Kids and Dogs: A failure to communicate

Last night I went to a wiener roast that included a lot of my extended family. There were eight children under the age of 10 and four dogs; two of which had never been there before or met the other dogs. Because it was a wiener roast there was food everywhere. I got out of the vehicle and my stomach lurched. To the dog trainer in me, this looked like a dog/kid disaster waiting to happen or possibly a dog/dog disaster, but I felt it was more likely the dogs would figure out how to coexist rather than the dogs and kids.

kids and dogsStatistically I know kids are far more likely to be bitten than adults. The Centers for Disease Control says kids between 5-9 years old are especially at risk and that boys are twice as likely to be bitten than girls. Many of those bites are to the face and the vast majority of those bites are from dogs the kids know or at least dogs everyone assumes are ok to be around kids.

The following is an excerpt from an ASPCA article entitled Teaching your Dog how to Behave Around Kids: “Although dog bite fatalities are extremely rare and most bites don’t result in injury or medical treatment, children are the victims of half of the estimated 4.7 million dog bites in the United States every year. One study estimates that about a third of these bites are delivered by the family dog. Dogs often bite children on the face or neck, and these bites sometimes result in permanent scarring or disfigurement. Irrevocable emotional damage is often done as well. Many parents consider any tooth-to-skin contact with a child a major breach of trust—perhaps even grounds for euthanasia—and some people develop lifelong phobias of dogs after being bitten during childhood.”

The ASPCA has a pet recommendation guide based on a child’s age, and dogs don’t even make the list of recommended pets until children are 10 years old. But, kids and dogs are part of our way of life. Everyone wants “a puppy for the kids to grow up with.” We want a dog to protect us and our children from harm. We expect the dog to understand that our children are just being kids and shouldn’t be harmed for their transgressions.

So, why do dogs bite kids? First, this is by no means some scholarly scientific paper. These are just my own observations. But, what I tell clients and what feels right to me is that dogs bite kids because dogs are dogs and kids are kids and sometimes they have a “failure to communicate.” As a matter of fact when I see dogs and kids interacting I often hear the voice of Strother Martin in my head as he says to Paul Newman’s character in Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.”

For example, last night my four-year old nephew had a Woody doll. And this is a toy he loves – a lot. He was sliding down a slide and Woody was being flung all about and in one arc Woody came close to the face of a boxer. The boxer looked at Woody, not as the beloved toy of a 4-year-old, but as a super awesome amazing tug toy that just flew near his face. Obviously, the boxer thought someone must surely want him to play with this toy. The boxer grabbed the toy, the 4 year old let out a howl and pulled back. I’m sure the boxer imagined that a game of tug was now in order, but the four-year old only saw a dog trying to take Woody. The four-year old charged at the boxer screaming and kicking. Luckily, enough adults were present to stop the four-year-old from hurting the dog and to stop the dog from hurting the four-year old. Nothing bad happened except some hurt feelings on the adult side as everyone tried to decide who was at fault – dog or child.

Whenever I talk to a client who is upset because their dog has either bitten a child or growled at a child I always get the same picture as what I saw last night between my nephew and the boxer.

  • A dog sound asleep on a couch with nowhere to go when a 5 year old approaches and smacks the dog on the nose because the 5 year old wants to be on the couch.
  • A dog hunkering under a kitchen table while eight nine-year-old girls crowd in the kitchen for a birthday party and someone decides the dog should be in the festivities and reaches under the table and grabs the dog to drag it out from under the table.
  • A dog on a leash on the Monon when a 6 year old waving an ice cream rushes forward to give the doggie a hug.

In these three examples the dog did bite the child involved. Luckily, my nephew was not bitten, but what would have happened had he pursued the boxer hitting the dog in an effort to save Woody?

You could say in the above examples that the parents should have been watching the child. Or that the dog should have inhibited its bite. (depending on which side of the issue you feel most strongly about). But, what I think is that it is hard to be a parent and watch your child 24/7. When I was watching all of those little kids running around last night, there was absolutely no way someone could be on top of the situation every single second. And is it fair to ask a dog to do something that it isn’t asked to do with any other species?

If a horse bites a person, very few people freak out. If a chicken runs at a child to scare it off or if a goat butts a child to get it out of the way, people accept the fact that farm animals are just acting as animals. If a cat bites someone, most people seem to just say, “well, it is a grumpy cat, the person shouldn’t have been petting it.”

When a dog bites, especially if it bites a child or other family member, it is “man’s best friend” biting. It is Lassie biting Timmy. It is unthinkable.

Which is why I try to tell everyone who attends my Learn to Speak Dog class that they have to be their dog’s advocate and try to make sure situations such as the above just don’t happen because the dog always loses. In the three examples above where the dog did bite the child, the dogs were all euthanized. It was just too traumatic for those parents or dog owners to think they owned a dog that could possibly injure a child.

The purpose of this post isn’t to provide an answer because I don’t think there is an answer, short of making sure dogs and kids never interact, which isn’t fair to the thousands of dogs and kids that have no issues together. But, hopefully it helps you think and remember that your dog has teeth and no matter how wonderful you think he is, the correct answer in his mind may be to sometimes use those teeth.  And if you are a parent, to realize that a dog should not have to put up with a child hitting it, shoving it, hugging it or dragging it. While some dogs may put up with this behavior, it doesn’t mean the dog is enjoying it or that every dog will behave the same way.

And remember, it didn’t end well for Luke in the movie — a failure to communicate can be devestating.

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