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Toddler Tidbits

Toddler and DogHello Mr. Wade,

I hope you can help me. I need guidance in reference to correcting an interaction between my 1.5 yr old daughter and our Maltese. I’m trying to teach my daughter how to interact with our Maltese by modeling asking for a paw, then petting him after he does it. She tends to be a bit more aggressive at times with him and in turn, he retaliates by snapping at her. She finds this fun and so continues again with the same ‘attacking’ arm swat, or what-not.

Would it be correct to bring my daughter close (so dog sees she is part of the pack), then calls him over, ask for paw, then pet him (to model the behavior for her, again)? We have been doing this, and it works off and on. I would appreciate any feedback or advice.


Dear C.D.

We’ve had decades of child safety around dogs programs and they haven’t made one whit of difference. On all accounts the number of children being bitten by dogs is on the rise. The Center for Disease Control in the U.S. tells us that in North America one out of two children are being bitten by a dog before they reach the age of twelve. The technical term they use is ‘epidemic’. As such, seems to me we might want to consider that child safety around dogs programs aren’t working. As far as I can tell after 20 years of assessing aggressive dogs, they never will.

The reason for this is pretty simple and how it eludes those creating or hosting these programs is beyond me. The truth is, as any parent, grand parent, teacher, child psychiatrist will tell you, no matter how well educated; children can’t stop being children. Eight year old boys are statistically the most likely dog bite victims. Not because they are deaf or rebellious but because they are eight. Tell an eight year old boy that he shouldn’t poke the dog and he’ll look right at you and say, “Okay.” Leave the room as parents who have to make dinners and such are wont to do and the boy begins to wonder to himself, “Hmm, I wonder why?” and pokes the dog to find out.

Somewhat less likely to be bitten because of the degree of day to day supervision but of a more serious nature when bites do occur, are children of your daughter’s age. Even if you have a child that can completely grasp the concept and logic of being gentle around a dog, they still do something child-like and fall on or near the dog. If they have the poise of a ballerina to go along with their intellect, their friends will not and if the dog is not child friendly the dog may bite one of them. If you are successful as some people are and the dog decides the child is part of the pack you’re not out of the water unless your child is never going to have visiting friends in her age group. It’s time for North Americans to realize that we have to start training our dogs to behave around children and if they can’t be trained or won’t be trained then then it’s time for them to move on down the road before they bite a child and their options are all gone. Don’t get me wrong, we do need to take ownership of dogs seriously. Their lives are important but our serious responsibility to them does not absolve us of our responsibility to our children and neighbours.

Most of the calls I get about aggressive puppies that are causing the kids in the house to sit on the couch with their feet tucked under them so the dog can’t bite at their feet are just rumbustious. They’re testing out who’s going to be running the show. It’s an understandable concern for parents but one that is usually easily resolved. With a little training they quickly learn how to inhibit the use of their mouths and keep four on the floor. However, a dog that doesn’t like or isn’t comfortable around children is never going to be. One of the most significant factors effecting this is the amount and type of exposure they received from children before they themselves were 12 weeks of age. Lots of positive, they generally do well. None or negative and the likelihood of trouble around children ahead is significant. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be taught to behave around children but in my view, liking a child and putting up with a child is a fine line distinction.

I know there are extenuating circumstances but after 20 years and thousands of dogs, I know what dogs are capable of both big and small, good and bad and there just can’t be that many extenuating circumstances resulting in one out of two children being bitten before 12 years of age.

Get yourself a good dog trainer and meet with them with your child, ideally in your own home. You need someone with a lot of experience under their belt and that has worked with a lot of biters. You want someone that likes dogs, but loves kids. Ask for a risk assessment and if it makes sense to do so assistance in training the dog.

I hope it works out.

John Wade

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