Whether it is the family dog or the neighbor’s pet pooch, dog bites in kids are very common.
We chatted with experts to find what causes a dog to bite, how to prevent them and tips for treating the physical and emotional trauma that can go along with dog bites.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, around 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, with children between the ages of 5 and 9 being most at risk.
“Society is primed to believe that only bad dogs owned by bad people bite. Yet dogs bite for purposeful reasons,” says Melissa Berryman, dog bite specialist and author of People Training for Good Dogs: What Breeders Don’t Tell You and Trainers Don’t Teach.
What causes a dog to bite?
The scenario is a common one. A 6-year-old girl loves to hug and play with the family dog, so while visiting at a friend’s house she runs up and hugs and squeezes their dog — like she does with her own pet Fido — and gets bitten.
“Dogs don’t actually like to be hugged by someone they don’t know,” shares Berryman, who says that dogs actually see it as threat. “Dogs don’t hug each other to show love or affection. The only action where a dog grabs another is when it is showing dominance,” she says.
It is not just hugging that causes dogs to bite and nip. Activities such as pulling it by the collar, manipulating it in a way the dog doesn’t want, walking too close to its bed, toys or food, being too obnoxious or hyper, or even being spoken to by the dog owner or parent in a certain way can elicit a response.
Since a dog can’t talk, when a behavior occurs that it doesn’t like it will growl, snap and bite. “It is in a dog’s nature to discipline subordinates to teach them rules and manners. Dogs can only behave like dogs and treat people the way they treat other dogs,” says Berryman.
In fact, in a dog’s mind, they are teaching you manners as they would teach their own puppies. “Dog social order is not meant to hurt, but to teach boundaries and limits. The discipline technique of dogs is quick, startling and meant so that they don’t have to tell the pup not to do something ever again,” she says. “There are no time-outs. It is not positive-only. Bites to pups hurt — but aren’t devastating, and pups know how to communicate that they have received the message. Dogs do not know we are more delicate and that bites to our faces or hands can require intensive surgery and rehab.”
What to do if your child gets bitten by a dog
“Dog bites in children are extremely common, but fortunately most are minor,” said Dr. Matthew Schulman, a board certified plastic surgeon in New York City.
“It is important to keep the child calm and to clean the wound with soap, water and peroxide diluted to one-half strength. A minor wound can then be covered with antibiotic ointment and a Band-Aid,” he says.
He cautions parents to watch the bite for signs of infection, including redness, pain, swelling and purulent discharge, and to see a doctor if you are concerned. “Infections generally take 2 to 3 days to occur, so redness and pain in the first few days is normal. Your child should be checked for a temperature, although a low-grade temperature is common as the body heals, even in the absence of infection.”
For deeper cuts — or bites on the face — consult a doctor, who may recommend oral antibiotics as needed in case of an infection.
“For bites on the face, sutures are often needed,” says Dr. Shulman. “While most bites will heal fine on their own without sutures, I find that the cosmetic outcome is much better if treated by a plastic surgeon who places meticulous sutures. Your pediatrician should be able to recommend a plastic surgeon who will likely be able to place sutures in the office, allowing you to bypass the need for an emergency room or urgent care center,” he says.
Dr. Schulman says it is important to take care of the healing wound to avoid scars. “Healing scars are always red and this redness can last for several months. You should keep ample sunscreen on the healing scar for the first six months, even in the winter, to help make the redness go away faster as the UV rays of the sun can increase scar redness.”
What about the emotional trauma of a dog bite?
Kids can suffer emotional trauma after being bit by a dog. Executive director of Motley Zoo Animal Rescue Jme (pronounced “Jamie”) Thomas says that if the child did something inappropriate — such as stealing a bone from the dog which resulted in a minor bite — they will learn to never do that again and the lesson will be simple.
“They should still be counseled that the dog didn’t mean to hurt them, but animals don’t have voices or hands, this is how they communicate when they are very upset,” Thomas says.
If the child was being appropriate or the bite was more serious, she says they may need to see a counselor to reduce the likelihood of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “Kids should not be isolated from dogs to ‘shield’ them from the trauma, rather they need to continually be exposed to them so they don’t develop a fear of all dogs,” she advises. “This socialization is critically important. What we fear we must face. The child needs to be told again, that the dog didn’t mean to hurt them, but that sometimes animals (in general) can be unpredictable and do things we don’t understand. We can’t talk to them and so we have to try and observe them and get to know them safely, so we can better understand each dog.”
How to prevent dog bites
“Dogs are the mental equivalent of 3-year-olds, and honestly to expect them to behave perfectly all the time is really unrealistic,” says Thomas. That being said, there are things you can do to prevent dog bites.
- Your child should never hug a strange dog, pull on their collar, tackle them, run at them with their hands in the air, take away their bone/chew toy or other food, scream or wake them from sleeping. “Children are still learning impulse control, and their sudden movements and outbursts can startle a dog,” says Berryman.
- “Dogs do not need to sniff your hand when greeting one for the first time, as there is no information on your hand about you,” says Berryman. “Plus extending your hand leaves your body stiff and your stiff body means you aren’t sure about the dog and are not friendly,” she says. “Dogs will tell you if they wish to be patted if you just take a second to ask. Asking is easy. Simply tap the side of your leg and act friendly. If a dog wants to be patted it will relax its body and come up to you, even pressing its body against you or seeking out your hand. If it doesn’t want to be touched, it won’t approach. So don’t reach out and try to touch. If a dog needs more time to get to know you then it will come up and sniff you,” she adds.
- Teach your child the warning signs that a dog is about to bite. These include freezing or stiffening up their body, growling and curling up their lip showing their teeth.
- Consider not giving your dog bones or other treats, especially when children are over. Teach your child to never take away or touch a dog’s bone. Thomas says that 90 percent of the time when a foster family reports a dog fight or bite, it has to do with a dog bone or treat.
- Practice with your kids how they should introduce themselves to a new dog. “Dogs are trying to figure out whether something they encounter is a friend, its foe or its prey,” says Berryman. “People often act like prey by acting afraid. Regardless of breed, teach children to act like a friend. Everyone should start talking reassuringly to dogs before the dog approaches, stand still, relax, tap the side of their legs as if they are wagging their tail and continue to reassure the new dog using a higher-pitched voice. “
Lastly, Berryman says parents should always be aware if a home has a dog before letting the kids go over for a play date. “When in doubt dog owners should remove their dog and or muzzle it,” says Berryman. “Muzzles (aka party masks) are a wonderful tool that protects both dogs and their owners from the confusing human behavior. They can assist dog owners by ensuring nothing can happen. “