Dogs and Babies: Can They be Safe in the Same Household?

11 | Posted:

By Dr Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

1966-2014 R.I.P.

toddler kisses jack russell

“Six-Week-Old Girl Dies After Mauled By Family Dog,” the headlines blared. The LA County Sheriff’s Department reported the familiar scenario. A family member had left the baby unattended on a bed for a few minutes and returned to find her head encased in the dog’s mouth.

Sounds shocking, but this isn’t the first time an infant has fallen prey to the family pet. According to the Center for Disease Control (1997), of the 279 dog bite-related fatalities in the US that occurred between 1979 and 1994, most involved children younger than ten years of age, with infants making up a disproportionately high percentage. The most common bites occurred when infants were left alone with the family pet.

What type of dog would perform such a deed? While many would immediately conclude that it must have been the much-maligned Pit Bull mix or a rogue Rottweiler, not so here. In the case above, it was a Pomeranian-a pocket-sized dog known more for being babied than biting babies. And although due to their size, large dogs are usually to blame for fatalities from dog bites, other little dogs-Dachshunds, Westies, and Cocker Spaniels-have all committed the same crime. Even Labrador and Golden Retrievers are on this ill-fated list. So the word is out-all dogs can bite, and a few will even kill.

Why would a pet attack an infant or child?

But why would a pet attack a family member, especially an innocent child? The whole situation seems senseless, but once you take a moment to think like a dog, the pieces come together. One day life for Jake the Jack Russell Terrier is just ho-hum, and then, suddenly, a surprise. A five-pound squeaky thing moves in, triggering his predatory instincts, the same ones that cause him to kill fluffy toys, squeaky balls, and to chase relentlessly after squirrels.

The mystery object enters hidden in a bundle of cloth. It smells like a mammal and squeals like live food, yet Fido never really learns what it is. It also jerks and gurgles like wounded prey. This secret toy is it’s off-limits but always tempting with its presence. The longer it hides from Rover, the higher his frustration and drive. Older toddlers and young kids incite this instinct too. They run around yelling and flinging their arms like the ultimate interactive squeaky toy. Then when the dog gets loose he chases just to play, but when the kids get scared and scream and flail more, Rover’s arousal gets out of control sometimes leading to a bite.

While prey drive can cause Rovers to bite tiny infants, the most common cause of bites to youngsters overall is actually fear. This is generally very surprising, especially in cases where Fido loves all adults. But what commonly happens is that Fido was socialized to adults when he was young but didn’t see many kids. So while adults are filed in his brain as being safe, infants and kids are categorized as alien. Often, owners are completely unaware that their Fido is afraid of their infant. Because the infant is relatively immobile, Fido can just stay away. But when he becomes a crawling or walking toddler, then the aggression begins. The toddler keeps approaching Fido, ignoring Fido’s warning lip raises or growls. In fact, when owners note these postures, they may even punish Fido instead of thanking Fido for giving a warning sign. This punishment serves to increase Fido’s anxiety and possibly to hide his warning signs so that, instead of a warning lip-raise, growl, and then snap when cornered, he holds it in until he can’t anymore and lets out a full-fledged bite.

Even when Fido isn’t afraid of kids, kids can drive dogs to the boiling point. Parents are often proud that their dog is so tolerant that he puts up with the toddlers sitting on him or poking their fingers in his ears, but they don’t realize, just like humans, dogs can only take so much. Imagine how you would feel locked in a room with a bunch of screaming kids who have no concept of your personal space and where you have no control over when you can take a break. You might be okay for a few hours or a day or even a week. But at some point they’re going to irritate you enough to yell at them or even become more violent. As protectors of both our dogs and our kids, it’s our job to train kids to play and interact with pets. The pets should look like they enjoy the experience rather than just tolerating it. (For more info read: Living with Kids and Dog-Parenting Secrets for a Safe and Happy Home by Colleen Pelar).

One last cause that’s really not common but occurs sometimes is that Fido doesn’t like his new position playing second fiddle. No more walks, no more talks-everyone’s focused on the new addition. Like older human siblings, each dog responds to this situation differently. Some dogs don’t mind their new status on the fringe; others long for signs of their owner’s affection. They watch plaintively but politely as new parents fawn over the newcomer. Still others seethe at this object that is hogging their owner’s time and attention. If the offender were another dog, this Fido would make it clear that he gets first dibs. He’d nudge or even force his way into position. And if the message still wasn’t clear, a flash of teeth would be sure to set things straight. The problem is that toddlers don’t read or heed the warning signs and back off. And if adults notice them they just punish the dog, making the dog even more upset. Like siblings whose parents constantly reprimand them for bad behavior towards each other rather setting the situation up for success and then rewarding appropriate interactions, the dog learns to associate the toddler with his getting into trouble. Needless to say, this is not good for their relationship. He may direct his aggression to her when owners are not present to supervise.

How to Prevent Problems

Knowing the causes of infant and child attacks can help us avoid a serious disaster. Dog bites to infants and kids can be prevented and the steps begun before baby comes home.

