To read the newspaper headlines or watch television news these days will scare you about what happens to children around dogs. But how often does it happen? How likely is it to happen to your child? How likely is your dog to do it? Most of all, what can you as a parent, child caregiver, or dog owner do to prevent an injury to a child?

Not all dog bites to children are reported to authorities, nor do we have any way to tally the total hours of contact between children and dogs. We do have a good idea, though, that for the amount of time children spend around dogs, the injury rate is low. The death rate is low to the point of a death being a rare event. But one death is too many, and every injured or traumatized child who could have been spared this damage is a lesson we must take seriously.

Everyone responsible for the care of a child or a dog needs to know some safety rules. Unfortunately these rules are not common knowledge. Let’s hope this situation is changing. Experience of dogs is extremely beneficial for children. It is worth making the effort to learn how to safely provide children with dog experience in early life.

Dog Selection

Different dogs do well with different children. Breed is a factor, but one misconception people have about breed is that it’s equivalent to a “name brand” of a manufactured product. That isn’t the case. To put the genetics of dog behavior in human terms (to the extent that such a thing is possible), this would be like saying that all humans of the same category will behave the same way. Whether you’re referring to all cowgirls, all taxi drivers, all people from a small town in West Virginia, or all Presbyterians, this simply isn’t true.

Would you say all humans in the same family will behave the same way? Have you ever known a family with several kids? How alike was their behavior? Or perhaps you’ve not known a family with several kids but your own family has mother, father, a sibling or two, mother and father’s siblings, your grandparents, their parents and grandparents, and your cousins. How alike is the behavior of these people? In particular, what things could you be sure they would all always do or never do?

People are different from each other, even in situations of close genetic relationships such as societies where people marry others from the same small community. Dogs are too. But dogs don’t have the higher reasoning power that humans do. Humans are capable of a great deal of learned discrimination between right and wrong. Though people blame dogs for doing what people think the dog “knows is wrong,” the truth is that dogs do not know. They only know when you are displeased.

Killing another animal is not murder when a dog does it. Neither is killing a human. Dogs do not have the mental ability to comprehend a moral code that, let’s face it, some humans have not mastered. So we have to make our determinations about which dogs to choose for close contact with children on different factors than you would use to choose a human playmate or caregiver for your child. And we can’t just go by breed.

Though it does not guarantee a dog will be a good or bad risk around children, breed is a factor to consider. For example, if a breed has been bred to have a strong instinct to chase fast-moving animals and stop them with teeth, you will need to 1) train the dog to behave safely around children; 2) prevent children from playing wildly around the dog, especially prior to reliably training the dog; and 3) closely supervise children too young to always follow instructions when they are in contact with the dog.

Other types of dogs have behaviors that can be equally concerning around children. When choosing a dog or deciding whether to allow your child contact with a dog, you need to understand the normal behavior for that breed or mix of breeds. You also need to know the particular dog and, if the dog is not yours, know the owner.

Dog selection includes where you get the dog. A responsible source will take that dog back if at any time you cannot keep the dog.

Getting a puppy from an irresponsible person is a bad idea. This is the person you’re trusting to know the dog’s genetics and that the animal can reasonably be expected to turn out safe around your children. Don’t get a puppy from anyone you don’t trust.

An adult dog is a better selection to live with young children. Child behavior can permanently spoil a puppy’s ability to cope with children and thus result in raising a dog who will be a danger to kids when grown. A dog who has already formed a good opinion of children makes an excellent choice.

Supervision

Experts agree that no child under school age should be left alone with any dog for even one moment, no matter how gentle the child or the dog. If the child or the dog is extra wild, the age limit for this supervision goes higher. It tends to be higher in boys than in girls.

One reason for the age limit is that human brain development doesn’t reach the ability to comprehend empathy until around 5 to 7 years of age. This is when a child can internalize the concept that to do something to the dog hurts the dog in the same way it would hurt the child if that thing were done to him or her.

The younger child may give the right answer prior to actually understanding the concept, but will experiment with the dog when not supervised. This is normal child behavior. The younger child may also be able to follow your instructions when you are supervising, but this does not mean the child will be able to do so without your direct observation. It is essential to supervise children under school age at all times they are in contact with dogs.

Supervision means one adult for the dog and another adult for the child. This may put a burden on parents, but it’s how you train a dog and educate a child for a good future life—and it’s how you maintain safety in the here and now.

The adult who is handling the dog needs to possess the skill to control the dog as well as the knowledge to make each encounter train the dog properly for future behavior with kids. The adult who is supervising the child needs to understand safe child behavior around dogs and be teaching that behavior to the child during each encounter with the dog.

