A baby or child fatally injured by a dog.
Every few months a fresh headline proclaims a new tragedy. Having worked as a vet in small animal practice for twenty years, these cases frustrate me because they are often preventable.
Pointing fingers at shell shocked, grieving parents is neither kind nor helpful. But as a society it is our responsibility to be better educated about how to integrate our canine companions into our lives more safely. This means considering our dogs’ mental health as we should the mental health of all our family members.
To further explore the subject of canine behaviour in relation to cohabiting with children I exchanged messages with my friend Leonie, also a vet who is not only passionate about treating canine behavioural issues appropriately but has also done further study in this area. And I thought I’d share some of the key points we discussed, which not all dog owners may be aware of:
By far the most common cause of canine aggression is anxiety that has been ignored or not addressed appropriately.
Dog owners need to be better educated about early canine anxiety signs, which the dog uses to communicate its discomfort. These signs include, but are not limited to: lip licking, yawning, averted gaze (often misinterpreted as submission), whale eye (when any of the white part of the eye is showing), panting, pacing, and neediness (often misinterpreted as love).
Dogs should not be punished for showing anxiety around a child. This will just increase that anxiety in future interactions and cause the dog to lose trust in their emotional advocate (the adult).
The time to get behavioural advice is when the dog shows anxiety around anyone, not just a child. Don’t wait until anxious behaviour converts to aggressive behaviour.
If anxiety and/or aggression are part of your dog’s behavioural issue, do not seek help from a dog trainer. Seek advice from a vet first.
Your vet is likely to first rule out any physical causes of anxiety and/or aggression. This usually starts with a thorough physical examination, but may also include further diagnostic tests such as blood tests or X-rays etc. Pain or feeling unwell can change even the most placid dog’s behaviour. Once a physical cause can be confidently ruled out, it can be classified as a behavioural issue. In this case a referral to a vet with a keen interest in behavioural medicine (preferably someone who has done some further study in this area) may be recommended.
If you are considering adopting a rescue dog, think very carefully about whether your family and home is going to meet all of that dog’s physical and mental health needs. Rescue animals are prone to anxiety disorders due to previous loss of attachment figures (owners). Animals are also rehomed because they have an anxiety disorder, which exacerbates it further.
Another less common cause of dogs injuring children is prey drive. This is based on instinct. It is a subconscious response that can be triggered by noise and/or movement and could cause a dog to treat a small noisy child or baby as its prey. Even some play is an inhibited form of prey drive (seek and chase during hunting), and particularly if the dog is bigger and stronger than the child this interaction could result in significant injuries to or death of the child.
Prey drive is more developed in some dogs than others. Knowing your dog well and (if their prey drive is strongly developed) keeping them away from children (and other smaller dogs) can avoid a tragic outcome.
It comes down to this:
Before you bring a dog into your family – educate yourself about dog behaviour.
If you as the adult(s) in the household make the decision to have both children and dogs in that household, then you are responsible for the physical and mental wellbeing of both. Generally speaking, neither the child nor the dog has an adult human’s judgement or emotional regulation, and depending on the age of the child they may not be capable of reading the subtle signs of canine emotional discomfort that can precede aggressive behaviour.
If you live with both dogs and children it is your responsibility to model and teach your children empathy, respect, and good behaviour towards animals, from the earliest age possible.
And the one nonnegotiable rule is:
Never leave a dog and a child under the age of 12 (or over 12 if they have not been taught how to read a dog’s body language and respond appropriately) together without the close and careful supervision of a responsible adult who can interpret the dog’s behaviour as well as they can the child’s.
And when I say never I mean not even for the length of time it takes you to go to the toilet.
If we can accept that knowing about canine behaviour is just as important a part of being a responsible dog owner as knowing about keeping your dog physically healthy, it will mean fewer children are injured by dogs, and fewer dogs will die by euthanasia for a potentially preventable behavioural issue.
With thanks to Dr Leonie Thom for contributing to this post.
Please note that a full exploration of all the causes of aggressive canine behaviour is beyond the scope of this post. The information in this post is general and not intended to replace a veterinary consultation.
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