Dogs are known as “man’s best friend,” yet each year, more than 400,000 children receive medical attention for bites. The majority of those bites involve a dog that child knows.

The first rule of safety is to never leave a child alone with a dog, even a family pet, no matter the breed. Any dog can bite unexpectedly.

“Dogs are very attractive to children. They love them, they want to run over to them and pet them and pull on them and fall on them. When doing that, a child can inadvertently back a dog into a corner, so the dog feels like it can’t escape,” explains Dr. Dean Beyerinck, managing veterinarian for Bush Animal Hospital in Eugene.

Due to a child’s small size, dogs may instinctively consider themselves superior and display protective behavior toward their territory, a possession or a person.

“A child might have something the dog wants, like a toy. Kids’ toys look a lot like dog toys and dogs often have a hard time differentiating between those,” says Dr. Beyerinck.

Eugene Pediatric Associates treats children for dog bites, which can be disfiguring, even life-threatening.

“In toddlers, most of the dog bites I see are to the face and it’s a combination of a laceration and a crush injury and the scars do not always go away,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw.

Know when to back off
To help prevent bites, it’s important to recognize signs when a dog is agitated or uncomfortable.

“In any dog with ears that stand up, if their ears are pinned backwards, that’s a sure sign of wariness. Raising their hackles is another sign, that’s when the fur along the back of their neck and back rise up. Instead of their tail being up and wagging, it will either be tucked completely under or in some circumstances arched way over their back,” Dr. Beyerinck explains.

Unfortunately, children, particularly under the age of 5, are not capable of understanding or recognizing these signs and don’t know when to back off. That’s why close supervision by a parent or another adult is so important.

Prevention tips
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends these tips to help prevent dog bites:

  • Do not allow your child to play aggressive games with a dog, such as tug-of-war or wrestling, as this can lead to bites.
  • Teach your child to ask a dog owner for permission before petting any dog.
  • Let a dog sniff you or your child before petting, and stay away from the face or tail. Pet the dog gently and avoid eye contact, particularly at first.
  • Never bother a dog that is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies. Dogs in these situations are more likely to respond aggressively, even with a person who is familiar to them.
  • Do not allow your child to run past a dog, because dogs may be tempted to pursue the child.
  • Teach your child that if a dog is behaving in a threatening manner—for example, growling and barking—to remain calm, avoid eye contact with the dog and back away slowly until the dog loses interest and leaves.
  • If you or your child is knocked over by a dog, curl up in a ball and protect your eyes and face with your arms and fists.

Obedience training
When children reach an age where they can better understand a dog’s temperament, parents are encouraged to involve them in training the family dog.

“What you want to do is establish the appropriate relationship between the dog and the child which is, that the dog does what the child says,” explains Dr. Beyerinck. “Dogs don’t naturally look at children as somebody to listen to, so they need to be taught.”

Involve your child in obedience training classes. In addition, have your child feed the dog, and have them walk through the door before the dog walks through the door. Do not allow the dog up on the furniture where the child is sitting.

“Anything that elevates a dog to feel equal to a child is going to make the dog a little bit more willing to tell the child what to do, which could mean snapping or biting.”