By Kay Thompson, R.N. & Dr. Cynthia Hoecker
The Emergency Department at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego treats an average of five dog bites per week. And we hear the same story all too often from perplexed parents: “Our dog has never bitten anyone. The kids and the dog play nicely together all the time. Then today, ‘out of the blue,’ he bit him.”
Dog bites are particularly stressful for families because children are most often bitten on the face, head or neck. People are often surprised to learn that most of these bites come from our own family pets or dogs that we know.
Dog bite prevention begins with the understanding that dogs do not bite “out of the blue.” People can learn to recognize potentially dangerous situations.
First, we can become aware of dogs’ body language, especially around children. Dogs use their bodies to say, “Don’t bother me right now.”
Here are some things you may notice when a dog becomes anxious:
• Lip licking or tongue flicking
• Tightly closing mouth
• Turning head, or turning entire body away from a situation
• Barking or whining
• Crouching or tucking the tail
• Body still, in a “freeze”
• Ears “pinned back” to head
• “Half moon eye,” which occurs when the whites of a dog’s eyes are exposed
Children and dogs require close supervision from adults. Children should be taught not to tease dogs, or play rough games that may encourage aggression. Sometimes dogs need space, and may simply walk away from a situation if they are uncomfortable. Dogs should be provided a safe place where they can go, where children are not allowed, such as a crate or a special bed. Always leave dogs alone when they are eating, chewing on a toy or sleeping.
It may be disappointing for people to learn that dogs do not enjoy hugs, especially from children. It is best to wait for dogs to approach people for affection.
It is also important to understand that dogs are, by nature, social animals. They are at their best when they share their lives with us and live with us in our homes. As early as possible and throughout a dog’s life, it is also important to socialize them in public. This includes providing them with plenty of opportunities to have positive interactions with other dogs and with people of all ages.
When dogs are not socialized or live only with other dogs in a back yard or on a chain, they can become very territorial and aggressive toward people. Especially dangerous situations can be created if a child wanders into the yard or if these dogs escape the yard and run loose.
If you are approached by a loose dog, do not scream or run; instead “be a tree.” Stand still and quietly, fold your arms and look down at your feet. Most likely, the dog will lose interest and leave you alone. If the dog does jump on you and knock you over, roll into a ball and cover your face and neck.
Dr. Cynthia Hoecker is a physician in the emergency department at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego. Kay Thompson is a registered nurse at Rady Children’s and a certified dog trainer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.