“Vector bit me!” cried my toddler, Nicholas. Given Nicholas’ active imagination, I was not convinced and got up to investigate. I found myself between one party – my beloved son, who is often unable to tell the truth, and another – my beloved rescue dog, who was naturally incapable of telling me, mediating. At first glance, there are no indications.
But for once, don’t overdo my toddler. The pink tears that streaked his face showed that Vector had bitten him right on the cheek, hard enough to draw blood. Nicholas screamed and I was … stunned.
To say this was atypical of Vector would be an understatement that resembles a casual shrug as Lassie devoured Timmy (from the 1954 Lassie television series). By age 9, Vector had never shown aggression towards people – especially his immediate family – and his time with us predated Nicholas’ existence. Since Vector became a four-legged big brother in 2016, he’d been relieved of the usual punches, bumps, jerks, and falls that small children subject their dogs to with diplomatic indifference.
Vector loved Nicholas and vice versa. So what exactly happened?
Behind the bite
I separated the bitter from the bitten, took Vector into an adjoining room, and closed the door behind me. Next came Nicholas. I suspected that a toddler’s selective memory would soon falsify the facts through fiction, so I gave him a stuffed animal. “Show me what happened,” I said. Nicholas has recreated one of his signature movements: Hug Vector from behind. Although bad advice in retrospect, it is a scenario that has played out hundreds of times. Why did this case end in bloodshed?
I went back to Vector. After a few chosen words, which in retrospect I am grateful that he could not fully understand them, I calmed down, turned him around, and repeated Nicholas’ approach. Nothing.
I was, as I knew, Vector’s favorite person. If I could get him to react to me, it would confirm my suspicions that the bite was a defensive response to pain. I tried again, this time pressing under his right buttock. Vector nibbled on the air near my hand – about as close as never before to biting me. Bingo.
The next day, a trip to the vet revealed a recent bruise, likely caused by high jinks during one of Vector’s infamous attempts to steal food. The case closed, but the last thing I wanted was a repeat offense. Here’s what I learned about preventing dog bite incidents in children.
Monitor, monitor, monitor
My family’s bite incident – one involving a closely related dog and child he had lived and loved with for over three years – shows the ease with which comfort can induce complacency. I am guilty of trusting a ram-bunctious 3 year old and an extremely huggable pet that, while usually tolerant, still has the ability to act when terrified, threatened, or injured.
I should have taken the same precautions with Nicholas that would reduce the likelihood of Vector biting a young child, be it mine or a complete stranger. While beautiful together, young children and dogs can create an inconsistent situation that requires proper control.
“The first thing I tell adopters is to always look after their children with their dog,” says Samantha Gurrie, adoption director of Brooklyn-based The Sato Project (thesatoproject. Org), which rescues and places dogs from Puerto Rico with families Eastern United States.
Of course, Samantha realizes that it is next to impossible to monitor both our children and our dogs at all times. In cases where, for example, an adult is walking around the house doing the housework – or, which is increasingly the case for many, working from home – it is time to keep the dog away from the child. This is where pet or baby gates can be effective tools as they generally allow the dog to still see everything and therefore not feel completely closed off.
Teach kids dog do’s and don’ts
Samantha also emphasizes the importance of teaching young children who live with dogs how to handle them properly.
“Don’t disturb a dog when he’s sleeping, don’t reach for ears or pull tails, don’t jump on him,” Samantha continues. “I huddled when I saw social media photos of children crawling over dogs or even riding them like horses.”
She adds that young children who lack impulse control and who can understand that dogs can misinterpret innocent intentions are almost always the instigators of an incident bite. Grabbing a toy or pampering the dog is fun, disturbs him during meals and at lunchtime, or surprises the animal in other ways. All of this has the potential to mislead an encounter between species.
According to Jill Breitner, a dog body language expert and founder of California-based Shewhisperer Dog Training, 77% of dog bites happen to friends and family. For families struggling with dog and child compatibility, she recommends contacting Family Paws Parent Education, which offers safety programs.
Be aware of body language
Of course, bite prevention practices need to go beyond the house as well. Adults with dogs need to remember that children will be … well, children. Unpredictable, ignorant, vulnerable children. The impetus lies with adults in identifying signs of canine caution that could herald a nip, bite, or other outbreak.
“Knowing the red flags that a dog is stressed is important: looking away, hiding, licking lips, panting, drooling,” says Jill.
Prevent problematic situations
Situation awareness is another priority. Surprise, surprise: family dogs feed on human food. Therefore, special care should be taken at gatherings with food – especially at large events such as garden barbecues. For cunning canines familiar with food theft like Vector, a child chewing is the easiest brand, and should the child overreact, the encounter could mean more than being bitten by a burger. With this in mind, the safest way to keep your dog on a leash (when he’s outside) or remove him from the room (when he’s inside) is when you are focused on eating.
There’s also one that can’t be seen outside the house: never tie your dog down and walk away. Like humans, dogs have two options when threatened: fight or flight. Tying your pet to a pole while drinking coffee will take away the preferred option – flight – and exponentially increase the other’s likelihood. Don’t give a young child – or anyone else – the opportunity to get close to your snuggly but trapped pet, as a gentle tap on the head can turn into a not-quite-as-gentle bite on the hand.
Unfortunately, no prevention method is completely foolproof. When it comes to a dog bite, Samantha and Jill agree that it is initially counterproductive to reprimand the dog, which at first glance may seem logical. Per Jill: “Verbal or physical punishment of dogs only increases their fear, which in turn increases the likelihood of another bite.”
With vigilance and best practices, the risk of dog bite incidents in young children will decrease significantly. As for my family, one bite doesn’t ruin a relationship: Nicholas may have been bitten once, but by no means shy of hugging his four-legged older brother … unless he’s now sure he’s approaching from the front.
Christopher Dale writes frequently on issues of society, parenting, and sobriety. Its by-lines include the Daily Beast, Salon, NY Daily News, and Parents.com. He has also contributed to The Dodo and The Bark. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisDaleWriter.