Dog Behavior Problems – Aggression - Children

Why would a dog bite a child?

Though sharing the company of dogs can be a wonderful experience for children, not all dogs are familiar with their mannerisms. Children can behave erratically, move in unpredictable ways, and make loud and sudden noises that can easily frighten a dog. Children may not always be gentle and pull a dog’s tail, fur, or ears, inflicting pain that can trigger an aggressive response. Children eager to touch a dog may continue to pursue or reach out even while the dog tries to escape the interaction. A frightened dog may bite. The small stature of a child can be threatening in and of itself, as direct eye contact is unavoidable. Aggressive responses can also occur when children and dogs reach for each other’s toys or food.

Most dog aggression towards children is fear-based, though many dogs will also show aspects of food, possessive, and territorial aggression. According to the CDC, 800,000 people seek medical attention for dog bites each year, half of whom are children. Dog bites are most prevalent among children ages five to nine and more common among boys. Children under four are most often bitten in the head or neck due to their height. As children grow older, extremities become the more likely targets. Children under six are often bitten in circumstances involving food or possessions, while bites to older children most often occur when they approach or invade a dog’s territory. Children are most often bitten by dogs they know.

About two-thirds of dog bites to children are inflicted by dogs living in the child’s household. In a retrospective study by Dr. Ilana Reisner, 66% of dogs had never previously bitten a child, and 19% had not bitten a human. These findings suggest that it may be impossible to predict whether a dog could bite—any dog has the potential to bite under the right circumstances.

"Children are most often bitten by dogs they know."

Children do not innately understand canine body language and, thus, do not recognize that growls and snarls are a dog’s way of saying, “please back off.” Dogs can become frustrated or frightened when their clear communications are unsuccessful, and these unpleasant emotions can trigger a stronger aggressive response.

How can I prevent my dog from being aggressive toward children?

Ideally, all dogs should be introduced to children while they are still puppies. The sensitive period for socialization, the age at which dogs most readily accept new things, occurs when puppies are between three and twelve weeks. If you adopt a puppy, arrange positive experiences with children so your puppy is not overwhelmed or frightened. See handout “Puppy Behavior and Training – Socialization and Fear Prevention”.

Dogs and children should always be supervised. Even well-socialized dogs can exhibit fear or aggressive behavior as they mature, particularly if they are genetically predisposed or have had negative experiences with children.

If you have an adult dog, take your time introducing her to children. Start by allowing children to give your dog treats rather than reaching out to pet your dog. Watch for signs that your dog is calm and friendly. Be familiar with signs that your dog is getting nervous. See handout "Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language".

"Dogs and children should always be supervised."

Be a good role model—avoid interactions that would be unsafe for a child to try. Do not engage in rough play, and do not bother your dog when he is sleeping, eating, or chewing a delicious bone or toy. Young children should always be directly supervised—do not leave your dog alone with your child. Should there be an aggressive incident, even if there is no injury, you might never have a chance to fully understand the circumstances. If your dog shows any signs of aggression, seek professional help immediately.

Are there any pre-adoption tips for selecting a puppy or dog that will be OK with children?

If you plan to adopt a puppy, try to learn about how the puppy was raised. Many breeders and puppy raisers set up socialization sessions before the puppies are ready for adoption. If you adopt an adult dog, ask about his prior experiences with children. If the dog has already lived in a home with children, be sure the interactions were appropriate and that the children did not have a chance to pursue or frighten the dog. Sometimes, when parents hear a dog growling at their child, they instinctively scold the dog. If a dog is punished while interacting with a child, she may become more frightened, and her aggression might worsen.  

When choosing a new dog or puppy, look for one who is playful and confident rather than timid. A puppy who hides and must be coaxed to interact with your child may not be ideal. Additionally, look for a pup who is not overly boisterous or excitable, as the tendency to become overly excited during social interactions may turn into rough play (see play based aggression in Aggression diagnoses). Though every dog has a unique personality, there are some common behavioral tendencies based on the breed’s original purpose. Researching the origins of a breed can be helpful. If you are looking for a purebred dog but are not certain where to start, ask your veterinarian for advice.

Are there safety guidelines for dogs living with children?

