Good Dogs Don’t Bite Children, Do They?

Have you ever beamed with pride seeing your dog do so well with children?  Great!  This one is for you and your wonderful dog!

Historical bite statistics project that over 50% of our children will be bitten by dogs before age twelve, most often by a dog they know.  Despite the fact that dog bites rarely cause serious injury, families are distraught and dogs often lose their homes, or even their lives.

What’s that you say?  “Sure, that’s because of all those ‘bad dogs.’  Lucky for me, I have a GOOD dog and don’t have to worry about that.”

Think again.

Most of the cases I see involve a dog no one expected to bite.  When was the last time you heard a parent say, “Oh yeah, I totally knew my dog was dangerous and I just let the kids play with him anyway.”?

Instead, the calls usually start off with, “The bite came out of the blue!  He was always so good with the baby,” followed by a list of all the various things the dog has put up with without apparent complaint.

This is a clear case of The Curse of a Good Dog.

Most dogs known to be uncomfortable with small children are treated with caution and, thus, protected.  It’s the “good dogs” that are generally left to fend for themselves.

We all know how this happens.  A small child does something with the dog and the dog does not object.  Parents think, “What a good dog!” and are lulled into a false sense of security and a resultant lack of vigilance in guiding dog and child interactions.

What we forget is that all dogs, even good dogs, have limits to their tolerance.  Every action by a child that surprises, frightens, annoys, hurts or otherwise bothers a dog is, essentially, a withdrawal from that “bank account” of goodwill.  At some point this balance dips low, maybe on a bad day or maybe after an on-going history of incursions.  Bam!  That’s when you see the growl or snap or bite.

Didn’t come out of the blue at all.

Never forget that the Curse of a Good Dog has serious implications for the child, as well.  The child is acquiring unsafe habits of behavior around all dogs, not just this particular dog.  Most dogs actively dislike hugs, kisses, kids pushing them, pulling their fur or disturbing them while they’re sleeping — even if your own good dog has yet to object.

What your child does with your dog she will do with other dogs.

Instead of expecting more and more of our good dogs, let’s honor their forbearance with our guidance and protection.  Keep your good dog good:

  • Actively seek out opportunities to turn withdrawals into deposits.  Sure, all kids do some things that are annoying to dogs.  Your job is to make it worth your dog’s while.  Look at your dog, praise him and give him a treat.  Every time.  This increases your dog’s store of tolerance and prompts him to look to you when disturbed or startled.  It should never be your dog’s job to “correct” your child.  Show your dog that you will make it OK for him.
  • Learn the body language of a worried dog and contrast with how your dog looks when happy or relaxed.  Unless you’ve got a suggestion box where your dog can write you a note and stamp it with a paw print, body language is all your dog has.  Luckily, once you know what to look for, you can’t miss what your dog is telling you.
  • Teach your children true respect and empathy for animals by clearly supporting the animal’s likes and dislikes.  If your child truly loves your dog, she’s got to show that love in a way the animal truly appreciates.  Dogs love children they can feel safe around.  Save the hugs and kisses for Grandma.

Oddly enough, we get to have our happily ever after with our dogs and kids when we stop assuming a “good dog” is the most important part of the equation.

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  1. Wow, bravo! Well said. I am bookmarking this site, as I know it will be an excellent resource for my clients who are parents of young children and parents-to-be. Thank you!

  2. The big warning is when dog owners say “my dog is great with the kids, they can do anything with him. They sit on him, dress him up, sleep with him in his basket…”

    What they are actually saying is “We have no respect for our dog, we let the children treat him like a toy”.

    Then a child gets bitten, and the owners have the dog euthanised because he has become “unpredictable and untrustworthy with the kids”. Actually this long suffering dog was just pushed a bit too far on a day when didnt feel very well. Tthe Curse of the Good Dog rides again!

    1. Hello Jed. Thanks for your comment. It’s a perfect, succinct summary! “My dog is great with kids” is a red flag to me, especially because it’s usually followed, as you say, by “you can do anything with him.” When did that become a measure of a “good” dog? We don’t say that about our children, do we? “She’s a good baby — you can do anything to her and she doesn’t complain.”

