Dogs and Toddlers - What causes a dog to attack?
On average 4,235 children aged between 1-4 years of age, and 2,985 children between 5-9 years of age are taken into Australian hospitals due to dog bite injuries every year. Scary statistics isn’t it.
Many people look at that and say… ‘They were just aggressive dogs and deserve to be euthanised’. I look at those statistics and think ‘How can so many owners be uneducated in their dogs cues of fear, discomfort and anxiety?’. Now, that is not a statement that I would use for every scenario and owner that has suffered the horrific experience of seeing their child being bitten by a dog. And, there are cases where other external factors have aided in the dogs irrational behaviour, and I agree that there are a select number of dogs that ‘snap’ without warning. But, for the most part, there has been ‘some’ warning signs.
I know that I have made a bold statement and I ask that you at least read this entire article before closing off to it. After all, dogs may be domesticated but they will still always protect themselves when they feel threatened (just like humans).
COMMON BEHAVIOURS FROM TODDLERS
Toddlers are erratic at the best of times. They move like a football, no real direction and constantly changing their mind. My head spins at how fast my son will switch from playing betty crocker in the kitchen to sitting quietly with his cars, and the next minute a superhero. He screams, yells, cries, laughs, runs, jumps, twists, throws toys and relaxes on the ground all in the space of minutes.
For dogs, this is a lot to process. A lot of dogs are only used to an adults company which tends to be a lot more placid and balanced. I believe that it is just as important to know how your toddler interacts with dogs, as it is for you to know how your dog interacts with children.
Simply keeping your child away from dogs at the park because you don't have one at home and you don't want them to be scared is only going to create fear. As humans, we are naturally afraid of what we don’t know. Shelter your child from dogs altogether and you are just increasing the chances of fear, lack of understanding and inability to interact appropriately because at some point your child will interact with a dog. Preparation is key.
Some studies state that children under the age of 7 should never be left alone with a dog, but I believe it depends on your child. Some children are more mature than others and some understand consequences better than others. The decision needs to be up to the parent once they have educated themselves.
Over a four year period in the medical journal Injury Prevention, researchers studied veterinary clinical examinations of 111 cases of dog bites by 103 dogs (comprising of 41 different dog breeds). During this time, researchers identified some common patterns, including, the dogs displayed territorial behaviour, anxiety or were coping with medical issues at the time the bite occurred. Interesting!
Here are some negative behaviours displayed by toddlers that could potentially lead to a bite:
- Pulling of the tail and ears
- Loud yelling or banging noises around a dogs head
- Sitting, laying or jumping on the dog
- Cornering the dog so he feels like he does not have an escape
- Constant pestering
- Pulling of skin
- Removing food or treats from a dogs mouth
- Putting hands in the food bowl while eating
- Removing toys from a dogs mouth
Many people think that a dogs sign of discomfort is when his hairs become hackled or when he growls, but in actual fact, these are going to be some of the last warnings. It is highly likely that he has already displayed many unrecognised cues of anxiety or stress beforehand.
Meet Zephyr (and Bugsy who likes to photobomb), Summer and Lilly. I allow the girls to sit close pat and play a little while being supervised but never leave them alone and I always keep a close eye on Zephyr for any cues. Even with this, I am sure I have missed some. Generally, they are great together but Summer is a toddler and has a lot of learning to do to understand when Zephyr is saying he needs a break. As it is with all toddlers.
Also, I don’t allow licking on the face but Zephyr saw his chance here with Lilly and ran with it.
SIGNS OF STRESS AND WARNING SIGNS THAT A DOG WILL BITE
These can be very subtle and easily missed, even by the best-educated people. As a dogs anxiety or stress levels increase, so do their warning signs, until they eventually reach boiling point. It is important to note that dogs can become uncomfortable in a multitude of situations, such as:
- At a park with lots of children
- At home with a large gathering of people
- At home, if there is a party with loud music playing for an extended period
- Any time he feels he needs a break and can not get one
In terms of signals to look out for, here are 6 common warning signs that a dog is about to bite, you may have even seen some before:
- Yawning, licking lips or avoiding eye contact
This is one of the first signs and is not a confirmation that the dog is about to bite but it is certainly letting you know that the situation could escalate if he doesn't feel like he can escape if he needs to.
- Growling, snapping or showing teeth
A low growl accompanied by snapping or baring of teeth is a dogs most direct way of giving warning signs that there is potential for him to bite. At this point, you will want to quickly identify what is causing this behaviour around him and remove it, or remove him from the area.
