Every time I hear a report of a toddler being bitten by a dog my heart sinks.
The trauma for the child, the parents, and more often than not the family or friends who owned the dog is unimaginable. And of course, it often leads to the death of the dog involved.
My other concern is that each time there’s a highly publicised attack on a child, the first reaction is a call to tighten legislation on “dangerous dogs”.
While it’s understandable that the public wants to feel safe, regulation alone won’t achieve this. Education about responsible pet ownership has to be part of the solution because just about any dog can be dangerous given the right – or rather wrong – set of circumstances.
When my kids were little we had cats, although I always hankered after a dog as well. I’ve had big dogs all my life, but my husband was a bit concerned about getting one while the kids were small.
As the CEO of Lort Smith Animal Hospital, I see a lot of dogs who have been surrendered to us because of changes in family structure. And in fact one of our shelter dogs, Brock, played a big part in making our family more dog friendly. Brock had a lot of medical problems, so we fostered him while he was healing. Because he had to have so much treatment, he was very used to being handled and nothing phased him, which meant he was a great trainer for the kids.
As our house backs onto a dog park we had frequent interactions with the local dog community, so the children mixed with a variety of dogs and learnt to respect them and also to be comfortable around them.
It’s important that children understand how to interact with dogs. Toddlers make up by far the largest number of dog bite victims. When you see their automatic reaction to a dog, you can understand why this can be interpreted by the dog as a threat. They want to throw their arms around the dog, bury their face in its fur, climb on its back – from the dog’s point of view, these are all the same sort of things a predator might do!
I’ve tried to teach the children not to approach strange dogs or pat them without permission, but at the same time, encourage them to care for animals and not fear them.
When my youngest child, Will, was 2 years and 3 months, we adopted a dog, Princess Esther the Great, now an integral part of our family. She was the same age as Will and had been given up by a family with kids about the same age as ours. Esther had passed her temperament test with flying colours and was very child-tolerant.
Even so, from the beginning, we set boundaries for the kids and for Esther. During our mealtimes, she is kept out of the house; and even though the kids have the responsibility of feeding her, during her mealtimes, they leave her in peace.
She plays in the yard with Will, but I always keep an eye out. No dog should be left unsupervised with a toddler and I certainly wouldn’t let Will just play like that with a dog I didn’t know.
It’s important not to let social inhibitions get in the way of safety, either. If a friend of Will’s comes around for a play and I don’t like the way they behave around Esther, I’ll make sure they are kept separate. If we go to visit people, and they say “oh, don’t worry, our dog’s fine with kids”, I don’t take their word for it and if I’m not comfortable, I’ll ask them to put the dog in another room. You don’t take chances with your kids.
I think that with dogs, as with kids, genetics plays a small part in bad behaviour. The rest of it comes down to environment and training.
Image credit: petro/123RF Stock Photo
Lort Smith Animal Hospital, North Melbourne, is running a seminar on Parenting and Pets on Thursday September 12. For info, phone 9321 7207 or email firstname.lastname@example.org