High-pitched laughter pealing behind her, Nancy ran around the corner of the house smack dab into the dog chained by the garage. Unnerved by the noise and startled by the child, the dog lunged and bit Nancy on the nose. She screamed, and the dog bit again. Nancy ended up with several stitches in her face and nightmares; the dog was euthanized for biting; and both families were traumatized.
The tragedy could have been avoided if Nancy's folks and the dog's owners had been prepared.
First of all, a dog should never be chained outside unattended. Most dogs of guard or working heritage suffer personality quirks when tied and many become downright aggressive. Dogs are better off in fenced areas, where they can see the barrier between them and the world, where they can feel somewhat safe from noisy, frolicking children. In addition, many dogs instinctively equate the high-pitched sounds of children with the distress sounds of prey animals, and they react by biting the child as they would have bitten the prey animal in the wild.
Second, children should be taught how to behave around dogs, even if their own family does not own a dog. For example, a child should never approach a strange dog without asking the owner if it's OK to pat the dog. If the child sees a loose dog on the street, he should not approach it even if he knows the dog belongs to his friend. He should tell someone that he saw the dog, but should make no attempt to pat or grab it.
Nor should he scream or run away, for these actions can result in an attack by the dog. A running being frequently says "prey" to the dog and triggers the chase response in his brain. Once triggered, this response is almost impossible to interrupt. The dog is reacting to chemical stimulus, not rational thought, and is extremely difficult to sidetrack.
Most dogs, even those that are well-trained, do not consider children as figures of authority. Furthermore, since children frequently stare intently at animals, a dog may feel threatened by this short person who is trying to catch him. Even the best-natured dog may bite to protect himself in these circumstances, especially if he feels cornered.
Once a child is given permission to approach a dog, she should present her closed fist for the dog to sniff. This protects the fingers in case the dog is frightened and tries to nip.
Children should never hug a dog that is not their own, and should only hug their own dog very gently if the dog can tolerate the hug. Children should be taught to never hit dogs with their hands or an object, to lower their voices when playing with the dog, to leave the dog alone when he's sleeping, eating, or ill, and to never tease a dog in any fashion. Many dog bites occur because the child teases the pet beyond endurance.
Dog owners share the responsibility for bite prevention as well. They should socialize their puppies to small children at an early age. (It helps to buy from a breeder who has started this socialization prior to the puppy purchase, for the younger the puppy is exposed to gentle children, the more tolerant of children it will become.)
Socialization can be as simple as walking the dog near a playground where children are making noise, running about, playing ball or Frisbee or soccer or walking through the neighborhood while the kids wait for the school bus. The dog can be told to walk at heel through a crowd of children, to sit-stay and watch the play or allow the children to pet his head, to down-stay until the end of the game. Constant exposure of this type will accustom the dog to the presence and antics of children.
The sight of a child and a dog napping together on the sofa or the floor, playing in the yard, or contemplating the sunset is a wondrous thing. The potential relationship between a child and the dog who considers himself the family guardian is precious, and it needs to be nurtured and guided. Families can accomplish this by teaching the dog and the child to respect and cherish each other. If this can be done, fewer children will be bitten and fewer dogs will be euthanized for aggressive behavior.
(Also see Vicki DeGruy's award winning column: Kids and dogs: a common sense approach)
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