    1. Yes, I love that “He Only Wants to Say Hi” article. Even though it’s written about other dogs rushing up, it’s equally applicable to children rushing up. Thanks for sharing the link!

      1. amazing article (only wants to say hi). It has changed my perspective on what has been occurring between our 10-year old dog and the 5 month old puppy we are fostering.

  3. Madeline: This is one of the best articles I’ve seen written concerning children and dogs; can you email me regarding reproduction/posting this on our website? Thanks much, Tonya

  4. Hey There,

    Wow.. It’s a very valid point you make and definately a trap that’s easy to fall into.

    Thanks for the post and delivering such a clear message.

  5. I am so grateful to have read this before my baby arrives. I like to call my staffy/lab a “good dog” – but I also respect him and this is a great article to make me focus on that too. Thanks for this site – its a great resource for me.

  6. So true! Even though I have great dogs I NEVER let my grandbaby pull, tease, aggravate or bother my dogs. It is imperative that we protect our dogs from the kids as well as the kids from the dogs. I would NEVER leave my grandbaby alone and unsupervised with my dogs no matter how good of a dog you have inevitably that child will do something to tick the dog off if left unattended. You must teach kids not to bother the dogs just like you teach them to stay away from fire. So parents and grandparents do your job and keep everyone safe.

  7. Excellent article! However, I had one issue with the second paragraph, “Despite the fact that dog bites rarely cause serious injury, families are distraught and dogs often lose their homes, or even their lives.” Is that an actual FACT? Every 40 seconds in the US someone is bitten to the extend that they require medical attention. I would like to see the facts behind that dog bites are rarely serious, I very strongly disagree with that statement and that is based on studies done by the CDC and the AVMA.

    1. Thank you for your comment! Here is a later post I wrote about dog bite statistics: http://www.dogsandbabieslearning.com/2011/07/18/dog-bite-statistics-do-the-math-before-you-freak-out/. Doing the math on the every 40 seconds statistic you mentioned, I think we are using the same baseline statistic of almost 800,000 bites per year requiring medical attention so you can see if you agree with the analysis on that post that digs into the level of medical attention needed. It may be that my use of the word “serious” is relative and I do caution parents that even a technically “non-serious” bite is a HUGE deal when it’s your child (and most likely your child’s face). That’s why prevention is always most important.

      1. Interesting to see the numbers in a mathamatical view point. It’s also difficult when many towns are extrememly hesitant to report serious dog attacks, and even fail to do so. I wonder how these instances count if at all. I think what makes this topic most upsetting for dog owners and victims of serious attacks or maulings (not using bite after reading your explanation) are preventable if owners and friends of dogs were able to identify and react appropriately when a dog’s body language is screaming for some help.

        Keep up your educational and very helpful message that benefits us all!

  8. I have a 4 yr old daughter and a 2 yr old boxer. While my dog actually likes being hugged, my daughter is taught that other dogs don’t like hugs, and we regularly practice appropriate dog greetings, like always ask the human first if you can say hi to the dog, don’t pat the dog on the head, only under the chin/neck or shoulder and never approach a dog that has no human.
    She has learned to leave the dog alone when she is eating and sleeping.
    She also hand feeds the dog treats, plays training games with her and toy games too, so our dog has learned that she is fun to be around.
    Whenever my daughter does do something inappropriate to our dog, the dog is first told how good she is and thrown a treat and then the child is taught why not to do what she did.
    We also ensure to observe any interactions between dog and child to monitor the dogs body language and interrupt the interaction where needed.
    We have done the treat thing with our dog since she was a puppy and will continue to do it till she is no longer with us, as while she is a good dog, we know she is still a dog that has teeth and if conditions are right will use them, so hopefully we are making enough deposits in her goodwill account!

  9. Great info and well written. I remember coming downstairs to find my curious toddler poking our Good Dog in the eye. I was horrified, but that is what can happen if you have the view that your dog will put up with anything. They indeed will have to.

