News U Can Use: Dog Danger

Can you tell when Fido means business? Can your kids? Important info for all about keeping kids safe around dogs.images Reprinted from the Motherlode Blog:

What I Learned (Too Late) About Keeping Kids Safe Around Dogs


When my son Otto was 2 years old, he was bitten in the face by a dog. It was my fault; I knew the dog didn’t like children. A mutt I’d adopted in the Caribbean, Zeke was the friendliest dog you could hope to meet (that’s why I dragged such a scraggly creature home with me), until my first son, Zane, was born. After a few angry growls, Zeke went to live with my father.

When I visited Dad a few years later with both kids in tow, it didn’t occur to me I was putting them in harm’s way. I let Otto chase Zeke around the house, grab his fur and sit on him when the dog clearly wanted to be left alone. Zeke growled, he tucked his tail, he bared his teeth, he air-snapped — all signs of imminent danger — and I would just scoop Otto up, arrogantly thinking I could control the situation. What’s the worst that could happen, I thought? A little nip? Honestly, until you see a dog attack, you have no idea how utterly, horribly brutal it can be. (I wrote about the attack, and its aftermath, in more detail in “The Dog Bit Me” for the Magazine.)

After Otto’s bite, I schooled myself in how to make sure it never happened again. Here’s what I learned:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 4.5 million Americans, 60 percent of them under age 15, are bitten by dogs every year. The most vulnerable group is boys between 5 and 9, in part because boys this age are incredibly bad at reading dogs’ behavior.

The good news, though, is that being bitten by a dog is almost entirely avoidable. By paying attention, learning a few simple rules and teaching them to your children, you can keep your kids safe while still allowing them the rewards of healthy relationships with Rovers the world over.

“You can show your toddler what to do — say, ‘Pet him nicely, pet him like this,’ ” advises Renee Payne, a New York City canine behavior specialist. “Take their hand. Open it so they’re not grabbing and show them how to pet the dog with a flat hand.”

Dog behavior experts stress how important it is to start early — especially as a child moves from infancy to toddlerhood and becomes mobile and interactive. This can be a very scary time for a dog, particularly one that doesn’t have much experience with children.

When your child can speak and understand, it’s time to teach the first rule about meeting a new dog — to steer clear of any animal whose owner is not present. If a dog is tied up outside a store, keep walking, Ms. Payne says, “no matter how cute he looks, no matter how white and fluffy he is.”

If the owner is around, the second rule is always to ask, both the owner and the dog. That means asking the owner: “Is your dog friendly? Does he like children?” and then if both are yes, “May my child pet him?” It’s important to remember that some dog owners can be a little biased about their dog’s friendliness (especially if they don’t have children), and that’s why you want to “ask” the dog, too. Approach him calmly, again with a flat hand. If his tail is wagging and he has that doggie “smile,” he is probably safe to pet. If his tail is between his legs or standing straight up, his body is stiff, his mouth is closed or he seems the least bit unenthusiastic, say “thank you” and calmly walk away.

In a situation where the dog begins to act aggressively, or if your child feels afraid for any reason, there’s an easy rule to teach: “Be a tree.” In other words, stand very still and look away.

The same rules apply to dogs that belong to friends and loved ones — and even to your own dog. While known animals are obviously more predictable than ones you don’t know, it is important to respect them and their space. Teach your children never to bother a dog while it is eating or chewing a bone, toy or stick. Never approach a mother dog with her puppies. Never try to pet a dog that is behind a fence or in a car (because the dog may think it is his job to defend it). Never climb into a dog’s crate (that’s his private space). Never try to pet a working dog, one helping a human with a sight or another impairment. And never wake a dog when it’s sleeping.

Knowing what I know now, I see Zeke was using all his best dog language to tell us he was afraid, annoyed, maybe even in pain. He was begging us to keep Otto away, but out of ignorance, I didn’t listen. I didn’t, and Otto and I will be scarred for life. He, all over his face. Me, all over my conscience.


Hope Reeves is a One-Page Magazine columnist for The New York Times Magazine.



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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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