Aggressive displays and true accidents involving injury between dogs and children are generally preventable, but it is up to the adult(s) in the home to set the stage and to provide the rules to protect everyone. By setting rules to protect the dog, the adult is ultimately protecting the child as well. Ideally, children and dogs will not be left alone, especially for long stretches of time. Providing rules helps to ensure your children and dogs both remain safe during those times when you are not watching their every movement.
1. Provide one or more “safe havens” for the dog, where the child is not allowed to approach the dog, especially if the dog is asleep. Typically, having a crate as well as a dog bed is sufficient. Just as humans sometimes have a desire for privacy or time to decompress, dogs have that same need. If a child is constantly waking up a dog for the fun of it, consider waking up the child after they have been asleep for a few minutes; make sure they understand that as much as they don’t like to be rudely woken up while sleeping, the dog doesn’t like it either.
2. Have a no-teasing rule and enforce it, with consequences. For example, if a child is teasing a dog by holding human food just where the dog can almost-but-not-quite-reach it, the dog will become excited and frustrated, and may snap or jump to try to snatch the food out of the child’s hand (a classic accidental-bite opportunity). When you catch your child teasing the dog with some yummy food, such as cookies, consider taking the cookies away from the child. (Don’t give them to the dog either). Put them away for another time, or for a more dramatic effect, throw the food into the trash, with a strong message: “You use the food to tease, you lose the food”.
3. Do not allow manhandling or dragging around of the puppy or dog. In the case of one child who had started dragging a puppy around on a leash (and ignoring her mother’s constant nagging to stop dragging the puppy around), we found a way to get the message across to her. We let the child in question accompany us on a relatively long trail hike (four miles). Towards the end of the hike, the child was tired, complaining that her feet were going to fall off, that she couldn’t walk another step, and why couldn’t anyone carry her or give her a break? “Well, dear, this is exactly how your puppy feels when you are dragging him around on a leash, except he can’t talk and tell you how he feels. Is the way you are feeling right now the way you want your puppy to feel?” A child with even a small degree of empathy should get the message. Depending on the age of the child, they may need a reminder hike at some point in the future, though.
4. Discourage – or outright ban – tug-of-war games involving the dog and children. During tug games, dogs frequently will quickly release and re-grab the tug item. Children may fall and risk injury when the dog releases the tug item. Alternatively, if the child refused to let go and the dog is stronger than the child, the child may be dragged along if the dog runs with the tug toy. Additionally, tug is a game of excitement; it is far too easy for a dog to grab too close to a child’s small hand – and indeed, the dog may misgauge the distance and mistakenly grab part or all of the child’s hand along with the tug item during the game, causing injury.
5. Especially with younger children who have less emotional control and little understanding of consequences, avoid leaving the dog and children alone together. Have an adult providing supervision at all times. This means, when indoors, that the adult is in the same room as the dog and child, not just being in the same house. When outdoors, the adult needs to be focused on the child and dog, not doing yard work in another area of the yard. Treat every interaction between children and dogs as if you were a teacher, watching for the students to try to peek at each other’s exams at test time; be observant and watch the interactions closely.
6. If an injury occurs, handle urgent medical matters first, but then review with the child as to what went wrong. This is not necessarily the same as assigning blame! The goal is to understand what happened so as to prevent the situation from reoccurring.
7. Encourage responsibility to help develop a strong bond between the children and the dog. This might include giving the child age-appropriate tasks as assisting in preparing the dog’s meals, cleaning empty bowls and refilling the dog’s water bowl. As the child grows in maturity, help the child learn how to give clear commands to a dog to earn rewards and to participate in training activities (always under adult supervision).
8. Spay or neuter your dog; it is a well-known fact that intact dogs are more prone to aggression than neutered dogs.
9. Socialize your dog so that he becomes accustomed to a wide variety of people, places and things. This way, he will be more confident, less anxious and less likely to startle easily. Many times dogs snap/bite because of anxiety and/or fear, rather than from true aggression.
10. Let your dog be part of the family as much as possible. That means he shouldn’t be left out in a yard or on a chain for extended periods of time, but around his family.
11. Ensure that your dog gets daily, structured exercise. This can include leashed walks as well as playing ball in a yard.
12. Provide a structured environment and routine for your dog. Help him learn that during certain activities, he should be in his crate or on his dog bed – not chasing the children during their game of hide-and-seek or tag.