    1. My daughter was bitten *twice* by a “good dog.”

      I’d had this dog for 10+ years; longer than the kids! We never thought twice about letting the girls play with him, even though we knew he was getting older.

      The first time it happened, we took her to the ER; no stitches, lots of blood, but we didn’t blame him. I was certain she’d hugged him too hard, or startled him. We made plans to find him a quiet home with no children, since he wasn’t a “good dog” anymore.

      Unfortunately, before we could, it happened again. In spite of our warnings to leave him alone, my daughter was bitten again. He was, unfortunately, destroyed.

      He was always a good dog. Was it his fault he paid the ultimate price? No. It was mine. It was my fault for being a little bit lazy and trusting my kids could behave. It was my fault for not watching them more closely.

      We were lucky that none of her injuries were severe, and the bites themselves didn’t even need stitches. I have the photos to prove it. I miss my dog. And now, I have to deal with my daughter’s fear of dogs (although we do have a younger dog we got not long before these events occurred.) They are taught very, very careful manners now, including “do not close the gap.”

      Thank you for your site. I always thought myself to be better-than-average at understanding dog behavior. Now, I really *am*

  10. Thank you for this article! I have a therapy dog who comes with me to elementary schools where we do presentations on ‘Being Safe Around Dogs’. I stress to the kids that it is important to treat all dogs with respect. Kids often don’t know what that ‘looks like’. I usually start by talking to them about times when they would rather not be distrubed by a sibling (i.e. would you like it if your sister came running in and jumped on top of you while you were asleep in bed? would you be a little mad or afraid? would you like your brother to reach over and eat your favorite food right off your plate?, etc.) I find that A LOT of kids haven’t been taught to respect their dogs. They say, “Our dog doesn’t care if we do that.” I anwer that my therapy dog has been trained and tested and that he will let us hug him or touch his ears or feet, but that it would not be respectful, or be using good manners, for me to do that. Good manners are about respecting others and it is very important to use good manners with animals, just as we do with people.
    I also emphasis over and over in the presentation that their dog at home might be comfortable with things because he has learned to trust humans – but that other dogs at their grandma’s house or friend’s house might feel afraid or protective and will not behave the same way.
    I wish that I could do the same presentation for parents! So few children are taught about dog manners. I imagine that most parents just don’t know about them.
    Most dogs bites are caused by a dog feeling afraid or a dog protecting something important (space, food, toy, person, or his own feet/ears/tail) Simply respecting a dog’s space and using good ‘dog manners’ can prevent a lot of bad situations.
    I also find that at least 25% of kids in every class say they are sometimes afraid of dogs. When they learn that there are lots of things they can do to be safer and understand that dogs have likes and dislikes – it gives them a feeling of being more in control, and empowers them to feel less fearful. Many children don’t understand what ‘sets dogs off’ (i.e. running away, waving your arms, and yelling no to a dog is an AWESOME game that will virtually guarantee a dog will chase you!)
    Given the number of dogs in the U.S., I wish dog safety was taught in every school, just like fire safety.

    1. You are so right about the fire safety comparison! Kids can certainly learn catchy bits of things to help them remember. I remember my son saw some matches in a drawer years ago and practically freaked out, “Those are matches! Get them away from me!” LOL, did he think they were going to spontaneously combust if they touched him? Not that we want kids freaked out by dogs but they can learn what to do. My blog post about “Don’t Let Your Toddler Be the Freaky Guy on the Train” was aimed towards helping parents understand that they may inadvertently be setting their kids up for dogs not to feel safe with them. I just previewed some of the free stuff at http://www.thefamilydog.tv and it looks like they are on the right track for helping families raise kids that enjoy and respect their dogs. Keep up your good work!

  11. Excellent article. I would like to add that this is great advice for cat owners too. Due to space issues, we are a cat family only right now. We will have a dog again someday once we’re in a bigger place. We recently adopted a cat and we constantly watch how our daughter interacts with our new family member. They are doing great but it’s our responsiblity to be vigilant in keeping an eye on both of them.

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