With 45% of the population having a pet in the household, it seems many agree that pets are part of the family unit. They bring us joy, and help teach children how to be responsible, caring and animal-loving adults. Given 26% of pets are dogs and 18% cats, today they will be our focus.
Did you know four children a day are admitted to UK hospitals with a dog bite, and more than two-thirds of bites are in under 10 year-olds? Many dog bites can be prevented with improved dog training, but more importantly, improved child training on how to interact with dogs.
Whether your family owns a dog or not, 33% of children in the UK will encounter a dog every day. While dogs present a serious injury risk to children, we should also teach our children how to be gentle and kind to any pet.
But my dog would never bite anyone!
The majority of bites happen in the home with family or known dogs. Even if you think they would never bite, you still should take steps to ensure your children are safe at all times. A dog is a living creature that thinks, feels and gets frightened just like us. They may turn to aggression in response to being worried about a person, situation or a place, feeling trapped, feeling unwell or in pain, protective of a person or property, or out of surprise or even excitement.
Tips for safe and happy dog/child relationships:
- If you are expecting a baby, get into your new routine early. Fit baby gates and allow dogs to get used to more time alone. Sound desensitisation CDs help prepare them for new sounds and synthetic versions of airborne hormones known as pheromones can be purchased to provide comforting signals to your dog.
- Make sure your dog understands basic behaviour. You can find instructions for simple commands such as sit, stay, drop, come and heel online, or at a class. Master commands inside the house before trying them outside. This way you will have better communication with your dog and they will feel more stimulated.
- Learn doggy body-language. It is rare for a dog to lash out without trying to communicate it’s feelings first. We can learn the signs of uneasiness, which if ignored may lead to aggression. 98% of parents were unaware of the 20 signs that dogs will show before aggression. Our children can be similarly educated at the right age. The more you understand your dog the better, happier your relationship.
- Train your dog to associate children with positive experiences, using fun games and treats, so they will be more likely to tolerate your child if accidental incidents occur. Play may include: teaching tricks, playing fetch, hide and seek, and walking with them.
- Make sure your dog has its own space, whether it be a crate or bed that they can retreat to, where no human will follow. A rule to be respected by all.
- Teach children that if a dog approaches, or jumps up they should fold their arms and turn to the side. If knocked over, they should curl up in a ball with their arms covering their face.
What should be avoided?
Teach your child never to approach pets they don’t know. Always ask the owner IF they can stroke their dog and WHERE they can stroke their dog. If agreed, they should hold their hand out and let the dog move to them.
- Never leave your child alone with a dog, no matter how good the dog is. Accidents can happen in a split second.
- Never tease or disturb a dog when they are sleeping. Dogs dislike face to face contact. 20% of parents have seen their child sit or lie on a dog, 19% kiss their nose, 18% pull a dog’s tail and 14% shout at or hit a dog. They may tolerate this for so long, before feeling overwhelmed or threatened.
- We should never bother dogs while eating, nor take their food, chews or play toys. If children want to encourage play, use another toy.
- Your dog’s sense of hearing is more acute than ours, so teach the importance of being calm around the dog. Screaming and shouting can be scary for them.
How do I know if my dog is uneasy?
It is important to recognise the emotional state your dog is in so you can intervene. They are trying to communicate with you in the only way they can. Share these tips with your children.
- Fearful dogs stiffen or straighten their body, cower, have wide eyes, and flat ears. They may bite in defence, if pushed. Growling should NEVER be ignored, even if your dog has never bitten anyone before. It’s a warning. If not heeded they may be forced to try a different tactic, like biting.
- Flat ears and showing of teeth are overt signs of anger.
- Stressed dogs may yawn, lick their lips, lift a paw or have their tail between their legs.
- Some dogs may simply move away from a child and try to leave. They should always have this opportunity. If not they may snap, growl or even bite in frustration.
What about cats?
Cats can give nasty scratches or bites if placed under similar pressures. A stressed cat is also not a happy one.
- Cats are good at removing themselves from situations they don’t like. Ensure they have escape routes and space where they can be alone. Cats also like high vantage points, from which they can observe, and hiding places.
- Make sure they can access their food, water and litter tray without stress. Baby gates are great for allowing the cat to be separate but still involved.
- Teach older children how to play and how to treat cats to help form positive associations. Treats can be used as a reward for tolerating younger children’s attention, as many cats do not like being held.
- Using pheromones may help reduce your cat’s stress when a new child appears.
Pets can be just as much part of the family as everyone else – but like with many families, if things go wrong they can go very wrong! So take reasonable precautions, and put the effort in to make sure that EVERYONE (dog, cat and human) is happy – then EVERYONE benefits!