Developing Safe, Empathetic Relationships between Dogs & Children
Question from Debbie Wilson, My Doggy Genius Fan:
“Help! I have a Border collie that sometimes lunges at my grand daughter and tries to bite her for no apparent reason…”
Thank you very much for your question. I am wondering when this behavior began with your dog. Has your Border Collie ever displayed this behavior with any other children, or only with your grand-daughter? Collies are known herders, and this instinct can be very strong, particularly around children. For more information about this particular breed and their strong instinct to ‘herd’ children, you might want to check out this great article from Border Collie Rescue.
In addition to breed-specific tendencies, various forms of aggression in dogs is commonly caused by environmental factors. If this behavior only happens with your grand-daughter, your dog is either feeling territorial (because your dog perceives your grandchild to be a threat) or there may be something your grand-daughter is doing or has done in the past that is triggering your dog to respond in this way. I’m not suggesting that your grand-daughter has done something intentionally to provoke your dog. Young children often move quickly and unpredictably, and if your dog is not used to being around children this age, your grand-daughter’s quick movements may startle him. It’s important to pay very careful attention to their interactions or there could be negative consequences; when a dog is startled, (s)he will react in one of two ways: fight, or flight. That your dog is lunging tells me that (s)he is feeling threatened in some way, which could eventually lead to a dog bite.
Dog bites are most common in the United States among children (and boys in particular) between 5-9 years old (Jalongo, 2008), but developmentally appropriate education for young children can prevent this from happening.
Ten years of working with elementary school children as a teacher, as well as my doctoral research in which I explored how one class of grade 2 children experienced an animal-assisted literacy program, offered me a great deal of practical experience helping children and dogs to understand each other’s needs and preferences. Here, I’ve included an abbreviated list of topics (adapted from Dr. Mary Renck Jalongo’s 2006 article, On Behalf of Children) which you may want to talk to your grand-daughter about to help her to not only be safe around dogs, but to learn how to interact with all dogs with care and empathy:
- Remember that sometimes dogs don’t want to be petted. To find out if the dog wants to be touched, let him or her sniff the back of your hand first. If the dog seems to like that, you can pet the dog gently, but not on the face.
- Don’t bother dogs when they are eating because they may think you are trying to steal their food.
- Don’t bother a sleeping dog. If you surprise him, he could bite you because he’s scared.
- If you give a dog a treat, put it in the palm of your hand. If you hold it in your fingers, the dog might accidently bite them when he’s trying to get the treat.
- Don’t tease dogs. If you are mean to them, they won’t want to be your friend.
- It’s not fair when someone takes away your toys, so don’t do this to your dog.
- If a dog chases you and it scares you, stop running and don’t scream. When you run, your dog thinks that you are playing a game and will probably chase you, and screaming will make your dog more excited. Instead, stop, roll up into a ball, and stay quiet. Your dog will lose interest in you and go away.
- Even if you love a dog, don’t hug or squeeze him. That can be scary for a dog, and when he’s scared, he could bite you.
- The best way to get a dog to really like you is to find out what he likes and keep doing the things he likes to do most when you are around him. If you find out that he or she loves to play fetch and you play that game with him, he will love spending time with you and will become your best friend!
For further information on how to teach children to interact safely with dogs, visit the American Humane website to learn about Dog Bite Prevention for Kids.
American Humane also has a wonderful program for educators, titled American Humane Kids: Kids Interacting with Dogs Safely that can be ordered directly from this site. I hope that this information helps you and the children and animals in your lives!
Please share this article with anyone you know who has children and pets in their families so we can help prevent dog bites from happening in the first place.
Much Love & Tail Wags,
Lori, Tango, & Sparky
Jalongo, M. (2008). Beyond a pets theme: Teaching young children to interact safely with dogs. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(1), 39-45.
Jalongo, M. (2006). When teaching children about pets, be certain to address safety issues. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(5), 289-292.