One of the tips that experts give to parents with dogs in the house, is that they should supervise. The trouble with that advice is that supervision means different things to different people. To some parents, supervision means just being home, to others it means watching out the window while the kids play with the dog outside while to others it means having hands on and being part of the interaction between the child and the dog. Many dog bites have happened to children while the parents were “supervising”. No parent wants their child to be bitten by a dog, to have stitches and surgeries and physical and emotional scars for life.
Here are some examples of bites/attacks in which there was adult supervision:
Two dogs mauled a 7-year old to death while she was visiting the home of the dogs, that she knew well. “They [the dogs] were out here with our kids all the time,” said [a neighbor]. “I never would have thought that they were capable of doing that.” According to a news report: “The girl was being supervised but no one witnessed the dog attack.”
A 14 month old toddler went to interact with a dog and the dog bit her nose off and caused other serious facial damage. At least one parent was present in the room. This dog had bitten another baby and was taken in recently to the home of the toddler by her mother for rehabilitation for this aggression.
Doggone Safe runs a victim support group for dog bite victims and their families. There are hundreds of stories from members about a friendly family dog that bit a child and caused severe damage. In all cases the parent was close by and everyone involved was stunned that the dog could do such a thing because it had never bitten before and loved kids.
Why Aren’t They Supervising?
So why weren’t the adults supervising more closely or effectively? Did they not care that the children in their care could be seriously injured? Of course not! The reason they were not supervising and intervening as appropriate is because they did not think that the child was in danger. They assumed that the dog(s) would not bite in the situation. Most parents think that because they are watching, or because the dog has never bitten or because the dog “loves kids” or loves the kids in his family that he will not bite. They do not know the warning signs of impending danger, what constitutes adequate supervision nor what factors conspire to create a dangerous situation. Most dog bites are by the family dog or a relative’s dog, most bite victims are children and the most common bite site is the face. Even the nicest dog can be hugged, sat on, tugged, poked or kissed by kids one too many times.
Here we are talking about interactions with the family dog or other dog known to the child and family. Your kids don’t need to interact at all with strange dogs.
The Five Types of Supervision
Here is a handy chart from dog/baby/toddler relationship expert Jennifer Shryock of Family Paws Parent Education that illustrates the types of supervision so that you can evaluate your supervision style and think about how you should be supervising effectively.
The degree of supervision required, depends on many factors. Babies, toddlers, and any children who do not follow instructions require hands on supervision if they are to interact with the dog. Such interaction should always be on the dog’s terms without forcing the dog to submit. Any child that goes after a dog, pesters the dog, sits or lies on the dog, smothers the dog with hugs and kisses or is rough with the dog needs close supervision and to be removed from the dog (or the dog removed from them) when this behavior occurs (or preferably before it starts). Children that know to call the dog to them and to interact only with a dog that comes to them for attention, and who know how to interact respectfully with the dog, require less supervision the older they are.
Dogs of unknown history or that have bitten or threatened children in the past should be kept away from children. This may be modified in consultation with an dog behavior consultant after a significant period of training.
Is Supervision Enough?
Supervision is not enough!
Learn About Dog Body Language
Supervision always involves paying close attention to the dog’s body language. If the dog does get to the point of biting, this will happen so fast that you will not be able to stop it no matter how close you are. You need to know the warning signs and intervene immediately to redirect the child to another activity. These signs include:
- licking, tongue flicking out or licking his own nose
- repeatedly licking the child
- showing a half moon of white in his eye (that pleading look)
- turning away
- getting up and moving away
Teach Kids Empathy and Respect
Teach kids to have empathy and respect for the dog. If they are too young or unable to follow instructions about leaving the dog alone unless the dog comes to them for attention, then you need physical barriers when you can’t provide hands-on supervision. See Proactive Supervision in the chart above.
Condition the Dog For Unpredictable Kid Stuff
Teach the dog that weird, unpredictable stuff that happens when kids are around, means good things for the dog. Read a terrific article about exactly how to do this from dog/kid relationship expert Madeline Gabriel (pictured above demonstrating full, awake, active supervision).