We've read some very sad headlines recently about about Frankie Macritchie, a 9-year-old killed by 'bulldog-type' dog in a caravan park in Cornwall.
It's the kind of news story that sends shivers down the spine of every parent or parent-to-be – and makes us all think long and hard about what we can do to help make our children as safe as possible around dogs.
Of course, dogs and children can be the most brilliant, rewarding mix – and horrific stories like this are definitely not the norm.
We know that having a pet dog in the family home can make children very happy, teaching them loads about responsibility, love and respect for animals, and even, say experts, helping to boost their immunity to some infections and allergies.
But the way small children behave and the way dogs behave aren't always the same, and it's important that we, as parents, understand that – and take steps to make sure both enjoy living together as safely as possible.
Why are children at particular risk from dogs?
It's really all about body language and simple misunderstandings.
Children, understandably, tend to behave with dogs like they behave with their friends: they hug them, cuddle them, pick them up, try to kiss them.
Small children also tend to be a bit flat-footed and unco-ordinated, they quite often accidentally stand on paws or tails, or clumsily grab ears and fur.
And that's before we even get started on the crying, yelling, and running or crawling around in random different directions.
From a dog’s point of view, though, say experts at the RSPCA, this perfectly normal childlike behaviour is utterly mysterious – and may sometimes seem downright threatening. (Battersea Dogs and Cats Homes has some great advice on stressed dog care).
And this, coupled with the fact that anyone (even an adult) is far more likely to be bitten by a dog they know than a dog that's unfamiliar one, means that it's children, say the RSCPA, who are at the highest risk being bitten by their own family’s dog.
So how do I keep my child safe around dogs?
Here are six simple steps to follow:
- Never leave your dog on his or her own with your child. It's not fair on either of them.
- Never encourage your child to rush up and pat a strange dog. There's no need to give the impression that all dogs are dangerous and frightening but you should explain that dogs like it best when people are gentle and quiet - and it's important to wait till both you and the dog's owner have had a chat to see if the dog would like a gentle pat or not.
- If you’re thinking of buying a dog, always to check first that the dog has no record of aggression or killing animals. Also make sure the dog is not known to dislike children, and take your child along with you before you make a decision, as this may help identify which dog they’re more likely to get on with.
- Remember that there is no completely safe breed of dog. Beware of relying too much on breed stereotypes: while it's true that general breed characteristics can predict possible aggression, any breed of dog can be dangerous.
- Teach your child how to behave safely around your dog. Show them how to gently stoke their back or tickle them under the chin. Tell them that dogs don't like running and screaming or someone stating into their eyes. Make it clear that it's not safe to take any of your dog's toys, or put their face too close to the dog’s face.
- Explain doggie body language to your child, so he or she can understand when a dog is happy, angry and scared.
How do I introduce my pet dog to my new baby?
Dogs and babies can rub along just fine but, in order to make that happen, the most important thing you can do is recognise that this is a big change for your dog, and you need to start preparing the ground well ahead on the birth.
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