Already this year we have had five dog-bite fatalities in the United States – which is a huge number in such a short amount of time. All of the victims have been under the age of 5 years old. It is no secret to those that have followed dog bites (and fatalities) over the years that a large percentage of victims of major attack victims are young children – most often by a dog that is owned or being cared for by the family.
Because this is an informational blog, I went to the experts in canine-behavior to try to relay information on the best ways to handle dogs and young children in the same household. So I went to Jennifer Shryock CDBC, the founder of Dogs & Storks™. Dogs & Storks™ is a nation-wide network of dog trainers and canine behavior consultants that work with new and expecting families in preparing for a life where dogs and children co-exist peacefully. While the advice here is meant for educational purposes, it is not meant to be a replacement for good old common sense and the help of a trained professional in your area.
Here’s our interview:
KC Dog Blog: In the process of writing my blog, I read a lot of stories about dog bites – and it seems that a lot of the victims are young children. What is it about children that make them so vulnerable to dog bites or attacks?
Jennifer Shryock: Children are dog height, loud and unpredictable. Dogs that are not socialized around children will often be less tolerant and caught off guard by their behaviors. That said, even dogs that have been socialized around children have their threshold and degree of tolerance. It is important for handlers of dogs to be alert to the subtle signs of stress and discomfort that dogs offer to help asses a situation involving dogs and children.
Often there is miscommunication between kids and dogs. Children communicate with dogs as they do with other people. For example: Kids often make eye contact at greeting, hug to show love and try often to even kiss the dogs on the mouth. All of these things are human behaviors but are rather rude and offensive to dogs, especially from an unfamiliar child. This can often lead to a bite as the dog is uncomfortable and crowded. Prior to the bite the dog may have licked their lips, turned away, yawned, or done some other behavior indicating stress and discomfort of the situation. Once these fail to increase the distance of the child then a dog may escalate to a more intense response such as a growl or snap. It is important to be an observer of your dog and intervene to protect your dog and the child.
KCDB: Last year, about 25% of the fatality victims of dog bites were infants under 2 months of age. Are young children introduced to a family particularly vulnerable?
JS: Infant deaths are tragic and I hope that through education we can decrease the number to 0! A new baby is just that, NEW AND UNFAMILIAR. This automatically puts a new baby at higher risk. It is best to include the family dog in daily routines involving the baby so that the dog can become familiar with the baby’s smell, actions and sounds. In order to do this however you must prepare your dog during the 9 months prior to baby’s arrival and have a plan for CONSTANT supervision! Just as new parents are learning about their new baby and their cries the family dog is also learning how to react and is adjusting to this new family member as well.
KCDB: Given that children are more vulnerable to bites, is it wise for families with young kids to have dogs?
JS: Yes! There is no replacing the role of dogs in our lives. Children learn so much from family dogs. Families have always had dogs and always will. What is important is that they have proper expectations of the dog as an animal trying to fit into our world. We are very complicated and dogs do an amazing job fitting in…despite what the media leads us to believe. Dogs and kids have been a beautiful combination for ages and that won’t change. It is important that families do their research and respect their dog as being the animal they are. We can not expect our dog to babysit or entertain our kids. We can expect them to participate in adult supervised activities with our kids and be a loving part of a family.
KCDB: What steps should a family take to introduce a new child into a home with an existing dog?
JS: Oh….so much. Whether adopting or pregnancy…families usually have time to prepare for the arrival of a child. There are many resources online but of course…I must recommend my own. http://dogsandstorks.com/ and our blog http://dogsandstorks.blogspot.com/ There you will find loads of information and is a great starting point. As a canine behaviorist, a mother of three (soon to be 4) and a house with 4 wonderful dogs and 6 cats, I am always learning and updating information. However, the four most crucial things are:
1. Socialization! Socialization! Socialization!
2. reduce attention seeking behavior
3. Strengthen your dog’s manner
4. Practice & reward desirable behavior around baby items
KCDB: What steps should a family take to introduce a new dog into a home with existing children?
1. RESEARCH and take your time finding the right match! Often families make a decision without first doing the research. All breeds of dogs come with their special traits. Taking into consideration your lifestyle and what you want in your dog is key.
2. Educate the kids about boundaries and talk about what dogs like and do not like. www.doggonesafe.com has a great game that teaches much of this called DOGGONE CRAZY. This is a great way to help kids learn that dogs have limits too. They just can’t say “please stop hugging me!” the way we do. They will lick their lips, turn, pull away and then maybe growl. Kids can learn to be doggie detectives and gather the clues dogs offer. Check out a kid directed lesson on dogs on www.familypaws.com scroll down to the Doggie detective.
3. Once the dog is in your home take it slow. Give the dog plenty of breaks from busy activity so they can recharge.
4. Find a positive dog training class where all members of the family can participate in.
KCDB: Tell us about Dogs & Storks. What is the purpose of Dogs & Storks and why was the group formed?
JS: As a certified dog behavior consultant I became frustrated by the number of dogs in rescue that were surrendered due to a baby on the way or an unfortunate situation already having happened. I felt strongly that more resources were needed and in 2002 I created the Dogs & Storks program. We now have presenters all over the U.S.and have expanded to Canada. I believe that we must provide education BEFORE there is a problem. As a Mom and dog owner I learned A LOT along the way and am still learning. Our family also has fostered over 70 dogs over the last 8 years and these opportunities have been educational and eye opening. I share all of this with families. Things like: helium balloons might not be a good idea in a home with a ball crazy German shepherd….how do I know …well I had a ball crazy German Shepherd. If it was round…it was his. So in our program we identify dog sensitivities and how to handle them around newborns and all the equipment involved. We predict, plan and hopefully prevent through a plan!
I have successfully raised our 3 kids and we have never had a bite. This is not luck…it is diligent supervision and management along with respect between all of us and our dogs. We have four dogs of our own, Our dogs are Bailey (Siberian Husky), Windsor (blue brindle Pit Bull), Carin (Malamute /German Shepherd mix) and Duke (GSD) and we also have 6 cats that really run the show!
KCDB: Anything else you’d like to ad?
JS: I love dogs and will never be without them. It saddens me to see how little people pay attention to what their dog is communicating. So many injuries are preventable with more knowledge, observation and proper expectations. Dogs do their best and they are predictable….we need to be better at observing and guiding them through our complex human world.