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Dogs can be great family pets, and many children form close relationships with their family dog. But you need to be careful and supervise closely if you have children and dogs together.

School-age girl feeding a dog

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Around 10 000 people go to emergency departments with dog bite injuries every year. 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.

 

Promoting safety

Dog bites often happen in or around the home and are usually caused by the household dog or a friend’s dog. The most dangerous times are when a child’s playing with a dog, or when the dog’s eating or sleeping.

Always closely supervise your child near dogs, especially during play. 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’s sleeping. Ask friends and relatives to do the same whenever their dog’s around.

There are some times when your child should never approach a dog. These include when 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
  • 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
  • isn’t known to your child, even if it looks familiar or friendly
  • shows warning signs such as lifting its lips, growling, backing off or raising the hair on its back
  • 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.

Handling unfamiliar dogs

If you’re approached by an unfamiliar dog, stay calm and encourage your child to do the same. Never run screaming from a dog – this might encourage it to chase you.

Teach your child to stand still like a tree, arms by his side, fingers curled under and eyes looking at the ground. It’s best to stay quiet.

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

Introducing a new baby

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’s 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’s 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’s 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 your dog

Dogs that are unwell or in pain will be unhappy, less tolerant and easily hurt. This might even cause a placid 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 and others 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’s 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 characterisitcs, 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 behaviours your pet might have.
  • PetNet offers a free service to help people identify breeds of dog to suit different lifestyles.

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

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  • Last Updated 25-01-2011
  • Last Reviewed 10-11-2009
  • Ashby, K. (1996). Dog bites. Hazard, 26, 7-13.

    Royal Children’s Hospital Safety Centre (2009). Dogs 'n' kids information resource kit (3rd edn). Melbourne: The Royal Children’s Hospital.