When Dogs Bite Kids

A member of our Behavior Education Network site told us about a case of Great Pyrenees mix that had a great several year history of begin well behaved and getting along with everyone, including the two kids in the family (8 and 10 years old), their friends, other dogs and adults.  His owner did describe him as “a bit timid”. 

At a recent backyard party, the kids were playing "animal rescue" (the owner found all this out after the fact).  The daughter took the dog by the collar and brought him over to a visiting 7 year old boy who had told the girl he “wanted to catch a polar bear” (the dog had previously been around this child several times).  The boy threw his arms over the dog’s head yelling "GOOD DOG, GOOD DOG!".

Well, everyone can guess what happened next.   The dog bit the boy in the face, to the tune of 15 stitches.  After the dust settled, due to family “politics” and complications, the dog is being rehomed.  A sad, sad situation for all – parents, children, and the dog.

Before we all start calling people names and laying blame, let’s focus instead on how this situation could have been prevented.  There is good evidence to indicate that dog owners are not skilled at recognizing what sorts of interactions between children and dogs pose bite risks.   (Reisner and Shofer,  2008, J. of AVMA). 

If we could rewind the tape, what could have been done differently?  The safest option of course is for the dog owner to not allow the dog at a backyard gathering with children unless there is an adult who does nothing else but watch the dog and the kids. Not likely.  But dog owner logic is “he’s always been good with kids”, so why should I not trust him?  The other part of the equation is – can you trust the kids?

If the dog will be present, and not confined, one idea is for the owner to gather the children around at the beginning of the party and clearly describe what NOT to do with the dog.  Two BIG no no’s that if followed would have prevented this particular bite are do NOT grab the dog by the collar and do NOT hug the dog.  A third would be to NOT feed the dog.

If followed, these guidelines would have prevented this bite.  No guarantee other circumstances would not have developed that resulted in the same outcome.  Children in the 7-10 year age range, can’t be relied upon to always do what they’ve been told to do – or not do.  That’s why not putting the dog in a risky situation in the first place is the best recommendation we can think of.

As a pet professional, anytime you have a client with children, we’d recommend handing them a checklist of do’s and don’ts that will help promote safe relationships between their kids and their dog.  Go over it with them.  If having that knowledge could prevent just ONE bite, and ONE dog from losing its home, it would be worth it.  

A model that helps explain why the dog bit in this situation, despite have a previously good history with children is “The Bite Threshold Model for Canine Aggression”.  Members of our Behavior Education Network will find this in BEN, non-members can purchase the course at PetProWebinars.com.



  • evelyn haskins

    Reply Reply

    So sad that the owners blame the dog 🙁

    Though I’ve had clients like this, who think that a dog SHOULD take whatever a child hands out to it regardless of how much it distresses the dog 🙁

    Years ago I had a dog who was responsible for two bites to children. A niece went up to him while he was sleeping and hugged him around the neck — he scratched her skin with his lower incisors as he tried to extricate himself for the situation.

    Then on another occasion when I had a mass of nieces and nephews playing with my kids in our pool, I put the dog away ‘safely’, not reckoning on the misfit nephew going into the closed garage where the dog was tethered and teasing him with his food bowl. Offering the bowl to the dog then rapidly holding it up above his head so the dog couldn’t reach it. That got him a small bite needing a hospital trip as the boy was due to go home to the US in a few days and needed a rabies clearance).
    With this dog’s other i had a woman and her child blessed on me for a day (while her husband was ‘in the office’) and found her grinning foolishly at her child who was pestering the dog, and say to me, isn’t it wonderful how good dogs are with children, and then tell me that they;d had to destroy their dog who wasn’t that patient. Pooh:-( My poor dog then had to be incarcerated for the rest of the day to keep the horrible child away from her 🙁

    Truly we dog owners need to be vigilant to protect our dogs from unmanageable children 🙁

    One of the first thing I teach clients now to do is “child proof” their dog 🙂 not to mention to also dog proof their children.

    Crates are a good idea when children are visiting 😉 saved a lot of heartache and worry.

  • Suzanne & Dan

    Reply Reply

    Thanks for your comment Evelyn. I don’t think the owners were necessarily “blaming” the dog, but put in the difficult situation now that the dog had a bite history, regardless of how it happened.

    Dog owners without children – like us – have a tendency to be fairly protective of our dogs and sometimes an unfortunate tendency to be a bit critical of parents.

    We have to remind ourselves that few people purposefully put their kids or their dogs at risk. Bad choices are the result of not being informed and educated about dog behavior. And that’s where all of us as pet behavior and training professionals can help.

    I know the terms “dog proofing” and “child proofing” are popular but I personally don’t care for them. The ‘proofing’ word implies some sort of assurance or guarantee, neither of which is possible.

    But it’s certainly a good practice to accustom each to the other, teach children appropriate behavior, manage the interactions, supervise at all times, and train the dog to tolerate a certain amount of “stuff” from children that will inevitably occur.

  • As a dog professional and a dog owner, I agree with you Suzanne that the average dog owner just doesn’t expect a child friendly dog to ever do anything – and that’s the biggest mistake. I have 4 dogs, 3 of whom are very friendly with adults as well as children. My 4th dog is skittish so when we have gatherings she stays in another room behind a gate with her favorite bed, toys and bones. The other 3 are allowed to interact for short periods of time, but never without me being right there. I know I can trust them 99% of the time, but it’s that 1% that keeps me vigilant. If I can’t be with them, then they stay inside. And as you have stated, maybe you can trust them, but I always to with the mind set that you cannot always trust kids as well as adults.

  • I find it amazing how now we expect 150% good behaviour from dogs around children, yet don’t expect the same – or are not prepared to accept the possible consequences. We seem to have gone to zero tolerance when it comes to dog bites.
    At the end of the day, dogs bite and people need to be aware this can happen for whatever reason, even from a dog that has always been considered tolerant.
    I am often asked by clients how they can guarantee their dog will not bite their children. I tell them I can never give that kind of assurance and they need to recognise that it goes both ways. One veterinary behaviourist told me, he had to advise one of my clients, who went into panic mode because the dog bit her child (it appears the child went to cuddle and kiss goodnight her sleeping dog) the only way he could guarantee her dog wouldn’t bite is by euthanasia – apparently the owner found that quite sobering.
    A lovely old tolerant dog who has always been realiable may bite one day simply because it is not feeling very well.
    I believe people have gone too far in not giving a dog the benefit of doubt in certain circumstances. Unfortunatly it often isn’t the pet owner creating the problem – I have heard where family members have caused such a rukus over a loved family pet (cat or dog) demanding its destruction or rehoming because of some infraction that has been done to a family member – this is just so unfair, not only on the pet, but also the pet owner (who would be genuinally in distress over the incident).
    I have had a clients daughter-in-law demand the destruction or rehoming of a cat because she thought (incorrectly) that grandma’s cat had given her children ringworm! She was threatening to never bring the grandchildren around for a visit ever again unless something was done. Even a visit to the vet confirming the cat did not have ringworm, nor did we believe it was a carrier, satisfied the mother of the children.
    Another case reported in Australia was of a dog that was handed in for immediate euthanasia because of biting a child. On post mortem a wooden skewer was found imbedded within the dogs ear!
    There is a classic case in the fabulous book “Dogs bite but Ballons and Slippers and more dangerous” of finding out the true scenario behind a dog bite.
    Why has our society become so intollerant?

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