All children should be taught to respect other living beings, be they animal or human, even if your household does not contain animals, your children should still be taught the basics. One day they will encounter a dog at a friend’s house or meet a strange dog on the street. If you have a fear of dogs do not bring them up to be fearful towards dogs. A child who is fearful or have not been exposed to dogs in a positive way will react towards a dog in way that may make the meeting tense and possibly dangerous.

Dr. Ian Dunbar, respected animal behaviorist and DVM, (UK) had this to say about dogs at a recent dog trainer’s conference: ‘When they’re upset, pissed off, or annoyed, they don’t call their lawyer… they bite. That’s just what they do.’



1) Dogs do not like hugs and kisses. Do not think your dog is an exception to this. A lot of dogs tolerate this human behaviour as they have been exposed to it as puppies; they do not particularly like it. (If in doubt – have someone stand behind you while you hug your dog, so that they can see his facial expression – chances are there is a lot of lip licking, eye blinking, whites of the eyes showing, turning head away, ever so slightly stiffening of the whole body or just neck and shoulders and closing of the mouth happening – all signs of discomfort) Hugging dogs, even family dogs are one of the common causes of bites to the face. Hugging and kissing is a behaviour used by primates (humans, chimps etc) to convey feelings of affection or reassurance; canines don’t hug! They can feel threatened when hugged or perceive this ‘close-face-to-face interaction’ as a constraint and because they cannot ‘flee’ the situations the other survival mechanism is to ‘fight’/bite. Teach your child to scratch the dog on the chest and shoulders or rub behind the ears from the side (do not reach over the dog’s head).

2) If a strange dog approaches your child, teach them to ‘BE A TREE’. Trees are boring and the dog will eventually go away. ‘Be a tree’ means a) stand still, b) fold your branches (arms) together and c) look at your roots (feet). Children can even use this technique if their own dog gets to boisterous during play. Dogs are stimulated by movement and sounds. The erratic movements and high pitch sounds that children make can cause some dogs to view them as prey and a chasing or wrestling game can become seriously dangerous.


1) Condition your dog to the world. From the moment you receive your new puppy, start socializing your puppy to every possible human/event/situation/thing in a positive way. This includes children, toddlers, babies, gangly teenagers, old people and people of different genders. Dr. Ian Dunbar, who pioneered the idea of puppy socialisation classes recommend that your puppy should meet a MINIMUM of 100 DIFFERENT people and a 100 DIFFERENT dogs before the age of four months. And even after the age of four months socializing should carry on until the dog is at least two years of age!

2) Train your dog. Take your dog to training courses that uses positive methods. Allow the children to take part in the training, or at least part of the training exercises as this will teach them how to appropriately interact with dogs and it will also teach the dog to comply and respect the children. To make it fun for the kids, create a weekly wall chart that shows who has taught the dog what behaviours during the week. This way you are sure that each child in the house gets to teach the dog the same things. It can include teaching the dogs behaviours such as sit, down, give paw, lie down, roll-over, exchanging objects, handling ears, tail, mouth, paws, legs and hand feeding. If the child is too young to teach the dog a new behaviour, you can teach the behaviour first and then let the child lure the dog into the behaviour, followed by giving the dog a reward. All training should be supervised by an adult. Do not allow children to punish the dog; this can have serious consequences.

3) Neuter/spay your dog. Have your dog neutered/spayed at plus/minus 6 months of age. Altered pets are calmer, healthier and less likely to be aggressive than unaltered dogs.

4) Supervise your dog while interacting with children. Supervise all interaction between dogs and children; being on the phone or in another room is not supervision. Especially don’t leave children alone with multiple dogs. Even if your dog is great with children and has never growled or bitten ‘why take the chance?’ There is no such thing as a dog that is 100% reliable with children. Dogs endure so much (albeit unintentional) manhandling from children and even the gentlest family dog will bite if he has just ‘endured enough’.

Accidents happen quickly and a moments carelessness on your part could be the moment that little Junior decides to hold onto Brutus’s tail/ear or accidentally trips over him which startles the dog into a biting reaction.

Children get excited around dogs and forget the do’s and don’ts. A provoked bite is still classified as a bite, despite it being the ‘child’s fault’. It makes no difference to Junior as to why Brutus bit him; it still hurts physically and very often emotionally.


A. Teach children how to approach a strange dog that is on lead with an owner. (See below)B. Consider these things before allowing your child to interact with a strange dog (See below)

C. Teach children what to do if a strange dog approaches them. (See below)

D. Learn to recognize the signals a dog gives to indicate that he feels uncomfortable/threatened by a child. (See below)

E. Never punish a dog if they growl or lift their lip for a child. Growling is communication. It is telling you about the dog’s internal state. ‘I’m not comfortable with this’. Be thankful that the dog is giving you warning/indication of not feeling secure in that particular situation. This gives you the opportunity to get professional help to come and assist you to positively condition your dog to the situation. If you punish the growling, then next time the dog feels uncomfortable he will not growl, he will just bite, as biting is the next step in the aggression sequence.

