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Published: Sunday, 10/17/2010

Do's & don'ts with kids and dogs: How to behave around the family pet

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Children and dogs.

They are perhaps two of the most combustible, unpredictable pairings imaginable.

On the one hand, what is childhood without a trusty canine companion as a playmate and buddy? Always there for a child with a friendly lick and a happy wag, a dog can teach children lessons about responsibility, compassion, and nature.

On the other paw, for a dog, kids can be royal pains. Their body movements are herky jerky and hard to read, they're constantly in motion — making them ideal targets when the animal's prey drive kicks in — and they can be incredibly annoying, especially when they snatch away your favorite toy or grab and squeeze you.

It's a collision of energy that can cause serious injuries. There are an estimated 77.5 million owned dogs in the United States, according to the American Humane Society, and each one of them, no matter how gentle or placid, could end up biting someone if the conditions are wrong.

Indeed, each year 4.5 million people are reported bitten in the United States, and the primary victims are children between the ages of 5 and 9, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Lucas County in 2009, 453 people were reported bitten by dogs, according to the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department. Ninety-seven of those bites — 21 percent — were to children 12 and younger.

But despite the numbers and the obvious nature of the problem, how many parents take the time to educate their children on how to avoid dog bites compared to how many teach their kids how to swim or cross the street?

"Welcome to the bane that gives me gray hairs and makes me bald among all other things," said Sylvania veterinarian Gary Thompson, who writes The Blade's Ask the Vet column. "It's a huge, huge, huge, huge problem. Eighty percent of dog bites are by dogs that [children] already know."

Teaching responsibility

A little common sense and some basic training can help alleviate the problem, said John Brown, dog training and behavior coordinator with the Lucas County Humane Society.

First, children and dogs should never be left alone together unless the adults in the household are confident both parties are accustomed to each other and, most importantly, respect one another.

Mr. Brown said "100 percent supervision" between children and dogs is often necessary, especially when young children are involved.

"When a kid is responsible enough to not do something inappropriate to a dog, that's when you can feel safer. And it depends on the behavior of your dog," he said.

In general, dogs prefer calm body language, an approach from the side, no hugging or restraints, and, of course, no grabbing Fido's food or toys when he's eating or playing. A child who's jumping around, waving her arms, and squealing signals it's play time to a dog, and if he's 80 pounds of muscle and mouth, bad things can happen.

Children, especially those around the age of 5, often want to hug dogs and squeeze them as if they're stuffed animals, which might look cute but is not a good idea, said Jessica Poupard, the information clerk at the Lucas County Dog Warden's office.

She conducts the dog safety part of the Safety City program and said hugging can be a big problem among kindergarten-age children because it puts them face-to-face with a stressed-out animal.

"With that age group the most common bites we see are to the face, because they're right at that level," she said.

Another way to teach the body-space lesson that little children can grasp is included in literature that the Humane Society provides: Ask the child how she feels when someone pinches her, restrains her, chases her around screaming, and then takes away her food while she's eating it. Then remind her that when she treats the family dog that way, it makes him uncomfortable.

Children should be taught to leave the dog alone when he's resting in his special spot. Most dogs have a place where they prefer to chill out and it's best not to have little hands poking at them or grabbing them when they're having some down time or playing with a favorite toy.

"That's a big cause of bites; it's a natural behavior for a dog to guard their possessions," Mr. Brown said.

The right dog

At this point you may be thinking, "Oh, my Lucy would never bite the kids! She never so much as snarles at them."

Erase that idea from your mind. Dogs are, well, dogs. Put in the wrong situation — an injury, severe stress, feeling threatened — they will respond by using their mouth because that's just what they do.

"Even the nicest dog in the world under the most extenuating circumstances will bite," Mr. Thompson said.

This includes if they are tethered or if a child is reaching through a fence trying to pet a dog who just happens to be extremely territorial. It's also important to consider the dog's genetics and whether it's a child-friendly breed. If you have young children, it's best to select one of the mellower breeds.

"We see a lot of people who don't do a good job of selecting the right pet for their family environment," Mr. Thompson said. "I don't like kids playing chase games with dogs around anyway. Especially dogs with a real strong prey drive — terriers, border collies, cattle dogs, collies."

Be patient

Finally, if a child does encounter a loose dog who is threatening or over-excited, the best lesson to learn is to stay as calm as possible. Mr. Brown said. He said the best advice is to pretend you're a tree and stand perfectly still. Most dogs will find this boring and quickly move on to something else.

And if a child is trapped in a situation with a threatening dog, he should move slowly away from the dog, getting out of his space without exciting the animal any more.

These situations are actually relatively uncommon, though, and more often than not the problem is going to be caused by the family dog and children who don't know how to behave around the animal.

Mr. Brown advised making a commitment to training the dog — and the child — and being patient. In the end you'll have a well-behaved animal and a child with a healthy respect for animals.

"People want a quick fix to problems that have been happening over time," Mr. Brown said. "People have to be realistic about their dog, but sometimes you have to accept what they are and manage them better."

Contact Rod Lockwood at:

rlockwood@theblade.com

or 419-724-6159.



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