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What To Do When Your Dog Is Aggressive With Your Children

Ronald S. Hines DVM PhD 7/26/03
Counseling owners of biting and aggressive dogs is one of the hardest tasks that veterinarians face. This problem generally becomes apparent when the pup first reaches sexual maturity at 8-10 months of age. It begins with growling at children over treats, food or toys or a spiral toward aggression during play with the child.

These dogs stare down the children or assume an aggressive posture with the head down, tail extended, the body in a crouched position and the hair of the neck and back slightly raised. Dogs often challenge children in the family before they challenge the parents because children are smaller and make noisy quick approaches to the pet.

Due to their small size; bites on the head and face are common. Because this is a deep-seated emotional response in dogs, disciplining the dog after a bite has little effect. The problem must be differentiated from fear biting which is a problem in shy, skittish dogs forced into close proximity to a child and biting in response to pain inflicted on the dog by a child. Certain breeds, such as Cow Chows, Rottweilers and Pit Bull Terriers will bite neighborhood children engaged in horseplay with your children when they perceive they are protecting your children.

There is a definite breed-association with aggressiveness. The most common breed I see this problem in is the Cocker Spaniel. Next come the herding breeds such as Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds, Huskies and mixed larger breeds.

Since Pit Bull terriers “lock” onto the object they are biting causing severe wounds or death, newspaper accounts of children bitten by this breed are the most common. Top problem breeds change over time. As a breed becomes popular dogs with unstable or poor temperaments are bred by breeders to produce more income. These dogs were not bred when potential owners were more choosey in selecting a pup. So as the popularity of a breed declines, the frequency of health and personality problems declines as well.

I see aggression in male dogs more frequently than in female dogs. I also encounter it more in intact than in neutered dogs. Children bitten are usually between the ages of 4 and 11 years. Boys are more frequently bitten than girls since they tend to be more outgoing and fearless.

When an owner presents me with a situation where their pet has attacked or might attach their children, my first response (the safest for all concerned) is to find a new, loving home for the pet with a family with no small children.

Often, it only takes my reassurances that this is the right thing for everybody concerned for them to comply. If they plan to replace the pet I make sure I screen potential puppies and their parents for any signs of aggressive behavior before purchase.

If they are set on keeping the pet and I can not talk them out of it, I explain to them the risk to their children and the children of neighbors to make sure they really understand the dangers involved. You really cannot predict which families will be successful in modifying their dog’s behavior.

I then provide them with the name and address of a dog trainer I trust. I let them know that the success rate in modifying this behavior is less than fifty percent. Here are some of the things I suggest they do and don’t do during this training:

1) The child must never be allowed with the pet in an unsupervised situation
2) The dog should be muzzled or confined to a crated when small children are present
3) No food items should be allowed in the area.
4) Loud noise should be avoided
5) Other pets and non-family members should not be present
6) No rough-housing should be allowed
7) Allot a morning and evening session of 20 minutes over a period of two months before judging the success of the training.

After a month or two of time has passed using these first seven rules, it is time to cautiously allow the child to pet or stroke the dog with the dog remaining muzzled. An adult’s hand should be present on the dog’s shoulder during training.

If the child is old enough, the dog should be leashed and the leash should be held taunt and given to the child. The dog should be praised when it shows no evidence of aggression toward the child and ignored when it does.

During the first six months, under no circumstances should the muzzle be removed from the dog when a child is present. If after six months, no signs of aggression occur, the muzzle can be removed when an adult has his or her hand surrounding the dogs mouth and another hand on the dogs shoulder.