Dogs and children can be a match made in heaven. Growing up with a dog can provide an idyllic childhood and a companion for many years. Dogs provide love, affection, support and a reason to exercise. But sadly, sometimes the relationship can break down resulting in every parent’s worst nightmare – a dog attacking a child. But why does this happen and is there any way we can prevent such a horrendous outcome?

In my twelve year career as a vet, I have sadly had to euthanise dogs for behavioural reasons. Thankfully, I can only remember a very small number involving interactions with children, and none of them were serious. However, it doesn’t take much searching online to bring up incidences of severe or even fatal dog attacks on children. And despite there being so much more understanding of dog behaviour and public awareness of the potential dangers, the numbers don’t appear to be dropping. In fact, over the past decade, one report found that attacks have risen by 52%. 

We need to identify the problem. Is the law out of date? Are people not reading the warning signs? Are dog owners not training their dogs? Should we be educating our children how to behave around dogs? Personally, I feel all of the above apply. I am not putting blame on one particular area – the law, the children, the parents, the owners or the dogs. But something is out of balance and needs to be rectified. And as with many complex situations, it needs to be a multi-modal approach. 

The law

In the UK, there are four banned breeds of dog. The Pit Bull Terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro. These breeds were banned because they were originally bred for fighting and have a fearsome reputation for this. But just because a breed is bred for fighting, doesn’t mean that all dogs of that breed are inherently dangerous and vice versa. A dog can be a perfectly legal breed but not be suitable to be around people or other dogs because of aggressive behaviour. In fact, of the 18 reported fatal dog attacks on children in the UK in the past ten years, only two involved banned breeds. 

Rather than having the law centred around these four historically dangerous breeds, ought there to be restrictions on other similar breeds now present in large numbers in the UK? Breeds such as the American Bulldog, the American XL Bully or the Cane Corso. I’m not advocating an outright ban – far from it, as many of these dogs are individually lovely animals. But the way they have been bred, to be incredibly muscular combined with a very powerful jaw, means that even an innocent play bite could cause real damage. 

Now, every dog can potentially be dangerous. Many vets will tell you of an inbred fear of that most notorious visitor to the vets for a nail clip, the chihuahua – so the difficulty comes in deciding when do you stop listing these ‘dangerous’ breeds? 

The owners and the dogs

There is a phrase ‘…there is no such thing as a bad dog, just bad owners…’ and, with a few exceptions, this rings true. Whether you take on a puppy or a rescue, it’s important to do your homework first so you know you are getting the right dog to suit you, your family and your lifestyle. An intelligent and energetic dog such as a collie would not be suited to a life where they were on their own a lot or didn’t have access to outside space. They require a lot of physical and mental stimulation. Lacking this means they are likely to become frustrated and may even redirect that frustration into aggressive tendencies. This is not the fault of the dog. 


All dogs require training too. Not just tricks, but simple what is appropriate and what is inappropriate behaviour around humans. Puppies, by nature, will be very ‘mouthy’ and often will jump up to get attention. As they grow, if they don’t learn that this behaviour is unacceptable, it can become a problem – a 5kg fluffy German Shepherd puppy doing it is seen as cute; a 40kg adult German Shepherd jumping up and mouthing can be dangerous. But to the dog, the behaviour is the same. 


It’s also important that if you know your dog is not suitable to be in certain situations, for whatever reason, don’t put them in those situations. If they’re not good with children, ensure they are in a separate room when family come to visit. 

If you feel your dog is struggling behaviourally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. The vet is a good starting point, in order to rule out any medical conditions such as pain that could be causing a dog to act in a certain way. And a good behaviourist is worth their weight in gold. Always look for one registered, either with the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors or the Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians

The children and their parents

The majority of dog attacks on children happen in the home environment by dogs that are owned by family or friends. Because of this, it is absolutely vital to teach children, and their parents, how to read a dog’s body language in order to gauge when they are uncomfortable and at risk of lashing out. 

It should go without saying that children must always be taught how to behave around animals. Not to tease them, pull their ears or tail or lash out at them. As such behaviours could provoke a reaction from even the kindest of dogs. 

Dogs will very very rarely ever attack without warning

A warning doesn’t have to be obvious like a growl or a snarl. The majority of warning signs are based on the body language of the dog and will follow what we call the Canine Fear Aggression Ladder. This is a series of behaviours a dog will display to show they are uncomfortable with a certain situation. If the behaviour they are showing is ignored and the situation continues, they will escalate their behaviour to the next level. Ultimately, if the situation remains the same and none of the warning signs shown by the dog are acted upon, the dog’s last resort will be to bite. The earlier on in the ‘ladder’ the signs of discomfort can be recognised, the sooner the situation can be resolved and the dog’s stress levels de-escalated. The early subtle signs to really look out for include:

  • yawning
  • licking lips
  • looking away
  • turning away
  • crouching
  • holding the ears back
  • holding the tail under the body
  • showing the whites of their eyes

If these signs are ignored, the dog will start to show more obviously unhappy behaviours such as growling, snapping and eventually biting. It is worth noting that growling, often seen by many as the first sign of an unhappy dog, is at position 10 on the ladder – there is a lot that comes before then. Not every dog will show every sign but by far and away the majority will show at least some of the more subtle signs first. 

Be very careful of admiring those social media posts of the small child happily throwing their arms around their canine ‘best friend’. Too many actually show the dog in various stages of discomfort, which are clearly not being recognised by the people around them. As a professional, these are very difficult to witness. 

No matter what, a child should never be left alone with a dog

The situation could turn on a sixpence and it’s just not worth that risk. We would love to raise the next generation of animal lovers and children can learn so much from helping to care for another animal, that opportunity should not be taken away from them. But as both a mother to a young daughter and a veterinary professional, I implore you, be safe; be very safe. 

Further reading: