be the best option for both the family and the dog; for instance, an elderly dog who reacts by growling or snapping when touched because of chronic pain, or one who is going blind or deaf, might not be a good candidate for continuing to live with a young child.

Children should have some form of counselling after a dog-bite incident. Many children suffer from emotional trauma after a dog bite. They should not be blamed for what happened. Often, not the child, supervising adult or dog owner realised that there was a danger of a bite, because they assumed the dog was a generally friendly family pet.

Are some breeds more dangerous than others?

Any dog can bite! While different breeds were developed for diverse functions, there is variance within each breed. Just as siblings or family members have different personalities, so it is with dogs – no two are exactly alike. Larger or more powerful breeds could cause more damage if they bite, by sheer virtue of their size, but rather look at the dog’s socialisation history and whether he is fearful around children.

What do I need to teach my child about treating dogs with respect?

At home: Teach your children not to tease, hit or hurt the dog. Don’t allow children to sit on the dog’s back, or pull his ears or tail. Explain that dogs do not enjoy being hugged or held tightly. When your dog is eating or chewing something, leave the dog alone. Intervene immediately if your child wants to disturb your dog when resting or asleep on his bed or under a table or chair. If the dog gets up and moves away, teach your children not to follow him.

Out in public: Ask permission to approach someone’s dog or touch him. Stay away from any dog who is tied up. Never enter a garden if a dog is there, even if you know the dog. Never run, scream or shout around a dog. Always walk past him calmly.

For help and advice, contact a qualified behaviourist. You can search for one in your area at www.capbt.org.za.

Article by: Karen Sinovich, Dip CAPT (NOCN UK), is a COAPE-qualified animal behaviourist and trainer, co-owner of Dog Hub SA and offers behaviour consultations in Cape Town. Dog Hub offers a reactive dog course, helping owners and their reactive dogs, using humane and evidence-based training methods.