  • The first step is to make sure your dog knows his manners and has self control. Does he come when called, sit when asked, and wait patiently for your next cue, even when he’d rather grab the toy you just tossed or snatch that piece of food that just fell on the floor? If not, put him through the learn to earn program where he learns to say please by sitting for everything he wants. Also make sure he has a good come when called so that you can call him out of danger and that he walks well on leash already since walks will be more complicated when you’re pushing a baby stroller. A second reason to work on the say please by sitting exercises is that they provide structured fun-time for Fido which you’ll be able to continue once the baby arrives.
  • Next make sure Fido has safe place where he can rest and be away from the baby and kids. A crate, exercise pen, babygated area, or his own room are good. It’s best if the place can be an area he can choose to go on his own and which the baby will be taught to avoid.
  • Train Fido to enjoy all of the bad things that might accidentally happen just in case they do. For instance, train him that when people approach his food bowl good things happened to him, and that it’s fun giving people his toys because he gets treats and the toy back. Train him to love being touched and handled all over, including his paws, ears, and tail. Although you’ll ultimately spend every day teaching your toddler to stay away from Fido while he’s eating or sleeping and to only touch him gently, invariably, the child will make a mistake and that’s what we want to train Fido to tolerate now.
  • Get Fido used to baby sounds by playing recordings of babies. Ask him to play some games such as targeting or say “please” by sitting, if the sound seems to bug him. Make sure he gets lots of treats. Also, if he reacts strongly to the sounds at regular level, start with the recording at low volume and gradually increase it.
  • Then, to prevent cross-species sibling rivalry, do the unthinkable: Start paying less attention to Fido a week before the expected day. Continue his exercise, fun training games and overall say please by sitting exercises throughout the day, but otherwise treat him like a ghost at home. That is, don’t lavish extra attention or have long period of petting. We don’t want him to associate a big decline in attention with your bringing baby home.
  • When the baby does arrive, bring a blanket or something else with the baby’s scent if possible, and let Fido get used to the smell. If he ignores it, that’s fine, because it shows the smell doesn’t bug him. Then when you bring the baby home, let Fido get used to him or her. While holding the baby safely out of his reach, have him sit quietly and reward him with treats for being calm. That means no whining and no straining or jumping up to reach you. The ideal behavior is for Fido to act relaxed, like a baby is not a big deal. In other words, you’re training him to perform his sit games and practice self-control while the baby’s around.
  • As a matter of habit, ignore Fido when the baby is away and reward him for good behavior, such as sitting, when baby is nearby. Soon he’ll learn there’s nothing to fear when the little infant is near. He’ll just know that good things happen to him when baby is around. As a bonus, he’ll also know that he should remain calm and controlled around the baby and that the baby does not mean removal of attention for him. Instead the presence of the baby means that he’s going to get rewards.
  • Lastly, no matter how petite or perfect your dog is, never leave him alone with an infant or small child. In fact things can go terribly wrong even when you’re in the same room. It’s up to you to recognize the signs and know when Fido needs a rest and your toddler needs more rules. It sounds labor intensive but by failing to take these precautions, one bad day and a lapse in your attention, and tragedy could occur.

Have you had or heard of a difficult situation with a dog and the household kids? If so, please share!

This article is revised from an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

11 responses to “Dogs and Babies: Can They be Safe in the Same Household?

  1. I have a bit of a difficult situation with my 12 week old lab puppy and my 2 kids. My female puppy is extremely mouthy, but she espescially likes to bite at my children’s ankles and growl. Yelping and ignoring seem to arouse her even more to the point where I have to pull her away and put her in the bathroom or raise my voice and clap my hands. She also has growled and nipped at my daughter (7) when she picked her up a few times. I am working with my kids (7 and 3) on moving slower to pet her, not pick her up, etc., but it is starting to feel like I spend all day keeping my kids from interacting with the puppy–this seems wrong as the puppy needs to be able to get along easily with my kids for her to stay in our family. I just found your site and will work quite a bit on positive reinforcement–the kids also do a lot of treating for sits, downs, comes, and roll-overs. But they can’t really pet her without her trying to puppy bite–and any human ouches or yelping incite her to start biting more and growling. But I am fearful that we have an easily aroused and reactive puppy–she seems to be highly confident as well. She almost never shows submissive posturing. I am looking for reassuance that she can fit well into our family someday without all the constant stress and vigilance.

    1. 12 weeks means she’s still very much a puppy. Puppy chews and nibbles all the time and will continue to do so for months. Get chew toys, bully sticks, lots of toys and play balls. That puppy will be energetic for a year, maybe two. Also scold her gently when she bites human. She will learn with time. What else did you expect with 12 weeks old puppy? Nibbling, gently biting—that’s how puppies play.

      1. Agree with what Amy says and want to add that some dogs like to play-bite. Especially puppies as it’s their way of learning how to interact and prepare them for the future.
        Play-biting is normal behavior and is nothing you can really do to completely stop. When it happens in older mature dogs, it’s a sign of affection and therefor can be confusing to the dog if they get yelled at, they were just showing how much they love you… However the dog must learn when and where and who this behavior is OK and what is too much. Acknowledge their affection and yelp whenever it’s too rough so they learn the boundaries.