- Wagging Tail
This is often the most confusing signal. The wagging of a dogs tail is often misunderstood as happiness when it is actually a display of excitement and can be a significant warning sign. A dog that is wagging his tail in happiness will wag with his whole body, whereas a dog wagging his tail as a warning sign with have it raised high and slowly moving while his body remains still.
- Rigid Body
This is the same with humans. If you feel threatened, your muscles will become stiff and your body rigid as a natural reflex. Dogs will stand straight with their ears pricked up and a raised straight tail.
- Fur Standing Up
Fur standing up (hackles) along the backline is a very common telltale sign and one that owners tend to notice first as it is much less subtle than other signs of discomfort.
- Seeing the Whites of their Eyes
A dog is content when the whites of his eyes are not seen. When you see the whites of his eyes it is a clear warning that he has the potential to bite. When threatened a dog will make intense eye contact and not lose contact with the target no matter the direction his head needs to move in, ultimately exposing the white areas of his eyeballs.
HOW TO PREVENT DOG BITES
It is hard to watch your children 100% of the time, especially if you have more than one, but if you are not confident that you can watch constantly then you should separate your dog and children. This is something that only a mother who knows her children, and dog owner who knows her dog can really judge and assess what the safe boundaries are when properly educated.
Here are some key points to help prevent a dog bite:
- Keep calm as dogs can get scared if a young child is jumping around in front or around them.
- Take is easy! Let the dog smell your toddler's hand first and then pat him on his side or back, but not on the head, and monitor how hard your child is patting.
- Don't allow an influx of kisses and cuddles. While the intention is sweet, the smothering around the face and neck can feel extremely restrictive and restraining.
- Nobody likes to be woken up. Don't allow your child to wake up a sleeping dog, this can startle them and cause unusual behaviour such a snap or bite. Dogs can also be startled while eating so never ever EVER let your child take food out of a dogs mouth or a dogs bowl that he is currently using. This goes for toys also.
- Talk to the owner before rushing in. Some dogs can look like the sweetest little fluff balls and be the ones with the largest anxiety issues, and visa versa. It is not just for your child's safety to ask for the owners permission, it is also courteous and respectful.
This table depicts the age ranges and the total number of dog bite reports in Australian Hospitals each year.
TREATMENT FOR A DOG BITE
Providing First Aid at home is the first step in treatment, but should always be followed up by your doctor or in more severe cases, a visit to your hospital ER department. A dogs tooth is laden with bacteria that can easily cause a dog bite wound to become infected fast.
If the bite is actively bleeding then head straight to your GP or hospital for assessment. Quite often with a dog bite the damage in the internal layers of the skin is much larger than the visible puncture. This is because as the tooth enters the skin it often gets dragged/pulled creating more and more underlying.
First aid steps to get you to your GP or hospital:
- Place a clean towel or gauze over the wound
- Try to keep the injured area elevated
- Flush the wound with saline or clean water if it is not actively bleeding
- Place some sterile gauze over the wound and wrap the area in a sterile bandage (included in any first aid kit as a standard)
- Visit your GP or hospital - For severe attacks you would call an ambulance and apply pressure to the bleeding wound as best you can.
From here your doctor will direct you with the best form of treatment to prevent infection and reduce scarring. There are a large number of dog attacks that are so bad that plastic surgery is required to repair the damage. Always err on the side of caution around a dog, particularly one that you do not know!
This graph displays a steady increase in incidences of dog bites reporting to hospitals within Australia over the years.
Figure 1: Biennial incidence density of hospitalization due to injuries from dog bites
APPRECIATION IS KEY
Appreciate a dogs space, whether it is your own or a strangers dog at the park. We already know that humans lash out when pushed to their limit in an aid to defend themselves, dogs are no different.
If you have a dog at home it is best to allocate an area that your toddler is not allowed to bother him in. Many owners use a crate for this. For us we use the laundry, our dogs will often go there when they needs a break and I am very diligent in stopping my kids from invading his personal space while resting.
You also do not want to reprimand your dog for walking away if he is being bothered. Some owners make this mistake and put their dog outside as they are assuming the pre-warnings are naughty behaviour when all he is doing is trying to communicate. By continuously reprimanding your dog when your toddler pushes the boundaries you can create jealousy from this pattern, which is another kettle of fish altogether.
If you are uncomfortable with how your dog and children are interacting, I recommend seeking the help of a qualified Canine Behaviourist.
We all enjoy our space… so respect the space of our furry friends too!