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Dog Aggression Towards Children

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Dog aggression is a reality, even though  in millions of American households, a dog is very much a member of the family. Parents are often motivated to get a dog by the desire to provide their children with a playmate and companion, and to encourage them to take on the responsibility of caring for another living creature. Unfortunately, domesticated dogs sometimes turn on a child and inflict injuries serious enough to require medical attention. Understanding why dogs can become aggressive and turn on kids can help you to prevent it from ever happening, and keep everyone safe.

Some sobering statistics

In a May 14, 2008, press release announcing the 2008 Dog Bite Prevention Week, Gregory S. Hammer, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), reported that "every year, approximately 800,000 Americans receive medical attention for dog bites, and half of these victims are children.''

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, in 2004, an estimated 333,700 people received dog bites serious enough to require treatment in a hospital emergency room. Of those treated, approximately 6,000 (1.8 percent) were hospitalized. The AVMA's report "Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions'' estimates that hospital expenses nationwide for dog bite-related emergency visits total $102.4 million annually.

Perhaps of most concern is the fact that 42 percent of dog bites occurred among children ages 14 or younger, with the injury rate highest for those ages 5 to 9.

A study of more than 3,000 school children in Pennsylvania showed that 45 percent had been bitten by a dog at least once in their lifetimes, and of those, 30 percent were bitten by their own dogs.

Veterinarians respond

The scope and persistence of dog aggression toward children have drawn the attention of the veterinary community, and especially of those vets with expertise in animal behavior.

At the recent AVMA annual convention in New Orleans, Ilana R. Reisner, DVM, an animal behavior specialist, gave a presentation on the subject of canine aggression toward children.

Citing a number of studies, Reisner identified certain factors that seem to correlate with the likelihood of a dog attack on a child, both in terms of the characteristics of the offending dog and of the child victim.

Risk factors -- from the dog's side

Reisner emphasized that any breed of dog can become aggressive, depending on its particular disposition, medical conditions, and whether it is provoked in some way. However, some generalizations are possible:

  • German shepherds, rottweilers, cocker spaniels, golden retrievers, and English Springer spaniels are involved in bites more often than other breeds.
  • When the statistics are further analyzed, it turns out that pit bull terriers and their mixes, German shepherds, rottweilers, and chow chows tend to be involved in cases when the bites are more serious.
  • Male dogs are more likely to bite than female dogs, and males that have not been neutered are more likely to bite than those that have been neutered. According to the AVMA Task Force report, non-neutered males are involved in 70-76 percent of reported dog-bite incidents.
  • Most bites are inflicted by owned, as opposed to stray, dogs.
  • Many dogs that bite are "first-time offenders'' with no history of biting.

Risk factors -- from the child's side

From the perspective of the child-victim, the generalizations are not surprising:

  • Boys are bitten at twice the rate of girls.
  • Children ages 5 to 9 are bitten most frequently.
  • Children who own dogs are more likely to be bitten than those who don't.

So, for starters...

Understanding these risk factors leads to some basic preliminary recommendations:

  • When selecting a dog for a home with children, consider breed choice and sex carefully.
  • If your male dog is not neutered, consider having it neutered.
  • Be especially vigilant if you have a very young child in the home.

Beginning with these statistics, we can move on to a more complete understanding of the complexities of canine psychology and child-canine interactions.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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