Why do dogs bite children?

There are approximately 1 million dog bites each year in the United States. Between 60 and 70% of them are to children. (See this.) That's a pretty staggering statistic.

Why are a majority of bites to children? In 2007, three researchers attempted to address that question. They examined the records from three years of bite cases involving children from the Behavior Clinic of the Matthew J Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. They looked at 111 cases. (There were actually 145 cases, but they could not determine the age of the children in 34 of them so they were not included.) A few of the cases were repeat offenders; there were only 103 unique dogs in the study.

The numbers that grabbed my attention and lead me to purchase the paper were these:

  • 44% of bites to children less than six years old were associated with resource guarding.
  • 23% of children older than six years old were bit in association with territory guarding.
  • Food guarding was the the cause in 42% of the bites to familiar children.
  • In 53% of bites to unfamiliar children, territory guarding was the cause.

The food and resource guarding statistics grabbed me by the throat and then pulled the credit card right out of my wallet. Almost one half of bite cases involved a dog guarding something! Considering all of the possible situations involving children and dogs this is pretty significant.

As a matter of fact, the abstract even states that "Behavioral screening of the 103 dogs examined revealed resource guarding (61%) and discipline measures (59%) as the most common stimuli for aggression." Unfortunately there are no real details regarding the discipline measures to explain the overlap, I.E. how many bites were the result of disciplining the dog for guarding?

Without going any further into the data, what do we know? Dogs and children under six cannot be left alone. (The proper age is probably somewhere closer to 10 or 11, but that's another discussion.) Just think of the things that can end up being guarded; a toy, a seat on the sofa, a dropped snack, a used tissue...

What is resource guarding? It's a behavior that we humans really don't appreciate but is actually very normal for dogs. The behavior is pretty much what the name implies; trying to hold on to something valuable. If you think in evolutionary terms this tendency was very valuable for at least a few thousand years. It's only recently that it became undesirable and counterproductive to survival.

Depending on the individual dog and the relative value of the item, "guarding" can range from placing a paw on top of the item, to growling, all the way to bite(s). Most dogs "warn" well before the growling or biting (I worked with a dog this week that appeared to me to be screaming at me with her eyes and face over a piece of paper) but children are generally not very good at reading these signals.

How about the 59% for discipline measures? Remember, kids copy adults. If your children see you disciplining the dog they may decide to do the same, and that just may be the time that the dog decides she's had enough. Moreover, discipline is not effective with resource guarding, it frequently leads to escalation.

Dig a little deeper and there are a few more interesting tidbits in the study. 77% of the dogs displayed some form of anxiety, such as inappropriate attention-seeking behaviors, significant noise or thunderstorm anxiety, separation anxiety or generalized anxiety. If this isn't a compelling reason to seek help when your dog displays any behavioral problem regardless of whether or not it involves aggression, I don't know what is.

Also, medical conditions were either identified or suspected in half of the dogs. The study mentions both orthopedic and dermatologic conditions. Most trainers and behavior consultants are aware of how important it is identify and/or rule out medical conditions before starting a behavior modification program. At the same time, parents should be aware that if their dog has a medical condition that may be uncomfortable or painful, extra attention and care around children is important.

In my opinion, the biggest takeaway from this report is how preventable many of the 600,000+ bites to children each year really are. While adult supervision is no guarantee of safety, it seems that it could play a huge role in preventing many guarding incidents. At the same time, prompt attention to behavioral and medical issues most likely would prevent a large number of unfortunate incidents too.

Comments

The stat that 77% displayed anxiety knocked me off the chair. It also puts current BSL into an even worse light. Legislators are trying to save children by outlawing dogs that they see as bold and aggressive (pit bulls, rotties, GSD, etc) but according to this the dogs that are really dangerous might actually be the shy-sharp type. Where does a lot of that behavior come from: bad breeding made worse by no socialization/training.

