In the UK of late there have been some appalling incidents involving children being very badly attacked and even killed by dogs. These are tragedies that leave us all very sad and many dog owners very unnerved about either the safety of their own pet dog with the children in the family, or what new legislation will be brought in to impose further restrictions on dog owners.
Of late, I have heard of some very frightening dog attacks on adults whereby the dogs have caused terrible injuries. In the main however, these have been dogs that have been agitated and even taught to bite; not well cared for family companions that are loved by owners who want the best for them, but by people who believe that owning a specific type of dog boosts their social status within the community in which they reside.
I firmly believe that children can learn so much from dogs – a companion with whom they can share thoughts, secrets and ideas, a confidante and companion like no other.
We hear so often in the media about dreadful occurrences with dogs aggressively attacking children, the eye witness accounts and images can be very distressing to watch and hear. The high profile representations in the press of dangerous dogs are always linked to breed – lately the Staffordshire Bull Terrier and crosses and derivations thereof are the dogs under fire for discussion and legislation – previously it has been the Pit Bull Terrier, the Rottweiler, before that the German Shepherd and so on. I’m not quite sure why those in authority have not yet worked out that they should not be looking at the breed, but who is holding the lead.
Breed popularity clearly plays a part – dogs breeds suffer from trends and fashion; numbers owned increase and inexperienced dog owners obtain breeds with which they are not sufficiently skilled to manage or train. Furthermore, these people have no imagination for consequences – oblivious to the nature and power of dogs. The current Staffordshire Bull Terrier epidemic is the latest and probably largest and most frightening dog trend. Staffordshire Bull Terriers and crosses have replaced the now banned Pit Bull Terrier – these dogs are poorly bred, poorly raised, poorly trained and poorly cared for – and it seems that often things go very very wrong.
It is of course important to keep things in perspective. Whilst one dog attack is too many, these incidents compared to the number of dogs owned within the UK are incredibly tiny as a percentage. Comparably, there are far more parents that kill their own children each year than dogs do and we do not mistrust all parents – we realise that these are uncommon occurrences and the individuals involved are held to account – not the rest of the population. As dog owners – we all have to suffer with each incident reported in the press.
Despite these awful cases being very rare indeed, children do sadly often get bitten by dogs, Far more than adults do. Why is that? Well, there are a number of reasons; dogs by their very nature can be unpredictable and children can also be very unpredictable. Looking at it from a dogs point of view – children are pretty weird. At least compared to the normal behaviour of adults – children do bizarre things. For example, one minute they are sitting on the sofa, the next, they are jumping off of it; one minute a child is walking in the garden and then turns and legs-it in the other direction. They lie on the floor, scream and cry, they bounce around and make strange vocalisations – to the uninitiated dog – children are peculiar to say the least.
In order for dogs to understand and accept the unusual nuances of a child’s behaviour, they need to be socialised with them from the outset in order that the irregular behaviour becomes accepted as the norm.
There are often problems encountered by grandparents who own dogs and have the grandchildren to stay with them periodically – the dogs are simply not used to the apparently strange and over animated behaviour of children.
In actual fact, when training police or protection dogs, lots of the animated actions that we use to stimulate aggression are actions that children quite naturally exhibit – it stimulates the dog’s innate cautious curiosity and this needs to be managed.
Dogs live their lives by a set of intrinsic rules, which unless taught, children are oblivious to. Young children do not have the reasoning power or rationale to psychologically accommodate the difference in our species and canines’. Children want to cuddle dogs, investigate what they are eating, play and share toys and race around the garden with them. They may also try to ride them, see how far a piece of lego will go in their ear, try to pull their tail off, stroke them in all of the wrong places and such like.
You, as both the parent and the dog owner are the conduit in the relationship and have a duty of care to not only your child, but also your dog. Neither your child nor your dog should be put at risk! The relationship between a child and a dog is exactly half and half – the dog needs clear rules and so does the child. I get exhausted with parents who are unable to control what their child does in relation to the family dog – if they cannot control a child, how on earth will they manage a dog and a child? Children need strict rules in relation to engagement with the dogs and visa versa.
However sweet your dog is and however much you love them, they are dogs. Whilst some dogs are incredibly tolerant of children, they can be pushed too far. Children do not read a dogs body language, nor do they observe warning signals and vocalisation when then dog is uncomfortable. However much you trust your dog – they should never be left alone with young children.
Whilst your children may be well behaved and have been taught to appreciate the rules in relation to engagement with dogs, your children’s friends may not and safety is the order of the day. Some children are fearful of other dogs, some are cocky and over-confident – you need to be mindful of other visiting children and take precautions suitably.
Some children will be accepted, but others may not through their own peculiarities. Children that are timid, over animated, excited, screaming or darting about your home in play may stimulate the dog. Children which ignore the dog totally and do not impose on the dog at all or try to initially befriend tend to do best.
Some people reading this may have owned dogs and children for many years together without incident, and that is true for the overwhelming majority of homes; you just have to remain sensible and vigilant.
Throughout the course of my work, I see many children who have been bitten by dogs – all of which could have and should have been prevented. Generally the bites take place on the Child’s face – meaning that the child generally has not been taught the necessary behaviours around dogs. Like I said, I think dogs and children can share a wonderful symbiotic relationship which I greatly encourage, but they all have to live by the rules – the rules that you as the responsible adult are responsible for enforcing.
Principal of The Cambridge Institute of Dog Behaviour & Training
Ross McCarthy MA FCFBA MBIPDT MGoDT AMBPSCA