F. Never tie your dog to a pole or fence! Especially if there are children in the area. A tied up dog is a frustrated dog. It’s an accident waiting to happen. Children can miss-judge the distance and get too close. Dogs that are release from a tie-down are usually so aroused; and aroused dogs trigger easier.

G. When out in public with your dog, keep him on a leash and do not allow children (and adults) to greet/and ‘invade’ his space if he is not giving you clear signals of being comfortable in the situation. If your dog does not want to ‘say hi’ – respect that and be firm with strangers about not allowing any further interaction. How would you liked to be kissed/hugged ‘hello’ by a stranger, especially if you are not having a good day?

H. Do not wrestle or play ruff-and-tumble games with your dog. These games are fun for an adult and puppy but it quickly loses its charm when the dog reaches adulthood and has learnt that rough play is acceptable. Teach kids to play safe games such as fetch that do not involve rough play.

I. Teach children not to tease and frustrate dogs, especially dogs behind fences. Teach them to have respect for animals.

J. Teach your puppy good bite-inhibition. This is something that the puppy needs to learn before the age of 5 months. This ensures that when his teeth touches human flesh he does not put any pressure behind his teeth.

K. If your child has friends who have dogs, make sure the dog is socialized with children and that there will be supervision.

L. Teach your child to never take away a dog’s toy and not to approach him on his bed, reach out to dogs that are tied down, in cars or through fences.

M. Teach children not to bother dogs when they are eating or sleeping, are injured or have puppies.

N. Tell them not to enter a yard where there is a dog without his owner, even if they know the dog. Even their own yard – don’t jump over the wall and thereby surprising their dog.

A. How to approach a strange dog

  • If the dog has the owner with him, first ask if it would be okay to interact with the dog.
  • If the owner says it is okay; wait for the dog to approach you.
  • If there is no owner with the dog – do not approach the dog.
  • NEVER approach and touch a dog that doesn’t approach and touch you FIRST.
  • The best approach when introducing yourself to a new dog is a sideways one. A sideways stance is less threatening to a dog.
  • Avoid direct eye contact.
  • Look away, or look at the floor and pretend to be disinterested in the dog.This conveys a ‘calming signal’ to the dog. It portrays a picture of a being who is not going to try to chase him, grab him or hurt him.If you look calm, the dog will be calm.Other calming signals include approaching by walking in an arc (the way friendly dogs greet each other), sitting or squatting, licking your lips, yawning. Basically you are almost completely ignoring the dog.This sets him at ease. You’re telling him, ‘I mean you no harm’.
  • The child should be instructed not to pat the dog on the top of the head (most dogs actually hate this). Children usually reach out and then pull back when the dog moves to inspect the hand. This is the fastest way to encourage a dog to nip at hands. Try to get the child to scratch the dog under the chin.
  • The child can hold out their hand for the dog to smell, but the hand must be held close to their own bodies, not reaching towards the dog. It does not matter if the hand is turned palm down reaching for the dog – it is still ‘invading’ the dog’s personal space. Allow the dog to make the choice of coming closer to the child to smell their hand.

B. Consider these things before allowing your child to interact with a strange dog

  • Are there other dogs in the area?
  • Is it a crowded noisy environment?
  • Are you confident that this person would tell you if their furry baby has a bite history?
  • Is the dog listening to the handler?
  • Is the dog interested in interacting?
  • Is it hot?
  • Is the dog tired?
  • Are there many children wanting to pet the dog at the same time?
  • Is your child wound up or excited?
  • Does your child have food on his hands?
  • Is the dog showing fear? (Examples of fear include: tucking tail, turning its head away, licking lips, cowering, growling, shaking, hiding behind handler and possibly yawning.) Any of these alone or combined may indicate that the dog is experiencing stress.
  • Consider the dog’s total posture and the environment when making a decision of whether to allow interaction with the dog.

