Why are Some Dogs Aggressive With Children?
The overwhelming majority of the many cases of dogs who are threatening or aggressive toward children we see are motivated by fear. Many family dogs become extremely anxious and nervous when the baby begins to crawl and can invade the dog’s personal space – the more mobile the child becomes the more threatening the dog becomes. However, careful observations also reveal fearful and defensive body postures – ears laid back, tails held low and head turned away from the child. These are not the body postures typical of a confident dog who is attempting to maintain a dominant role.
Dogs who are defensive and threatening because they are fearful need to be slowly and safely taught to be more relaxed and tolerant rather than taking a confrontational approach with them. In fact, a trainer in the show had been bitten, apparently while attempting to pin the dog to the ground. This is one of many risks associated with such techniques as ‘alpha rolls’ and ‘scruff shakes’.
Obedience Training Can Help
It is always desirable for dogs to easily and willingly respond to cues from their owners to sit, down, stay, etc.. A dog who is responsive to these cues can more easily be managed around children and potentially dangerous interactions could be prevented. Teaching a dog these behaviors however is not going to help the dog become more tolerant of children. And it is simply not possible for an infant or toddler to assume a dominant role in a relationship with a dog.
But Even the Best Dogs Require Supervision Around Children
Even the best of dogs requires constant supervision when interacting with infants or toddlers. Purposely placing an infant next to a dog who has just snapped at an adult is an irresponsible behavior. Dog owners who are expecting a baby and have concerns about their dog should seek help before the child is born, rather than waiting until a crisis occurs with their young child.
Guidelines To Help Ensure Kids are Safe Around Dogs
- It is not a good idea to leave young children and dogs alone together, even for a brief time. Things can happen quickly that can put the dog, the child or both at risk of injury. A toddler can reach for the dog’s toy instead of her own, or grab the dog’s tail, either of which could result in a snap or bite. An easily excitable dog may jump on a small child and knock him down. Even when a child and dog seem to be getting along well, their interactions should be supervised to ensure that the behavior of neither one gets out of hand.
- Children should be taught how to behave around dogs. This includes not only treating them with respect by not teasing them, throwing things at them or purposely harming them in other ways, but to also be aware of other behaviors that dogs may be uncomfortable with. Quick hand movements toward the dog, yelling, running around and roughhousing can cause a variety of problem reactions from dogs. They may want to join in the fun by jumping and nipping, become frightened and snap to keep the children at a distance, or may also bite because they think a child needs protecting.
- Dogs should be taught how to behave around children. Dogs should have pleasant experiences with children beginning in puppyhood so that they enjoy being around them. Dogs should also be taught to obey basic commands such as come, sit, and down. When positive reinforcement is used, such as a special tidbit, most dogs will respond to even young children. Fourth, don’t assume that just because a dog is good with the children in the family, that she will automatically be accepting of visiting children. Visiting children should be introduced to the family dog gradually, using lots of tidbits and toys, and should always be supervised. Lastly, children need to understand the importance of closing gates and doors to prevent the dog from getting out. While dogs should be taught not to door dash, it is not realistic to expect all dogs to resist the temptation to leave the yard when a gate is left open. For some families, a lock on the gate may be appropriate.
By Suzanne Hetts and Daniel Estep
Rocky Mountain News
Drs. Hetts and Estep can be contacted on the web at www.AnimalBehaviorAssociates.com or by phone at (303) 932-9095