  2. You’re right that yelling ouch can just sound like a squeal causing her to be more excited, and that “their form of ignoring” where they probably walk around and just don’t look at her, is not perceived as removal of their attention to her. What this puppy really needs is to go through the puppy learn to earn program so she learns to say please by sitting for everything she wants including every single bit of kibble. That means if she eats 100 kibble a day, she’ll get rewarded 100x a day a minimum. Which means that she can learn the new behavior of sitting politely practically over night. The best instructions for how to do this with a puppy are in the Perfect Puppy in 7 days

  3. Kristin, This is NORMAL for a puppy. Think for a moment how pups learn to interact with their siblings. It’s all mouthy (both bites and vocalizations) play. Whats important is teaching your pup WHEN it’s ok to do such things and HOW it’s ok to go about them. I still let my two year old lab mouth my hand when we play hard, however he knows that anything past a certain amount of pressure hurts me, As I’ve taught him by playing and stopping when it gets too rough. Yes, I suffered a few instances of broken skin (and ripped clothes) in the beginning but well worth the effort.

    1. Hi, I agree completely to this. It’s a way of the dog to show utter affection, they share that they enjoy playing with you and that they trust you. Play biting is part of bonding with the dog. As you say, it is an art to get it right

  4. Out of curiousity, is the transition of Canine – Human baby made easier when the dog is used to having other small mammals around (ie. Kitties).

  5. My mother in law has a small yorkie that is energetic for a 14 year old butt can be bouncy and playful one day then suffer with aches the next she’s been to the vet several times for this and from what I’m told being treated. She’s a lovely dog, but very nervous and unpredictable she can often bite unexpectedly because she’s in pain or she will burst into barking fits and won’t settle and pant anxiously for long periods of time. She’s so so playful for her age too. My heart really goes out to this poor little dog as I feel she doesn’t know where she’s up to. She can’t stand being left alone even when you’re in the house. We often look after her and she settles in well after a few days. I enjoy having her company because I make a lot of effort to make her comfortable she seems to relax and be a pleasure to care for. Because of her behaviour and some toilet issues such as mess on her bottom which I have to really be careful when trying to clean not to trigger a fear response, I do feel like I’m massively put out having to take on the responsibility and it really does take a lot for me to. My partner helps but she is quite stubborn and only wI’ll go out for walks with me or allow me to lift her upstairs and downstairs. She loves him more than me but she doesn’t seem to like him picking her up and snaps.
    I am really worried as ww are soon to have a baby in a few months time. His mum has no one else to care for the dog. She’s got too many needs to go to alternative care. She is excitable around my mother in laws grandchildren and will not settle in a safe zone crate and will run after the toddler playfully nipping but then when the toddler gives her attention she feels cornered and doesn’t warn just reacts (possibly she’s been told off for warning). I feel like I’m in a sound proof box pleading to just put the dog in a room in a room with a gate so she can still see us, but be out of risk of getting into trouble. I’m told “it’ll be the child’s fault if she gets bit” but you can’t communicate that to a two year old. Even more worrying the dog reacts to babies crying with over interest and jumping up yapping. Making the crying worse. Or her barking fits can disturb the baby when sleeping. So when I have my child I’m really worried. I’m not comfortable with the idea of bringing baby to the house where the dog lives or having to care for a baby and this dog during vacation. I’m absolutely distraught at the idea of people’s attitude on “once bitten the child won’t bother again” why put the two in a dangerous position like that? Where dog is made so scared she reacts and baby just being baby could possibly get disfigured for life (yes a small dog can still inflict a lot of damage)
    I adore dogs and I have other family with bigger dogs that are more sound in nature, but precautions are still put in place to insure that children and frail old people are all kept safe.
    I hate that a dog I am actually quite fond of is unwittingly the cause of conflict I’m seen to be the bad one for even suggesting we don’t include the furry family member when that’s not the case. She’s been spoiled and at her age things are difficult to change. I don’t have my own dog (yet) I’m grateful to be able to have the pleasure of her unique little personality for all the problems she has she does often make me smile and I feel privileged when she wants to be affectionate with me. Most people would regard such a dog with contempt… But to me all dogs are equal and deserve a chance no matter how much they frey your nerves.

    All the literature I have seen so far is not really suited to this case. Have you got anything I can refer the owner to so she can dog and baby proof her house so we can enjoy time with granny and her other grandchildren can visit and all the family (dog included) can be together, but safe and the same standards to be reflected in our own home too.

    ….becoming a mother is hard 🙁

  6. I have a 10 month old son whom I co-parent with the Father. The Father of our son has a large breed dog and our son wrestles with him. Our son has now started wrestling with smaller children at daycare. Our sons father thinks its funny and says it’s our son that needs to learn to be more careful. I don’t have any pets and so our son isn’t around any dogs during my time with him. What should I do?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.