C. Teach children what to do if a strange (or aggressive) dog approaches them.

  • Cheryl Carlson (She is a certified Campagne decoy (a French sport consisting of bite-work, agility, obedience and tracking) and is certified by the National Association Of Protection Dogs. suggests that you never try to use intimidation to ‘chase away’ an aggressive dog, unless you are sure that the dog is very fearful. A fearful dog will respect and avoid a ‘stronger being’, while they may attempt to bite someone who runs away.
  • First choice defense would be to activate the calming signals, while slowly backing off, sideways.
  • Cheryl also says that the flesh on the outsides of our bodies (hips, outer thighs, outer calves, upper side of arms) is tougher than the inner sides of those body parts, and if you’re going to get bitten those would hurt the least.
  • As for a small child, Cheryl recommends that the child place the hands over the face, with the forearms protecting the throat. She tells little kids that if they see a ‘big, mean dog’ he wants to play hide and seek, so stand still, cover your eyes, and count to 50. This places bone in front of the child’s face and throat.Lying down on the ground is not a good defense against an aggressive dog, but if the child should happen to fall down, or get knocked down, they should remain still, curled up and protect face and neck with hands and arms, and not scream.
  • NEVER, NEVER RUN! This will stimulate a dog to chase and activate the attack-motor pattern.
  • If you’re an adult, and you are faced with an all-out attack from an unfriendly dog, and all of the other stuff didn’t work, what do you do? Cheryl says to stand up straight (and sideways), and in your best, most authoritative, primal yell, blast the word ‘NO!!!!!’ from your very bowels, just as the dog gets within striking distance.This may take the dog off guard, as most dogs have been admonished with this word before (unfortunately).

D. The signals a dog gives to indicate that he feels uncomfortable / threatened by a child.

There are usually many warning signs before a bite occurs, but these can be very subtle and build up over time and may be missed if you are not aware of them. A dog may appear to tolerate being repeatedly rough handled by a child and one day bites, much to the ‘surprise’ of everyone. Signs that you should take very seriously that indicate that the dog is saying: ‘I have been very patient with this child, but I am nearing the end of my patience’, include:

  • The dog gets up and moves away from the child.
  • The dog turns his head away from the child.
  • The dog looks at you with a pleading expression / furrowed brow.
  • You can see the ‘whites’ of the dog’s eyes, in a half moon shape.
  • The dog yawns while the child approaches or is interacting with him.
  • The dog licks his nose while the child approaches or is interacting with him.
  • The dog suddenly starts scratching or licking himself.
  • The dog pulls his ears back or lowers his head.


  • The dog is protecting a possession/toy, food or water dish or puppies.
  • The dog is protecting a resting place.
  • The dog is protecting its owner or the owner’s property.
  • The child has done something the dog considers to be threatening (e.g., hugging the dog, moving into the dog’s space, leaning or stepping over the dog).
  • The dog is old and grumpy and having a bad day and has no patience for the actions of a child.
  • The dog is injured/ill and therefore have less tolerance to things/situations that would normally not bother him.
  • The child has hurt or startled the dog by stepping on him, poking it or pulling its fur, tail or ears.
  • The dog has not learned bite inhibition and bites hard by accident when the child offers food or a toy to the dog.
  • The child and dog are engaging in rough play and the dog gets overly excited.
  • The dog views the child as a prey item because the child is running and/or screaming / or has fallen down near the dog or riding a bicycle or otherwise moving fast past the dog.


The following dog bite statistics are only from injuries presented at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital for on site treatments during 1997-98: ( I could not find any other statistics for South-Africa.

  • Children under 1 year = 3 bites
  • Between 1 and 4 years = 21 bites
  • Between 5 and 9 years = 45 bites
  • Children over 10 years = 29 bites
  • That is 98 dog bites to children in one year.

Statistics from the USA: (

  • The majority of dog attacks (61%) happen at home or in a familiar place.
  • The vast majority of biting dogs (77%) belong to the victim’s family or a friend.
  • 77% of injuries to children under 10 years old are facial.
  • When a child less than 4 years old is the victim, the family dog was the attacker half the time (47%), and the attack almost always happened in the family home (90%).
  • The median age of patients bitten was 15 years, with children, especially boys aged 5 to 9 years, having the highest incidence rate.
  • The chances that the victim of a fatal dog attack will be a burglar are one in 177; the odds that it will be a child are 7 out of 10.
  • In the US from 1979 to 1996, 304 people in the US died from dog attacks.
  • The average number of deaths per year was 17. Most of the deceased were children. (‘Dog-Bite-Related Fatalities — United States, 1995-1996,’ MMWR 46(21):463-467, 1997.)
  • For every fatal dog bite in the United States, there are 230,000 bites that are not treated by a physician.
This article is not meant to alarm you or to prevent your children from experiencing the joy of owning or interacting with a friendly dog, but merely to make you aware of possible situations that could result in a dog bite.

I have seen many dog bites to children that could have been prevented if the owner or child were made aware of a few simple dog-bite-prevention-tips. There is absolutely no guarantee that your Labrador or loving lap-dog Bull Terrier will never bite your child or another child, but you can significantly reduce the risk. Do not assume that your dog always wants to interact with everybody they meet. Learn to observe his body language – that will clearly show you if he is feeling comfortable or not. Even if you do socialize your dog and do preventative measures, always keep in mind that your dog is still a dog and to treat him with respect accordingly.

Copyright Claire Grobbelaar