Safety guidelines are very important and should be enforced consistently. Your behavior consultant can help you establish an individualized safety protocol for you and your children. In all cases, children should be directly supervised by a responsible adult and should never approach a dog that is resting, eating, or possesses something valuable. Here are some sample guidelines:

  • Never leave young children or infants alone with any dog.
  • An adult should closely supervise all introductions between children and dogs.
  • Hold your dog on a leash and consider a head halter to prevent exuberant behaviors, such as jumping up. (Head halter handout)
  • If your dog begins to play excitedly around children, quietly call or lure her away. Do not scold or punish her—punishment can trigger fear and aggression.
  • If your dog appears distressed or frightened when she is close to or interacting with a child, calmly and immediately remove her from the situation.
  • Children should not run or play excitedly around dogs. If they are running and see a dog, they should slow down and walk. If a dog runs toward a child, the child should stop and wait for an adult. Children should never try to scold or hit a dog.
  • If your dog exhibits an aggressive response toward a child, discontinue further interactions until a veterinary behaviorist assesses your dog.
  • While waiting for a professional assessment, use a basket muzzle on your dog as needed to keep children safe. Children must not interact with your dog while she is muzzled unless instructed by a veterinary behaviorist.

See handouts "Children and Pets", "Life Skills for Pets: Crate Training and Confinement for Puppies and Dogs", "Using Predictable Rewards to Train Your Dog", "Dog Behavior and Training - Teaching Settle and Calm", "Head Halter Training for Dogs", "Muzzle Training for Dogs".

How should dogs be introduced to children?

When introducing your dog to a child, have your dog on leash a comfortable distance away. If your dog is calm and has no history of fear or aggression, you may give the child a treat and ask the child to call the dog over for the treat. If your dog understands ‘sit’ on cue, you may ask her to ‘sit’ before taking the treat.

"When introducing your dog to a child, have your dog on leash a comfortable distance away."

To help your dog adjust to household children, arrange activities that can be safely shared. Your child can join you and your dog on walks, fetch games, and ‘tricks for treats’. Older children may be permitted to feed your dog, but only if she has not shown aggression related to food and the child understands to put the bowl down and walk away, leaving her to eat undisturbed.

What if my dog already shows aggression toward children?

If you recognize any level of aggression towards your child, even a subtle display, additional safety precautions are necessary—even if your dog’s previous interactions with children were appropriate. For safety, you may need to completely separate your dog from your child until she is examined by your veterinarian and assessed by a veterinary behaviorist or qualified behavior professional. If your dog can relax behind a barrier, you may use a gate, but do not let your child tease her through the gate. If your dog reacts to children from outside your home, always keep your dog on leash outdoors.

Treatment for dogs that behave aggressively toward children is determined by the underlying motivation for the behavior, the target for the behavior (familiar or unfamiliar children), and the stimuli or situations that trigger an aggressive response. The diagnosis will be explained to you during your behavioral assessment. In all cases, your treatment plan will include a requirement for adult supervision of your dog when children are nearby.

Some dogs target mainly familiar children, typically children who live in the household. This aggression is often related to conflict over resources though there can be other triggers as well. There may be pain if a child pulls on the dog, and there may be fear if children are very loud or active. One important treatment step will be to enforce safety guidelines to protect both your dog and your child. For example, children who are not yet gentle should never be able to grab your dog inappropriately. Part of the treatment is to help children learn the best ways to interact with your dog so they can enjoy each other’s company. Teach your children about canine body language so they can recognize if a dog is showing fear or aggression, and help them become aware of the effect their gestures and movements can have on their dog.

Another important treatment step is to use reward-based training to teach your dog basic cues (e.g., sit, down, stay) to improve communication. When children ask a trained dog to follow one of these cues, they create a predictable social interaction. Training cues allow children and dogs to share a language.

"If you recognize any level of aggression towards your child, even a subtle display, additional safety precautions are necessary..."

Often, behavior modification can be used to improve your dog’s ability to accept some of the behaviors that trigger aggression. Before behavior modification begins, you will need to rely on some management to avoid interactions that can create conflict. For aggressive behavior related to resources, treatment usually begins with removing valuable resources when children are nearby. Over time, it may be possible to teach your dog to allow your children to be nearby when she has something valuable.

There are limitations when treating aggressive behavior toward children: aggression can never be fully removed from a dog’s behavioral repertoire. Your behaviorist may recommend permanent avoidance of certain interactions or suggest that your dog be permanently separated or rehomed.

Some dogs target mainly unfamiliar children or children who live outside the household. Sometimes, the trigger situations are similar—resources or inappropriate touching—unfamiliar children are more likely to trigger a fear response, particularly if your dog has never lived with children and is unaccustomed to their noises and activities. Other trigger situations for aggression toward non-household children include children running (e.g., playing a ball game ) and children entering the dog’s property (territorial aggression).  

