For those of us who own or interact with dogs, it’s a safe bet almost all would say our furry friends are well, friendly. But, it’s important to remember that all dogs, no matter how snuggly, playful and lovable, have the potential to bite. “Every breed, all shapes and sizes, both sexes, ANY dog,” says Kay Moore, R.N., B.S.N., C.P.E.N., a clinical nurse in Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego’s Emergency Department (ED) and a certified professional dog trainer.

Given both of her professions, as well as her findings from a dog bite research project she is currently leading, Moore is well-versed in the prevalence of bites. “San Diego County Animal Services investigates more than 6,000 dog bites or attacks a year,” she says. “Our ED at Rady Children’s treated 338 dog bites in 2017, and 329 in 2018. In addition, we treat over 150 dog bites in our urgent cares each year.” Most of the time, these aren’t coming from strays on the street or an unfamiliar neighborhood dog. “In 75 to 80 percent of [the cases we see at Rady Children’s], the dog is either the child’s family pet, extended family’s pet or a close friend’s pet that the child knows well. For this reason, dog bites are particularly emotionally stressful for the whole family because the dog is loved and considered a family member.” Moore adds that although “bites that are more severe [and] that often require surgery … are more highly correlated with pit bulls, German shepherds, rottweilers, etc.” that doesn’t mean that these breeds should be stigmatized. “These are the bites that are highly publicized for their dramatic effect. Actually, because they are the most commonly owned breeds, we see lots of labrador and golden retriever bites.”

Moore explains that dogs don’t bite out of nowhere, and that just like people, they have a vast body language vocabulary that can give humans insight into their feelings. Specifically, she notes the following are “common things that dogs do to indicate they are getting nervous around kids or when they have had ‘enough’”:

  • Standing with a raised tail, stiff body and closed mouth.
  • Licking lips or rapidly flicking the tongue.
  • Gazing with “half-moon eyes,” or when the whites of their eyes show in a half-moon shape.
  • Yawning when wide awake.
  • Tucking their tail, even if they’re wagging it — this expresses worry or fear.
  • Turning their head in an exaggerated way, either toward or away from their source of annoyance.
  • The “freeze and stare” — holding the entire body and head very still with wide eyes. A bite often follows this warning sign.

Parents can monitor dogs’ body language and children’s behavior to help support positive interactions between pups and kids. Moore says in general, 5 is the “magic age” when kids can start to understand dogs’ social cues and make safe, smart choices around four-legged companions. Some key things to keep in mind include the following:

  • As much as we may love to cuddle with our dogs, the feeling isn’t always mutual — avoid kisses, laying with a dog in their personal space and especially hugs. “Dogs don’t like hugs from kids, especially kids they don’t know,” comments Moore. If a dog approaches you for a snuggle session, however — for example, curling up in your lap or placing their head on your leg — it’s generally safe to take their invitation.
  • Dogs tend to dislike pats on the head; petting the sides of their neck is a safe alternative.
  • Games such as fetch or hide-and-seek are good options, whereas engaging in something such as tug-o-war or chase may get a dog overly excited or feeling aggressive, in turn increasing bite risk.
  • It’s important to let dogs be when they’re eating, drinking or chewing on a bone; if they’re ill or hurt; or if they’re behind a fence or chained in a yard.
  • Never assume a dog wants to be pet or played with, even if they look friendly. If you see a dog you’d like to greet, ask the owner and then approach slowly and calmly, allowing them to sniff and assess their comfort level. If their body language indicates they’re uncomfortable, leave them alone.
  • If a dog does approach in an aggressive way, “be a tree,” says Moore. Stand in place, hold still and keep your arms close to your body. Never, ever run from a dog.

So, how should your family move forward if you feel you’re ready to add a dog to your pack, or to have one for the first time ever? Although there are no hard and fast rules surrounding age, Moore reiterates it’s ideal for the youngest child in the family to have reached the “magic age.” In addition, she emphasizes doing extensive research and making an honest evaluation of how much time your family has available to properly care for your new friend based on the unique needs of their breed. Once you find the perfect fit, be sure to socialize them with dogs and people alike as early as possible, and begin a training regimen based on positive reinforcement, whether on your own or with a professional. Keep watch over all kid-to-dog interactions, and ensure younger kids know to go to you if there’s a problem with the pup rather than attempting to discipline the dog themselves. Finally, keep tabs on your dog’s health care, and give them plenty of mental stimulation, exercise and love — they deserve the best, and a happy, fulfilled dog is much more likely to stay calm around the humans in their lives.