Most encounters between children and canines are a happy experience for everyone involved – your child is excited to make a furry friend and the dog is pleased with a little extra attention. Yet dog bites are always a possibility if a canine feels uncomfortable or threatened. Parents can go a long way making sure these encounters are safe and that children know the right way to interact with furry friends.
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To explain, each year dogs bite around 4.5 million people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those, half are children. The CDC points out that children between the ages of 5 to 9 years of age are at the greatest risk for injuries from dog bites.
Dog bites are preventable. Donna Zaj, the head trainer and owner of Dog Zone in Clinton Township, who is a certified Canine Behavior and Training Specialist, recommends steps you can take to keep your kids safe around dogs.
Understand a dog’s point of view. Kids can be scary and threatening to dogs. Just imagine the typical kids’ reaction to a dog – a child’s high-pitched exclamation of delight at seeing the dog and then running towards him arms outstretched. “The dog can become fearful and his only recourse is to growl and bite,” explains Zaj. “Kids don’t hear the growling because they’re squealing and then the dog bites.”
Talk to your child about how to approach a dog. Explain to your child the right way to walk up to a dog before the moment arrives. Let her know that dogs can feel afraid of new situations and people. The best way to approach a dog is to be calm and walk slowly. Your child can stretch out her hand but not quite touch the dog – allow the dog to bridge the gap and come to your child once the dog feels comfortable. Zaj notes that you should start by petting the dog under the jaw – giving the dog a big bear hug or petting vigorously can make the animal nervous.
Ask the owner before petting the dog. Another important lesson for kids: Ask! Not all dogs like to be pet and not all owners want their dogs to be pet. Teach your kids to ask owners first before attempting to pet someone’s dog. On the flip side, Zaj urges owners not to feel bad about saying, “Not today,” when someone asks to pet your dog or “That’s enough” if kids, or parents, are petting a dog and you can tell your dog isn’t comfortable.
Keep your eye on the situation. Once your child has permission to pet a dog, make sure to pay attention. For example, if another dog runs up or a loud car races by the dog may become startled and lash out at the nearest person – your child.
Make it brief. The goal of letting your kid pet a dog is smiles all around, right? One way to ensure a successful experience is to keep the interaction brief. “There should always be a time limit,” advises Zaj. “A few seconds no more than a minute.”
Get more tips in this Metro Parent video, circa 2008.
This post was originally published in 2014 and has been updated in 2015.