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Keep Kids Safe from Dog Bites

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Safeguarding children from dog bites while at the same time nurturing the dog-child bond requires an understanding of the reasons for canine aggression toward children. To do that, we have to get into the mind of the dog and try to see the child from the dog's point of view.

When we take that leap of imagination, we can see that canine aggression toward children falls into certain widely recognized clinical categories. In a recent presentation at the annual convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association in New Orleans, Ilana R. Reisner, DVM, a specialist in animal behavior, identified those categories.

Self-defense/fear-related aggression

It is elementary dog psychology that if a dog feels threatened, he is likely to attack. Although we may find it difficult to imagine that a 50-pound dog would feel threatened by a cute 20-pound toddler, it's only because we know that the child is no threat to the dog.

A dog is guided by its instincts. Unfortunately, a child's unpredictable, jerking movements, often loud and unfamiliar voice pitch, sudden running, or playful grabbing may signal danger to the dog and trigger a self-defense response.


People often forget that dogs are very possessive, whether it be toward toys, food, their beds, or even family members, and they will guard what they think is rightfully theirs, often quite fiercely. This "resource-guarding'' behavior is the dog's way of saying: "Hey, don't mess with my stuff!''

Territorial aggression

Dogs are territorial animals. That is why they bark when a stranger approaches their home or when the doorbell rings. This territorial protectiveness generally increases if a dog is left alone for long periods of time with little stimulation. In a recent article that Reisner co-authored, study results showed that territorial aggression was the most common reason for dog bites to unfamiliar children.

Conflict-related aggression

If someone behaves toward you in a way that you find annoying or offensive, you will probably object. When a dog is annoyed or offended (yes, dogs can be offended), it will also object, sometimes by biting. Children often behave inappropriately toward dogs simply because they don't know, for example, that grabbing a dog's face, pulling its tail, or suddenly waking it from a deep sleep is not welcome behavior.

Predatory aggression

Although dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, they still have predatory instincts, albeit in varying degrees, and these instincts can sometimes be aroused. The danger is greatest to infants, who more closely resemble small prey animals. Breeds that seem to be particularly predisposed to such attacks include terriers, Huskies, and Malamutes. In addition, any dog that is accustomed to hunting and killing small animals is more of a danger to an infant.

What you can do to protect your children from dog bites

Now that we have a "dog's-eye view'' of children, we can get specific about how to minimize the chances that your child will be bitten. Here are some specific recommendations:

  • Never leave an infant or small child unattended with a dog, even for a brief period.
  • A dog with a history of biting should be confined or restrained in the presence of small children.
  • Teach your children that unfamiliar dogs -- no matter how small, cute, or fluffy -- should not be touched or approached without adult permission.
  • Children should be taught to respect their pets; this includes not disturbing the pets while they are eating or sleeping, or while they are chewing or playing with a toy or bone.
  • Dogs should never be "cornered'' against a wall or furniture or in their resting places.
  • Children should avoid close face-to-face contact with any dog.
  • If confronted by a growling dog, children should be taught to walk away slowly and not to run.
  • Puppy owners should expose their young dogs to a variety of other pets as well as children of different ages. Familiarity reduces fear.
  • Dogs should not be left unattended outdoors for long periods of time.


The AVMA is an excellent source of practical advice on this important subject. Their brochure, "What you should know about dog bite prevention,'' can be downloaded free of charge here.

With a better understanding of the "dog's-eye view'' of things, you can empower yourself to significantly reduce the risk of harm not only to your own children, but to your neighbors' children as well.

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