Don’t be one of those parents, uncles, or grandmothers who say “the child can do anything to the dog and the dog never reacts.” Do not permit a child to “do anything to the dog.” That’s poor supervision of the child as well as falling down on the job of properly teaching the child how to safely interact with dogs. It will come back to haunt you. [See Children Need to Learn about Dogs.]

Schedule and Other Household Priorities

Is it safe for a child to be the one who walks a dog on leash in the neighborhood of your apartment or condominium for potty outings? Probably not. This puts the child out alone on a regular schedule that predators can note. It also puts the child at risk of getting injured when another dog attacks the dog being walked. Of course if you have a fenced yard for the dog’s elimination needs, a child can help with this part of the dog’s care much more safely.

Exercise is not the cure-all that people are often led to believe, even for people who do manage to provide it for their dogs regularly. The wrong kinds of exercise cause dog injuries that can be expensive and disabling. A dog who has been injured may become defensive with children, and it’s often difficult to detect the injury in order to take care of it before defensive aggression becomes an established habit.

The best kind of exercise for dogs combines moderated physical activity with mental activity and positive experiences in the world outside your home. It includes training class for all dogs, starting with puppy class. A few small dogs may get by with several weeks of class timed carefully to provide the right experiences at the right developmental stages.

Crates are helpful in raising dogs, but they are easily overused. When this happens, a dog becomes unable to tolerate being confined in the crate. Arranging the needed separation between the dog and children when adults are not available to supervise—often including the times your kids have friends over—is made more complicated if you can’t use a crate.

The maintenance costs of a dog tend to come as a surprise, too. Dogs really do require veterinary care. A dog who doesn’t receive regular veterinary care is not a safe companion for a child. The law holds owners responsible for vaccinating their dogs against rabies. Your first major flea infestation demonstrates the need for monthly flea preventive. Worm preventive is another necessity.

Dogs get hurt by accident, they get sick, they eat anything that doesn’t eat them first (either way is a problem), and they develop complications from genetic physical problems. They need veterinary care for these things. The expense that was put out of mind when acquiring the dog typically turns out to be substantial.

Sometimes it simply isn’t possible to safely provide your children with a family dog. It is quite feasible, though, for a child to have positive dog experience with dogs belonging to other people.

Safety with Other People’s Dogs

The safest neighbor dogs for your child to be around are dogs trained to work with children, such as therapy dogs. The handler needs to be working with the dog and a knowledgeable adult supervising the child.

An essential safety rule for children with any dog is to ask the responsible adult for permission before approaching or touching the dog. If there is no adult to ask, leave that dog alone.

Many dogs instinctively protect territory. This can include a vehicle the dog is sitting in, a yard the dog is confined in (with or without a real fence), a tie-out in front of a business while the owner is inside, or on leash with the owner.

The same dog who might be safe for a child to pet when properly directed by the owner may bite when approached in a protective setting. Children make this problem worse by deciding that a dog who barks over a fence is a “mean” dog who “deserves” to be teased. Soon the dog is particularly protective against children in that situation. The child who gets bitten may be another child, not the one who did the teasing.

Teach your children to leave dogs alone when they are behind fences, on tethers, or in vehicles, even when they know the dogs and have previously gotten the owner’s permission to pet the dog. They need permission and the presence of the owner every time. And of course teach your children never to enter a yard occupied by a dog in order to retrieve a ball or other item.

The safety requirement of not entering the dog’s yard applies whether the yard has a fence or not. Electronic containment systems can pose safety hazards for children who enter the dog’s yard, and tie-outs have gotten many children badly injured. To keep children safe from your own dog, never leave the dog in an unfenced yard on a tie-out or in an electronic containment system unless you are out there to protect the dog from wandering children.

It isn’t safe to leave the dog outside alone even behind a fence, if children are able to reach the dog over or through the fence. A double fence arrangement that separates the dog and the people with a buffer zone between the two fences increases safety.

Safety also becomes an issue when your child visits the home of a friend or relative who has a dog, or you take your dog to visit where a child lives. Here the same rules apply as anywhere else, including the rule of no child under school age ever alone with any dog for even one second. Whenever a child is in contact with the dog, a knowledgeable adult needs to be in control of how the child behaves.

Do not count on other people’s kids, no matter how sweet they might be, to treat your dog properly. The vast majority of the stuff kids do that ruins dogs’ ability to tolerate children is due to lack of knowledge on the part of the children, the parents, and the dog owners. The dog cannot tell you the child’s behavior is giving the dog pain or fear. The dog can only try to get away from the child, or if unable to do that, try to make the child back off.

Roaming Dogs

Dogs roaming outside their owners’ property need special mention, because serious injuries and deaths to children have resulted from this situation. The owner tends to be unaware of what the dog is doing on these outings, or to assume the dog’s behavior when loose will remain harmless.