Also, I can testify that people do not understand how fast a dog bite can happen. I cannot tell you how many times a small child has run up to my GSD and petted or KISSED him on the head. Where were the parents? Didn't care or (better yet) didn't even realize there kid was gone.

By coincidence, I just did an interview with Dr. Stanley Coren on the question of dogs reading our body language. He said, in essence, that dogs read humans in many ways just like they read other dogs. As a result, they interpret many, many things that children do -- the sudden movements, the wide eyed stare, the running at them, the reaching out of hands with open fingers -- as extremely threatening. "It's a wonder," Coren said, "that dogs don't eat our kids."

He suggested that it's the ability of dogs to recognize the young of other species -- including such signals as awkwardness in their movements -- that saves kids from even more attacks. That, and as you say Eric, being supervised by adults.

Great post, thank you Eric. As Kendal Shepherd points out in her 'Ladder of Aggression', dogs give off many avoidance signals prior to actually biting. Children often indicate that they show affection to their pet with a hug, kiss, whisper secrets in the dog's ear and so on, so it is hardly surprising this behaviour is hard to prevent. The kids are being nice after all (so they think). Dogs are incredibly tolerant - it's often a shock to my clients when they realise just how many signals their dog has been giving 'asking nicely' to be left alone.

Karen Wild www.karenwild.co.uk

I have an 18 pound, fluffy, white and tan dog. She's incredibly cute, and because of her size, is generally considered safe. However, she is reactive, fearful and anxious, and so I do not allow children to greet her both because she hates it and because they are both safer that way.

I get SO many dirty looks from parents, like it is their child's RIGHT to meet the puppy. It's positively ridiculous.

Crystal and Maisy RL1X AOE-L1 CGC St. Paul, MN

I remember watching a video in horror during a seminar with Dr Kersti Seksel. The people on the video did not even recognise they had an issue with their dog and just thought it funny. The video showed what would have to have been a minimum of a 60kg (approx 132 pounds) Rottweiler quietly growling and moving away from the children or family members to gain some personal space and the family members just getting up and following the dog, laughing all the while. Dr Seksel only went to see the owners of this dog because a friend of the family recognised the potential dangers of the scenario. All credit to that Rottweiler for NOT lashing out despite the provocation and disrespect his family gave him. I could just envision the headlines: Family rottweiler attacks  child without warning! Kersti said she had trouble convincing the owners of the danger.

I have had my stepson's teenaged friends stare directly into my rotty's eyes, one of them tollerates it as he knows they mean no harm but the other one growls and the boys are very put out by it all.

It would be nice to see legislators, instead of doing knee jerk BSL, encouraging education programmes and community service announcements in all forms of media to educate the general public about signals dogs give out to try avoid bites.

 

It has always astounded me, that people feel entitled to do whatever they wish to a dog - so long as they, the person, believe it's positive.  Head scratching, paw playing, rolling doggy over to scratch belly.  It's a testament to how wonderful dogs really are that more people aren't bitten.  Thank you for the post, I hope that "non-dog" people read this type of thing from time to time; although I suspect that most don't.  I believe it's important to teach a dog to be at least tolerant of children, and other "strange things" - it helps them cope in our world.  However, it is still parents and owners responsibility to ensure the dogs safety from their own children and strangers. Kid gets bitten for being mean to a dog, from the dogs point of view. Then media spins it into "doggy aggression".....  to sad for words.

It's not surprising that children miss so many of the warning signals, when so many adults don't know how to identify them either.  At the IVBM conference recently, there was some research presented on the 'spontaneous' aggression of English Cocker Spaniels.  I've been involved, as a fosterer, with some Cocker Spaniels given up for owner-directed aggression. What I noticed is that there are plenty of warning signals, though these differ a little from the norm.  Whether this is because they have been punished for growling; there is a genetic reason, or because a lot of these pups have been purchased from pet-stores & commercial breeders (with little, or no, socialisation), I don't know.    Owners need to learn to read their dog better and be able to apply the context of the behaviour, to the interpretation.  

