Avatar photo

By Citizen Reporter


Don’t hug that dog! And other things kids should know

Brand new dog safety programme being offered at local schools

Did you know that 50% of children will experience a dog bite by the time they are 12 years old? Or that 77% of all dog bites that happen are from a family dog or a friend’s dog?

This is a shocking statistic – shocking for parents, shocking for dog lovers and shocking for the shelters that are often left to deal with the fall out of a dog that has bitten a child.

But why is this number so high? Why is “man’s best friend” turning on our children so often?

The answer is simple, we allow our children to treat dogs as toys, or at least as humans, we do not raise our kids to treat dogs as animals, and without that respect and awareness, our kids may overstep what a dog deems safe and comfortable interaction. Because at the end of the day as much as we want to humanise our dogs, they are not human, they are animals, and therefore we need to learn how to love them as animals. We need to learn, and we need to teach our children, how to read a dog’s body language. We need to be aware of our child’s interactions with a dog and intervene when we see the dog may be uncomfortable.

But if, like me, you are not fluent in dog, how do you know how to prevent these more or less avoidable bites from happening?

Firstly, we need to be aware of triggers for dogs and teach our kids to avoid these triggers. According to animal behaviourist, Gordon Banks, from Dogtown SA a shelter for dogs, the most common triggers involve space boundaries, animals, just like us, have their own personal space bubble and when that bubble is entered causes discomfit. And discomfit leads to some sort of defence response – either the dog will freeze, flee or fight.

Banks explains that another aspect of space is that when an animal, including dogs, feels cornered or trapped it will also deliver a defence response. So, while we think it is super cute when our kids lie on our dogs, cuddling them, our dogs do not, they see this as a real and present danger. They do not always understand human expressions of love.

“A big trigger for animals is food”, says Banks. Their animal brains are still somewhat wired to fight for their food, that it is survival of the fittest, and food is key to survival. Also, dogs do not get free access to food, as we do, so when they get it they do not want to share it or give it up. And it is not fair of us to expect them to. So, please stop letting your kids play with the food bowl, or remove food from the bowl or anything really while the dog is eating. Give your dog space to eat in peace and safety.

The second way we can prevent a dog from biting our children is by being aware of what is chilled out dog body language and stress out dog body language.

dog bites baby

This image recently viral on social media because many dog experts criticised the parent for not reading the signs that this dog was clearly unhappy and could easily have bitten the child.

Dogs communicate many signals before resorting to biting – which by the way is also a form of communication in dog language. The dog is saying with his bite, “you have ignored all my previous warnings, so now I will give you a warning you cannot ignore.”.

These are the warning signs to look for when your child is interacting with a dog – your own dog or someone else’s:

  1. His head is turned away from the child

  2. His ears  are either flat, down or sideways

  3. He is panting, yawning or licking his nose and lips

  4. He is avoiding eye contact, showing the whites of his eyes, look at you from the side of his eye or staring directly at the child intensely

  5. His tail is tucked between his legs, rigid or low and wagging

  6. He is crouched or cowering and lifting one paw off the ground

  7. If he shows his teeth

  8. If he growls

And when we ignore or are unaware of these signs, this is what can lead to a bite. Gordon Banks, from Dogtown SA, says, “the sad thing is that for us in this line of work, we often see dogs who have been surrendered to shelters because they have bitten a child, but these dogs are not problem dogs or bad dogs, they are just misunderstood. The dog does not have a problem, the family had a problem in understanding how to interact with their dog.”

For this very reason, in an attempt to lessen the number of surrendered dogs that need care and rehoming, Dogtown SA, has launched a programme aimed at teaching children how to behave responsibly around the dogs they spend time with is critically important to avoid unnecessary injury and trauma.

Dogtown Dog Stars

Gordon teaches primary school children how to interact with dogs

While most bite prevention programmes focus on what to do when a stray or aggressive dog approaches a child, the programme is a simple and fun programme that focuses on teaching kids how to really respect the dogs they already know.

Developed by thefamilydog.com, Dog Stars represents a new approach to dog safety. Just 30 – 40 minutes long, the programme uses games and music videos with catchy lyrics to get the message across. Your kids will be singing about dog safety long after the workshop is over!

The aim is to bring fun and energy into educating primary school-aged children about the right way to behave around dogs. Dog Stars is designed to increase appropriate child-dog interactions that decrease the stress dogs can feel when around children. A less-stressed dog = fewer bites.

The programme is simple but really comprehensive – and it’s very entertaining for the kids,” says Gordon. “They get to watch videos and play games that help them understand dogs, and then take home colourful, interactive handouts to help educate their parents too.”

RSPCA Understanding Dog Behaviour

Gordon Banks DogtownAbout Dogtown SA

Dogtown SA is a sanctuary for dogs, situated in the mountains near the Hennops River in Gauteng. The dedicated team of behaviourists and caregivers provide care for dogs who have lost their families or been rescued from dire situations. The dogs are given individual care and attention whilst they wait for their forever homes. There are many wonderful dogs at Dogtown who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves homeless and often in need of care and rehabilitation.


Read more on these topics

family Pre-Schooler Primary Schooler toddler

Access premium news and stories

Access to the top content, vouchers and other member only benefits