Most dog attacks occur at home or in a familiar place. When children under the age of four are attacked the family dog is responsible nearly half the time, and 77 percent of all dog injuries to children under the age of 10 involve bites to the face. In the rare instance of a fatal dog attack, the odds that the victim will be a child are 7 in 10. The odds it will be burglar are 1 in 177.
Perhaps that’s why experts largely recommend waiting until your child is older before bringing a puppy (or even an older dog) home. “Recommendations on the age of the child at which it seems safe to get a dog differ,” according to a new study on child-dog interactions, published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science. One opinion is that “the child should be at least 4 years old, another that a combination of a dog younger than 1 year and a child younger than 5 years should be avoided or that having a dog should be postponed until the children are of school age.” But one thing is clear—babies and dogs do not mix very well despite seemingly overwhelming anecdotal evidence to the contrary. The American puppy-baby paradigm, alas, needs to change.
That’s not to say dogs are a major cause of death. That’s not true at all. There are 65 million pet dogs in the United States, and only about 15 dog bite fatalities per year. Playgrounds are about as likely to kill a child as a pet dog. But dog bite injuries are quite common, and many of them are serious enough to require emergency care. The World Health Organization estimates that 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, and that 885,000 need to seek medical attention. In the US, dog bites are one of the most common reasons children visit the Emergency Department.
Given the risks, some experts recommend that parents avoid letting small children play with dogs. The authors of the new study surveyed 402 parents and caregivers, and found that a child’s interaction with a dog, such as hugging or petting, preceded most bites. They also found that children under the age of 6 were often bit under parental supervision, by the family dog. Many factors increased the risk of a dog bite (causing pain to the dog, disturbing it while it was sleeping, startling it) but one of the only factors that decreased the risk was the age of the child. Older children were less likely to startle a dog or engage in risky behaviors that precipitate bites.
“Dogs that bit children were often older than the child they bit,” the authors write.
Interestingly, the researchers found that dogs that lived with their families before the child arrived were most likely to act fearful or aggressive. “These dogs might need more time, possibilities to withdraw, and proactive supervision to cope with the arrival of the new family member,” the authors write. And even though your dog-loving friends insist that their skittish pets simply need more time to get to know your baby, animal behaviorists maintain that this is a poor solution. “A fearful dog encountering the stimuli that cause the fear might even sensitize the dog,” the authors write. “Sooner or later the growing fear and ‘forcing’ the dog into an interaction with the child might lead to a bite incident that effectively terminates the fear-inducing interaction.”
For parents who insist upon bringing baby and puppy together, there are ways to minimize the risk. Supervision is crucial, as is learning to recognize canine signs of fear and aggression and what behaviors trigger these doggy emotions. Dogs tend to withdraw when afraid (in the study, 12 percent of family dogs surveyed withdrew in fear from children under age six). Aggressive behaviors, such as growling and snapping, occurred most commonly when children approached the dog from the front or tried to eat their food or play with their toys. Another way to ensure safe child-dog interactions is to take part in the Blue Dog program, which teaches children and a parents to be savvy dog owners.
But the single best way to protect children from dog bites is to follow expert advice, however painful it may be for dog-lovers. Small children, and certainly babies, probably shouldn’t have family dogs.
At the same time, “it seems difficult to give a global recommendation,” the authors admit. “As everything depends on the individuals involved and their ability to handle the situation.”