Q: My young son gets along great with the family dog, who wouldn’t hurt a fly. But I worry about keeping him safe around the neighbors’ dogs, who aren’t used to children, or any stray dogs he might encounter. How should I teach him to be safe around animals?
A: Dogs have been domesticated by humans for over 10,000 years and have evolved into one of the most common and beloved household pets. They also have been heroes for children – protecting them from intruders, other animals or from getting lost. Unfortunately, dogs are also a major source of harm for children, causing about 600,000 bites to children each year that require medical attention. And about 20 people die every year in the United States from dog bite attacks.
Since children suffer the majority of dog-induced injuries every year and children will definitely be around dogs occasionally, it is important to teach children and families about dog safety. Here are a few tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups:
• Avoid leaving young children alone with dogs. Remember that if hurt or threatened, even the beloved family dog can bite. In fact, most bites are from family or dogs that are known to the child. It is obviously hard to never leave a young child alone with the dog if you have one in your home, but up until the age of 4 this should be the goal.
• Teach children that dogs don’t like hugs and kisses like humans do. Children putting their faces up to dogs and wrapping their arms around the dogs neck is a frequent reason for bites. Show children how to show love for dogs by scratching the side of the dog’s neck. This is also a good time to teach children about dogs’ body language – the smiling mouth and eyes of a tail-wagging dog, and the closed mouth and cocked tail of an anxious dog. Obviously, remind them that growling is not the dog equivalent of a cat purring!
• Teach children to be cautious, but not overly fearful, of strange dogs. If you as a parent decide that your child can approach a dog, teach your child to always ask the owner’s permission before petting the dog. Then instruct your child to hold his hand out for the dog to smell and to gauge the initial reaction. Only after that should the child use the hand to pet (again, children need to be taught to never get in the face of any dog).
The reason that we don’t want children to be overly fearful of dogs is because that can add to the potential irrational fears children develop, and most importantly, because dogs are generally “chasers,” so running from a dog in fear can cause bad things to happen.
If children encounter an overly aggressive or overly friendly dog, they should stand still with hands in front of them, and if knocked down they should curl up, protecting their neck and face with their hands behind their head.
Dogs can help children have years and years of fun and memories, but they are animals, not four-legged humans, and need to be treated with respect and appropriate caution.
Mike Steiner is a pediatrician at North Carolina Children’s Hospital.