Let’s start with a basic truth: Dogs are not stuffed animals, they are living creatures. As such, dogs have needs that must be addressed to ensure the dog has the opportunity for a comfortable life. It is not enough to simply throw food at a dog and give access to a yard for potty breaks. Dogs need rules and leadership, and they expect their leader(s) to provide protection for them, as members of the family (or pack, if you wish). Yet small children have a tendency to treat dogs as stuffed animals, and while a dog might put up with some amount of mishandling, at some point the dog is likely to say “enough”.
How the dog says “enough” is usually through subtle body language. Dogs are considered masterful at sending and receiving body language signals, but children (and most novice owners) are woefully ignorant of canine body language. As a result, miscommunication can occur, sometimes with terrible results.
Consider a child who walks a small dog or puppy around on a leash in the house, cheerfully dragging the puppy around. At first, the dog might be quite willing to go along with the game; after all, leashes generally mean a chance to go outdoors where serious sniffing of new and exciting scents is available. At some point, the dog realizes that the child isn’t going to take him outside. The dog gets tired and bored of the game, and tries to sit or lay down, or tries to go to his water dish to slake his thirst from being hauled around the house. The child ignores the dog’s need, and continues to pull the dog around the house, occasionally jerking or yanking the leash to get the dog moving.
The dog sits again, stiffening the body and flattening the ears back, as he gets more frustrated. The child might start to verbally scold or yell at the dog, perhaps hitting or kicking the dog to get it moving. Children generally are so self-centered that they do not notice the body language when the dog starts to send the “enough is enough” signal. The dog realizes his body language is being ignored, and so escalates the language, perhaps to a growl or air-snap. At this point, some children might become frightened and “report” to an adult that the dog growled at them or bit them, while other children may respond by hitting the dog or by continuing to yank the dog around even more – until an actual bite or full-out attack occurs.
This is not an unusual scenario in a household where young children are given a dog or puppy. Other typical causes for a dog to snap at a child occur when children tease dogs with food, pull the dog’s ears or tail, climb or step on the dog, or otherwise interact with the dog in such a way that the dog is repeatedly exposed to a frustrating situation. Like humans, most dogs have a snapping point. I recall one case where a family dog – a Saint Bernard – suddenly snapped, mauling a child; the dog was put down for being viciously aggressive. The veterinarian autopsied the dog and found that the child had taken a broken pencil, lifted one of the dog’s ears, and shoved the broken pencil in so hard and so far, that it punctured the dog’s eardrum and went into the brain – and that was when the dog finally snapped and went after the child.
I recall from my own experience the single time that our family dog bit me, when I was about twelve years of age. I had walked twenty miles in a walk-a-thon, and then babysat next door until about two a.m. Upon arrival home, I entered my room only to realize that the light wasn’t working. Exhausted, I walked towards my bed and flopped down on it. Except that my bed was already occupied by my dog, a thirty-pound mixed-breed, who had been sound asleep. In the dark, out of reflex as my hundred-plus pounds landed abruptly on her, the dog snapped once and connected with my face. The instant she realized it was me, however, her body language changed; the ears went back, the tail tucked between the legs, the head went down (while at the same time she was trying to lick my face) and she whined. Even then, I knew the incident was entirely my fault; I calmed her down, cleaned my face off and we went to sleep together. In the morning, when my parents saw what had happened, they were going to punish the dog, and I intervened. Punishing the dog hours after the fact for something that was my fault, not hers, was clearly inappropriate, yet, to them it was the initial knee-jerk reaction of “it’s always the dog’s fault”.
More recently, I met with a family where the mother was frustrated because her four-year-old child constantly was leashing the family puppy and dragging the puppy around the house and yard, practicing dog training “like Cesar Milan”. I met with the family. In conversation, I learned that from day one, the child had been allowed to manhandle the puppy. Thankfully, the puppy has so far been rather tolerant of the constant interaction with the child.
The problem, from the mother’s view, was now the puppy wouldn’t come to anyone when they had a leash in hand, which was having disastrous effects on the puppy’s housebreaking (or lack thereof!). During the discussion, I warned the mother that the puppy might someday snap at, and even potentially bite, the child, if the child persisted in random leashed dragging of the puppy. The response, along the lines of: “Well, he should snap at her, but he better not bite her!” indicated a serious lack of understanding from the mother that the dog had rights. The child chimed in too: “He’s my dog, and I can do what I want to him”.
The mother was more concerned that the dog now had decided that the bathroom area was the better place for him to toilet, because he would not be subjected to having a leash attached to him. Furthermore, the puppy didn’t seem to accept being screamed at every time his excrement deposits were being discovered; the mother accused the dog of being “spiteful”. How many of my readers already can see what is likely to happen in the future for this puppy without intervention to train the humans involved? If the puppy doesn’t someday snap at the child and develop a fear-aggression response to all children, the humans will eventually get tired of discovering the puppy’s excrement on the floor of their bathroom, and he may find himself added to the many dogs consigned to an animal shelter.
In all of these scenarios, the child or children involved treated the dog as if it were a stuffed animal. To the children, the animal had no rights; the desires of the children were paramount. Often, the dog was viewed as not having feelings, or that any feelings the dog might have are considered inconsequential.
Failure to recognize that dogs have feelings and needs to be met – in short treating the dog like a stuffed animal – is a serious underlying factor as to why bites and displays of aggression eventually occur between dogs and children.