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.