Louisa Morrissey: Of kids and dog bites
Sadly, the number of dog bites reported in the United States is growing at a fast pace. Most of these bites occur in children ages 3 to 5, and many of the bites are given to the dog’s owner. There are a variety of contributing factors to this disturbing trend. While it is important to understand the underlying factors of the increasing bite rates, there are some important and practical things we can do to educate both children and adults about how to approach and interact with dogs safely.
When kids and dogs are together, full-time supervision is critical, and I am not just talking about the dog! Kids are active, loud and have unpredictable movements. None of this works well for dogs. The analogy of red light/yellow light/green light is a good one to use here. We teach children that green light is running and a dog will chase them. Yellow light is walking calmly. Yellow light is what should be used around dogs. Red light works to stop a child before they run into a dog or stop a child at a safe distance before asking the dog if they may pet him/her.
A great pattern to teach kids approaching a dog, is to ask the dog; not just the owner. A child first stops a least 6 feet (a leash length) away from a dog and owner. The child asks the owner, “May I ask your dog if I can pet it?” If the owner says yes, the child backs ups, puts their hands down on their knees and Invites the dog to come to them. If a dog says “no thank you,” everyone must respect that.
“Be a Tree” is always a great exercise to teach children when they are approached by a dog they do not know. Children should stand very still with arms folded (“bring your branches in”) and looking at their feet (“watch your roots grow”) when an unknown dog or overly excited dog comes up to them.
It is important for both adults and children to understand dog body language. Recognize the signs and cues dogs are giving to say if they are afraid, feeling trapped and crowded, anxious, nervous, frustrated, etc. Bites rarely come out of the blue. In most cases, the dogs have been trying to communicate their fear and anxiety for quite a while, and the bite is only the last resort.
Be ready to intervene when a dog shows the slightest indication of anxiety or fear. Remember that pain, injury and illness can also change a dog’s disposition.
Kids and dogs can go together with good supervision and education. Dogs enrich the lives of children and are often truly a child’s best friend. We are seeing the benefit of dogs as therapy dogs both for children with illness and children struggling to read. Together, with supervision and education, we can make the world a better and safer place for kids and dogs.
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