If your dog behaves aggressively toward children outside the home, she should always be leashed when children are nearby. If you must walk near children, consider a head halter or basket muzzle and do not allow children to interact with your dog—the muzzle is for safety should a child sneak up behind you and reach for your dog. Since your dog is defenseless while wearing a muzzle, ensure that there are no unleashed dogs nearby that could threaten her.  

Your treatment plan might include a desensitization and counterconditioning protocol to reduce your dog’s fear or arousal when near children. This training may require two adults—one to ensure no children get too close and one to do the conditioning. See handouts "Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning" and "Overcoming Fears with Desensitization and Counterconditioning".

Desensitization
Desensitization should take place in a slow, step-wise fashion. It is essential that children are safe and not frightened. Over the course of several training sessions, you will bring your dog closer and closer to the child. In all sessions, you must maintain enough distance so that your dog shows no signs of fear or arousal. Watch for subtle signs of fear or stress (e.g., yawning, lip licking, trembling, crouching, ears down, tail tucked). Signs of escalation include barking, hair standing on end, snarling, growling, and snapping.

Before you begin desensitization sessions, train your dog to relax on cue. This can be done with a ‘sit, ‘stay’, and ‘relax’ or ‘lie down’ and ‘settle’ on a mat. During desensitization sessions, use favored treats to reward your dog for demonstrating calm behavior. If your dog shows signs of stress, move slightly further away from the child until your dog is comfortable again. After every two to three sessions, move a little closer. If you are working with children who do not regularly interact with your dog, the final goal may be to have your dog comfortable just watching children or passing by them on walks.

When working with children who live in your home, the sessions will progress until your dog is relaxed enough to take treats from them. This last step should be done with professional supervision—in some cases, a basket muzzle is recommended.

Classical conditioning
Classical conditioning can be used to pair the presence of children with something pleasant. In this training, you will  give your dog delicious treats whenever children are nearby. Your dog will learn to associate being near children with getting tasty treats. If you are concerned that your dog could become nervous or bite, all treats should come from you. If your dog has no history of fear or aggression and you are just trying to help her enjoy children, you may allow children to feed the treats as well.  

How can children be taught to interact with dogs safely?

There are many picture-based and age-appropriate resources to help children learn appropriate behavior with dogs. Two examples are the video-based “Blue Dog Initiative” and the picture book called “Doggy Do’s and Don’ts” by Dr. Emily Levine. Children should learn to understand canine body language, particularly signs of fear and aggression.

What are some “DO NOT” behaviors children should learn?

DO NOT:

  • Play with dogs who are jumping up or acting unruly
  • Disturb a dog who is eating, sleeping, or playing with something valuable
  • Touch a dog you do not know without asking permission
  • Touch a dog an unfamiliar dog when there are no adults nearby
  • Touch a dog showing signs of fear or aggression
  • Pursue a dog who is moving away (moves away, crouches, growls)
  • Tease, punish, or play roughly with a dog
  • Wave your hands near a dog’s head
  • Yell or shout near a dog

What should children “DO” around unfamiliar dogs?

DO:

  • Ask for permission to touch unfamiliar dogs
  • Let the dog come to you instead of reaching for the dog
  • Only use one hand to pet the dog and do not reach over a dog’s head; do not try to hug or kiss a dog
  • Do not lean over a dog
  • Use a calm voice when speaking to dogs
  • Back away if the dog looks nervous, moves away, freezes, snarls, growls, or attempts to bite
  • Stand perfectly still if a dog starts to chase you

What should children “DO” around familiar dogs?

DO:

  • Accompany an adult on walks
  • Reward the dog with treats, especially if she listens when you ask her to demonstrate learned cues, such as ‘sit’ or ‘lie down’
  • Tell an adult if your dog growls or snaps at you

DO NOT:

  • Approach your dog when she is resting, eating, or chewing a toy
  • Approach your dog if she steals one of your toys—ask an adult for help

What should children “DO” when confronted by an aggressive dog?

DO:

  • Stand very still and stay quiet (‘like a tree’) if a dog rushes toward you
  • Roll into a ball and lie still (‘like a rock’) if you are knocked over
  • Immediately tell an adult about what happened

What is the take-home message?

Dog bites are serious, and dog bites to children are particularly disturbing. We expect our dogs to act like ‘Lassie’, and for our children to enjoy carefree relationships with dogs; but this is not always the case. If you are concerned about your dog’s behavior with children, contact your veterinarian for an assessment, and if a referral to a veterinary behaviorist is recommended, follow through with it.

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