I have to highly commend the work of The Blue Dog programme (www.thebluedog.org) ,  who are pro-actively educating children in order to prevent dog bites.  We need more trainers, educators, local authorities, shelters and governments getting behind this work.   Across the world government $£ would be much better spent educating children (and parents) in bite prevention, than spending money enforcing ineffective breed-specific legislation.

I agree adult supervision is needed, but I also think the general public needs (properly) educating about dog communication. Until we have this education and acceptance of responsibility, dogs will continue to be placed under more & more restrictions, with little (or no) effect on the number of dog bites. 

As a child (age 4 years old), I was bitten - on the face - and the first thing my mum did was scold me for not respecting that Yorkshire Terrier's boundaries!  I was taught to respect animals and I was supervised, but I still managed to get bitten (cuddling the dog)....so of course education and supervision isn't fool-proof.   I'm sure the statistics would be significantly lower, with the right management & education we could do a lot to prevent the bites :) 

 

 

It is my feeling that people need simple, straightforward advice and will rarely read an indepth book prior to an incident.

Try explaining to a young child that the dog doesnt like cuddles, when they are trained that way to show appeasement and affection to other humans, and to furry toys, and dogs are anthropomorphised everywhere you look in kids books, TV and movies. Surely a far more difficult re-conditioning process and testament to the tolerance of dogs that more bites do not occur when the kids are only trying to show love or seek reassurance.

The three 'i's help with this

Intention

Interpretation

Impact

What was the child's intention? To show affection. How did the dog interpret this? A threat. What was the impact?....

What was the dog's intention? To create distance. How did the human interpret this? (the D word? Naughtiness? etc). What was the impact?...

Whilst we have the knowledge to prevent more bites occurring then we should act upon it. The damage caused by a bite can be extensive in many so many ways. Even if we are not looking at damage inflicted, the air snap, or even a growl, is a good enough reason for many parents/owners to rehome or euthanise their dog. Do statistics reflect this?

The Canine Commandments by Kendal Shepherd is essential - and simple - reading on this score. http://www.amazon.com/Canine-Commandments-Kendal-Shepherd/dp/1874092559/...

 

After my daughter was bit at a friend's house I've been researching ways to keep her safe.  Luckily it wasn't a bad bite but it certainly woke us up, it could have been much worse.

The bottom line is simple, as pointed out in the article, 'Dogs and children under six cannot be left alone.'

At the same time, you never know when it can happen... I remember as a child playing in my driveway a strange and BIG dog ran up to me, I did as my parents taught me, I stood perfectly still, I didn't run, scream or raise my arms and I kept my eyes down.  The dog sniffed me and then moved away.  It was a scary few minutes but luckily my parents taught me well and I kept calm.

I think it's super important to us to teach our children better dog handling skills... especially for those times we can't be there.

I bought my daughter this book:  Be a Dog's Best Friend: A Safety Guide for Kids

http://www.amazon.com/Be-Dogs-Best-Friend-Safety/dp/0615280382/ref=sr_1_...

It's really great, very clear pictures she can understand, simple language and she's really learned to be safer around dogs.  Of course we still won't let her be alone with dogs (not even our own) but at least we know if it happens, she's got the info she needs to hopefully keep her safe.

 

Dog owner denial and kids with now boundaries are a bad combo! Just because a dog has never bit someone doesn't mean they won't ever find themselves in a situation of guarding or defending something due to the oversight of an owner or ignorance of a guest. I saw a segment on tv featuring a trainer who gave some helpful tips  specifically for child safety. Her site was very good; http://pawsforaminute.com  Most of these bites can be prevented!!!

Shayari makes it so simple, fill your emotions into it and guess what your love accepts you whole heartedly.In todays fast paced and stressful lifes,it is important to seek some sort of entertainment or stressbuster. Hindi Jokes are an easy way of releving Stress.

Dr. Ian Dunbar Seminars and Workshops on the East Coast