By Dr Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
“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.