Family pets are a wonderful way to assist healthy emotional and physical development in children. Dogs in particular can be special companions, providing an opportunity for exercise whilst teaching children responsibility.
However, there are some risks to children associated with dog ownership that parents need to be aware of. Dog bites are a cause of significant injury and distress to many children in Australia each year. Between 2000 and 2003, 6553 people were hospitalised as a result of a dog injury, with over 40% of these being children under the age of 9.
Almost three quarters of all dog bite injuries to children occur in the home. The most common area of injury is the face, accounting for 61% of injuries, as a child’s head is usually at the same height as the head of the dog.
Dogs and your family
A dog’s breed and size will also influence their potential to bite, as well as how severe any bite may be. Therefore, when choosing a dog for your family, discuss the most appropriate options with your local vet or RSPCA who can assist you in picking a breed that best suits your family and lifestyle. Consider the following:
• Dogs that are taught or encouraged to be guard or hunting dogs, should not be mixed with children;
• Ensure your dog is socialised, well trained, and always kept under close supervision when interacting with young children;
• If your dog exhibits any aggressive behaviour, manage it immediately and appropriately;
• Consider waiting until your youngest child is five years old before buying a dog, as children under the age of five are most at risk.
Reducing the risk of injury
Supervision is vital in reducing the likelihood of dog bite injury to your child. Never, under any circumstances, leave young children alone with a dog, even if the dog has never exhibited aggressive behaviours before. Either actively supervise young children around dogs at all times, or physically separate them with a fence or other barrier.
When introducing a baby to a pet it is important to prepare your dog in the months prior to the birth. You will need to make changes to your pet’s physical environment. Try to familiarise your dog with the smells and sounds that they will encounter when the baby arrives. The initial meeting between the baby and dog should be in a calm, controlled and supervised setting, allowing the dog to smell the baby. It is also important that you reassure and gently praise the dog. You should try and minimise changes to the dog’s routine, and make any changes to the dog’s environment prior to bringing the baby home.
Young children are often unaware that particular behaviours can cause dogs to act in a defensive manner. Adult supervision can ensure that activities such as rough play and squealing are kept to a minimum, therefore reduce the risk of the dog becoming overexcited and biting.
Steps to prevent dog attacks
- ‘Supervise or separate:’ if you are unable to supervise then you need to ensure that you can safely separate children and dogs.
- Children should never approach a dog when food is present, including human food.
- Children should never approach an unfamiliar dog. Teach your child to ask permission from the owner before approaching the dog.
- Approach the dog on an angle, curl the fingers and present the back of the hand, and allow the dog to sniff it before touching.
- Dogs can see eye contact as a challenge or a threat; teach children to look at their feet.
- Teach your child how to act if approached by an unfamiliar dog; to stand like a statue with arms by their sides, and to look at their feet.
- Always avoid a dog that growls, lifts its lips, backs off, or raises the hair on its back. Dogs declared dangerous by the council should be wearing a dangerous dog collar; avoid these dogs even under supervision.
For further information contact Kidsafe in your State or Territory, or visit the national website at: www.kidsafe.com.au