Almost any dog will bite under the right circumstances.

Some dogs have a fear of small children – especially if they have not had lots of pleasant interactions with kids. Most dogs are wary of staring, of quick movements, and of high-pitched screams, all of which are typical of small children. Some dogs are naturally friendlier, more tolerant and more adaptable than others.

Very few bites happen without provocation – but the provocation may exist only in the dog’s mind! We need to realize that dogs are not little people in furry costumes. They don’t think in the same way that we do.

Here is one of the most commonly reported scenarios in a bite case: A very young child sees a pretty dog he’d like to pet. The dog may not want to be petted. The dog’s first instinctive reaction is show his displeasure by giving a warning — growling. The growl means that something more unpleasant will follow if the warning isn’t heeded.

The type and number of warnings given can vary. Many dogs faced with a child like this would just walk away. Walking away can be considered a warning. If the child keeps trying to pet the dog, a sterner warning, usually a growl, will follow. Some warnings are more subtle — a stiffening of the body, for example. Few dogs bite without giving some indication beforehand.

Small children (and some adults) don’t recognize a warning when they see or hear one. A very young child (under age six) doesn’t know what a growl means. What may be obvious to an adult isn’t understood by the child. The child continues to pet or follow after the dog even though the dog has now clearly told him what will happen if he doesn’t stop.

A small child that’s petting or hugging a dog has already intruded well within the dog’s safety zone. If the dog has tried to leave or has issued a warning with no response from the child, the dog (in his mind) has no other recourse — he bites. This is normal, instinctive behavior — to the dog. He is responding to what he perceives as a threat and is doing what his instincts tell him to. Remember that dogs don’t think in the same way that people do. A child’s innocent action, petting the dog, can be provocation for a bite when seen through the eyes of the dog.

There are other circumstances that can provoke a dog to bite a child. Running, playing, screaming kids can trigger an instinctive predator-prey reaction in some dogs. Children who rough house and wrestle with dogs unknowingly encourage them to use their teeth. Dogs equate this kind of play with littermates or other dogs where using teeth is allowed. Startling a sleeping dog or petting him when he’s eating can also provoke a bite.

Children need to learn what kinds of games are appropriate to play with dogs, how to touch the dog properly, how to interpret the dog’s body language and when the dog is not to be disturbed. Children should be taught to never hit dogs with their hands or an object, to lower their voices when playing with the dog, to leave the dog alone when he’s sleeping, eating, or ill, and to never tease a dog in any fashion. Many dog bites occur because the child teases the pet beyond endurance.

When they’re old enough to understand, kids should be involved in the training process.

Remember that what your dog tolerates from your own children may not be tolerated from someone else’s. You need to take extra safety precautions when other children visit and make sure that the children obey your ground rules.

If the dog has access to a fenced yard, owners should make sure that neighborhood children cannot accidentally or intentionally tease him. Kids often begin by goading the dog to bark, then to snarl. Or they may throw things at him to chase him away from the fence. However it begins, the end result is usually the same: the dog learns to hate kids. This hatred may be manifest as fear or as aggression, and may end when a child is bitten and the dog is taken to the pound to be placed in a new home, (if lucky).

Never tie a dog in the yard. Children tend to tease tethered dogs even without realizing it, which can lead to aggressive behavior. Many instances of dogs attacking children occur when the dog is tethered in the yard and a screaming or running child enters its space.

Adult supervision is essential! Small children under the age of six should never, ever be left alone with any dog, no matter how reliable the dog has been before. A responsible adult needs to be on the scene to prevent any aggressive behavior by the dog and to keep the child from putting him or herself in danger. Telling the toddler to stay away from the dog isn’t enough!

Remember that young children don’t recognize when they may in trouble. It’s up to the adult to keep them safe from the dog and to keep the dog safe from the children. If you can’t be right there to handle whatever might come up or if you have any doubt about the dog’s behavior around children, the dog should be put away out of reach of the kids.

  • Small children under the age of six should never, ever be left alone with any dog.
  • Children should never hug a dog that is not their own, and should only hug their own dog very gently if the dog can tolerate the hug.
  • The dog should have a place he can call his own, a crate, a private room, a den. The children should never be allowed to bother the dog when he is in his place.
  • Teach children to pat the dog gently–no squeezing around the neck, please–and to leave him alone while he’s eating. Work on food bowl safety – ask your instructor.
  • Teach children not to run past the dog and scream, for this can excite the dog and lead to aggressive behavior.
  • Take extra safety precautions when other children visit.

Learn to recognize warning signs – get immediate help.

Kids and dogs are wonderful together — when adults use common sense and put safety first.