At first the owner may not know the dog is getting out. If you become aware of a neighbor’s dog getting out of the yard but not behaving aggressively, notify the neighbor immediately. If the dog is behaving aggressively and is loose, call the authorities immediately.

There are many cases of children injured by wandering dogs, and even some deaths. Roaming dogs commonly injure or kill other people’s dogs and cats. Too often, these dogs have been leaving their yards over a period of time, the owners know it, and no one has reported the owners. Don’t let this happen in your neighborhood.

If you own a dog who leaves your yard, change the situation. You probably think your dog would never hurt anyone or their animals. What most people don’t realize is that the more the dog leaves the yard, the farther the dog will venture and the more aggressively the dog will defend the territory where the dog is roaming and marking. Roaming dogs also form packs that commit aggression the individual dogs might not commit alone. The damage from an attack by several large dogs can be fatal. Roaming dogs in rural areas where leash laws may not apply will do the same things dogs in the city do.

The risk of aggression by a roaming dog thus dramatically escalates. If your dog gets out once, well, accidents can happen. There should be no second time. Move the dog into the house; build a better fence; do whatever it takes.

Teach your children never to approach a roaming dog and to avoid running, waving arms, threatening the dog, or screaming. When possible, the child needs to move calmly away from the dog to a safe place. Your local animal welfare or other interested organizations may have a presentation to teach children some safe maneuvers to use.

Neither the neighbors nor the authorities can adequately manage someone else’s dog. That’s why owners are held legally responsible for the actions of their dogs. In some communities the owner can go to prison in a case of neglected dog management that results in serious harm.

Lawsuits over these matters tend to go heavily against the dog owner who fails to control the dog. As a result, insurance companies now refuse coverage to certain categories of dog owners. Sometimes the only real solution for an owner who cannot control the dog is to give up the dog.

Unreasonably restrictive laws on dog owners are being passed because of irresponsible behavior by some dog owners and the failure of enforcement to make these people accountable. When you stand up and make that report, you not only protect the children in your neighborhood, but you also protect the responsible dog owners and their dogs.

If you are the one with the roaming dog and your neighbor comes to you and tells you about the problem, this person is doing you a huge favor. Take advantage of the opportunity to correct the way you are managing your dog, before someone gets hurt or you get hit financially as well as with the possible loss of your dog.

Whether you are a dog owner, a parent or a concerned bystander, please do what you can to put a stop to people leaving their dogs to roam. It causes many serious injuries to humans—especially children playing outdoors or walking to and from school–as well as damages to our animals that include injuries, temperament damage from traumatic attacks, and deaths.

When in Doubt

If your dog has shown any form of aggression toward a child, it is time for expert help in person. The most reliable expert to consult is a veterinary behavior specialist. This is a veterinarian who is board-certified in the specialty of behavior. You’ll want to start with a visit to your regular veterinarian, since the dog should be medically checked for physical problems that can be involved in aggression [See Changes in Behavior with Physical Causes]. Your regular veterinarian is the one to ask about finding the nearest veterinary behavior specialist.

Do not delay seeking expert help in person immediately for this problem. If you are not sure it’s really that serious, discuss it with your pediatrician and your veterinarian. People tend to discount an aggressive incident, even when a child is injured, because these things only happen once in awhile rather than every day. As a result, in most cases where a child is seriously hurt or killed, there was considerable warning first, but people did not act on it.

A child who continues to abuse a dog needs professional help. Ask your pediatrician for a referral. It is urgent.

If you need to give up a dog because the dog has become unable to tolerate the child, your best course is to get the expert help to determine what went wrong. This allows you to make a good decision about whether or not to get another dog, as well as how to handle another dog so the same thing doesn’t happen again.

Well Worth It

Having dogs in our lives provides humans of all ages with tremendous benefits. The people who are likely to make the most intuitive and talented dog handlers are those who learn dog language in the early language formation stage of brain development, prior to school age. Thus the age when humans are at highest risk from dogs is also the time we stand to benefit the most.

We want our children to have good experiences with dogs, and we want our dogs to have good experiences with children. This leads to the best potential in both dogs and humans, and enhances safety. It takes work, but not necessarily the work of actually owning a dog.

Responsible breeders and those training dogs for such jobs as therapy dogs, search and rescue dogs and assistance dogs appreciate the help of careful parents to give their dogs the right belief system about children. Your children can receive the dog contact they need while helping top dog breeders and trainers properly prepare their top dogs.

It’s also a wonderful way to introduce children to meaningful volunteer work. One way to locate these dog people is through the volunteers who operate dog clubs in your area. Many of these clubs and their contact people will be listed by state at the American Kennel Club.