Dog Maulings: What You Don't Know Could Hurt Your Toddler

Sasha Brown-Worsham

That cute little doggie with the bared teeth is not smiling at your toddler, and if she's pacing and pushing her ears back, she is NOT happy to see her. In fact, that is likely one p'd off puppy, and if your kid doesn't step away, she may be at risk for a dog bite -- or worse.

The number of dog attacks in the news against young children in recent months has seemed overwhelming.

To name just three:

  • A 2-year-old in the UK needed 200 stitches to his face after being attacked by his grandmother's collie.
  • Just last week, an 18-month-old in Texas was attacked by a pit bill and had to go to the hospital.
  • And in June, a 2-year-old in Midvale, Utah, was mauled by the family dog -- a former police dog -- who the toddler obviously knew well.

It's happening all over the country, and as a mom who lives with two toddlers and a dog, it's frightening for me, too. But we can take steps to prevent this from happening to our own children. A recent BBC article suggests that children often "miss signals" that indicate danger in dogs. In the UK, Kerstin Meints, from Lincoln University, created an interactive DVD called Blue Dog to help train children to recognize cues.

"Just because a dog looks sad, it doesn't necessarily mean it wants a hug," she says.

I see it with my own children all the time. The dog is growling and baring his teeth and they think he's playing. There are simple things parents can do, both personal tips and tips from Boston-based dog trainer Bette Yip of Picture Perfect Pets:

  • Never EVER let your child approach a strange dog without first asking the handler whether the dog is used to children. If he/she seems hesitant, move on. Teach your children never to pet a dog without permission. 
  • Look quickly at the dog's ears, tail, body, mouth, and eyes to see if the dog looks like it would like to say hello. "Do not stare into the dog's eyes," says Yip. "This makes many dogs very nervous!"
  • Some signals of "stay away" to watch for: Ears way back, tail between legs, licking lips a lot, panting heavily, stiff body, showing the whites of the eyes, pacing .... These are not all of the signals, but some of the most common ones which are easy to see. If a dog is wrinkling its nose, showing you its teeth, or growling, do not approach.
  • If the dog seems OK to approach, have your toddler hold his or her hand out in a tight fist so the dog can sniff.
  • If that works, the child can pet the dog slowly and gently, but if the dog begins to look uncomfortable or starts to get excited and bouncy, the child should know to back away.

Dogs and toddlers can co-exist, but children need to learn to read dogs' signals.

What do you teach your toddlers about dogs?


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