By Raising Children Network
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School-age girl feeding a dog

Did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • Around 13 000 people go to emergency departments in Australia with dog bite injuries every year. Children under the age of five years are most at risk.
  • Dog bites most frequently occur on the head, face or neck. They can cause serious injuries that can lead to infection, permanent scarring and post-traumatic stress.
Dogs can be great family pets, and many children love their family dogs. For safety, children still need constant, close supervision when near dogs to prevent dog bites and other injuries.

Preventing dog bites

Any dog can and might bite a child.

Dog bites often happen in or around the home. Usually, it’s the family dog or a friend’s dog that bites. The most dangerous times are when a child is playing with a dog, or when the dog is eating or sleeping.

You can reduce the risk of dog bites and other injuries by closely supervising children and dogs when they’re together and especially during play. Supervision ideally means one adult for the dog and one adult for the child.

You can also take the following steps to prevent dog bites:

  • Teach your child to be gentle when playing with dogs.
  • Separate the dog and your child when you can’t supervise properly, during noisy or energetic play, when food is present or when the dog is sleeping.
  • Ask friends and relatives to do the same whenever their dog is around. For example, put the dog outside or in a different room to where the children are playing or have the dog or child follow you when you leave the room so that you know where they both are at all times.
  • Train the dog to obey commands such as sit, stay, drop and come.
  • Reward both the child and the dog when they behave the way you want.

Safety around dogs: more tips

There are some times when your child should never approach a dog:

  • The dog is sleeping: make sure your dog’s sleeping area is in a quiet place away from activity areas, where it can sleep without being disturbed.
  • The dog is eating or chewing a treat: separate the dog and your child at these times and also at family meal or snack times. Only an adult should feed a dog. Don’t let your child play with or near a dog’s food or water bowl.
  • Your child doesn’t know the dog: your child shouldn’t go up to the dog, even if it looks familiar or friendly.
  • The dog shows warning signs: your child should keep away if the dog lifts its lips, growls, backs off, raises the hair on its back or stares at you or your child.
  • The dog has taken a toy or some food away from your child: teach your child to call you rather than trying to get the toy or food back.
Your child learns best by copying what you do. Teach her to treat all animals gently and kindly, and to never hurt, tease, frighten or surprise an animal.

Patting dogs

If your child wants to pat a dog, even if he knows the dog, make sure he knows to always ask you first. If the dog doesn’t belong to you, you should ask the dog’s owner if it’s OK to pat.

The following tips will also help to keep your child safe:

  • Have the dog owner hold and reassure the dog.
  • Show your child how to pat the dog. You might need to do this many times. Approach the dog from the side on an angle. Move slowly and calmly, curl your fingers into a fist and let the dog sniff the back of your hand. Stroke the dog gently on the chest or under the chin. Always be gentle, and wash your hands after patting.
  • Always supervise your child as she pats the dog.
  • If your child or the dog is unhappy or upset, stop patting.

Unfamiliar dogs 

Teach children not to approach an unfamiliar dog.

If an unfamiliar dog comes up to your child, your child should stand completely still, arms by his sides and hands in a fist.

It’s best for your child to stay quiet and not to scream or make eye contact with the dog. Your child should keep her eyes looking at the ground.

If a dog knocks your child over, your child should roll into a ball and keep still.  

Introducing a new baby to a dog 

Keep your dog in mind when your new baby joins the family. Make any changes to your lifestyle or house rules in the months before the baby arrives.

If your baby is born away from home, give your dog something with the baby’s smell just before you bring baby home for the first time. This way the baby won’t be so unfamiliar to your dog.

Once your new baby is home, you can promote safety by:

  • encouraging positive experiences and preventing competition between your dog and the new baby – for example, you could take both your dog and your baby for walks together or give the dog a treat when you need to spend a lot of time with your baby, such as when breastfeeding or changing a nappy
  • keeping the dog away from your baby when baby is playing, asleep on the floor or in the bedroom – close the door or use a door barrier
  • never leaving the dog alone with your baby or young child.  

Looking after dogs 

Dogs that are unwell or in pain will be unhappy, less tolerant and easily hurt. This might even cause an easy-going dog to bite.

To prevent this, maintain your dog’s health. Nutritious food, clean water, comfortable bedding and shelter, regular exercise, safe socialisation and annual check-ups with the vet will help keep your dog healthy and happy. Also ask your vet about desexing.

Seek immediate help if you’re ever concerned about your dog’s health or behaviour.

Obedience training is important for all dogs, regardless of breed, size or age. This teaches your dog good manners and appropriate behaviour. It’ll help your dog, other dogs and people stay safe.

Safely socialising your dog throughout its life is very important. This means teaching your dog to accept people, children and other animals as part of its life. Seek professional help, and note that some dogs will never accept children or are aggressive. These dogs shouldn’t be around children.

Make sure you understand your local laws, including what you need to do to confine and identify your dog. You need to know the areas where your dog is welcome and also where it’s not allowed to go.

Moving house, having visitors or making other changes to a dog’s environment can leave a dog unsettled.

If a bitch is pregnant or has puppies, she might feel tired, sore and protective of her babies. Be aware of this so that you can make appropriate arrangements. This might include supervising the dog and your child more closely, or separating them altogether. Let your child know what’s happening.

Ask your vet for help if necessary.  

Choosing the right dog 

When you choose a dog, you’re also choosing a family member who you hope will be with you for a long time. Consider your lifestyle and what you might want in your relationship with a dog.

Every breed of dog has different characteristics, with mixed breeds varying even more widely. Also, every dog is an individual.

Choosing a dog is a complex task that needs some research, but there are experts who can help:

  • Your local vet can help you choose your dog and continue to help throughout your dog’s life.
  • Specialist veterinary behaviourists are experts in dog behaviour. They can help you both with choosing your pet and also with any problem behaviour your pet might have.

You could also contact the RSPCA or Canine Association in your state.

  • Last updated or reviewed 25-08-2014