It is with horrible irony that whilst the press were reporting another fatal dog attack on a baby, I was in Court all day, explaining why a five year old collie that had never before shown any aggression to anyone, had bitten the face of a two-year-old girl.
I only have press reports to go on, so details are sketchy, but the latest sad death appears to be of a baby from attack by a Malamute that had recently been acquired from unknown provenance. Once again I find myself offering heartfelt condolences to a bereaved family. Once again, this tragedy was avoidable.
Firstly, we must acknowledge that, whilst it is of no help in individual circumstances, such deaths are very rare. One in four UK families has one or more pet dogs. A baby is far more likely to be killed by her parents than by a pet dog. The vast majority of pets are safe and treasured family members. So why do some kill?
There are two main reasons why dogs bite children or babies and both revolve around a lack of understanding of communication. Whilst dogs are remarkable in their ability to discern human emotions and act upon them accordingly, we take that skill far too much for granted.
Almost all dogs are socialised to a greater or lesser extent to human adults. It would be almost impossible for them not to be. So they have some understanding of our behaviour. However, dogs do not instinctively understand babies and toddlers. With babies they do not always recognise them as being human and with toddlers they do not understand their non-standard (compared to an adult) human body language. The danger is that this lack of understanding can lead to conflict in the dog if we aren’t able to manage it.
Nobody is surprised that dogs chase cats and rabbits or that they tear up squeaky toys. Babies are about the same size as a cat, and make similar mewling noises at times; their little voices are certainly squeaky. Dogs that haven’t been socialised with babies, that is introduced to them in a benign way so that they understand that they are little members of the human race, can misinterpret their cries and squirms as prey-like behaviour. The result can be that they treat the squeaky little baby like a squeaky little toy, to be grabbed and ragged.
There is the additional factor that babies often smell of poo and sick – both of which are attractive to dogs because they are considered to be good to eat. I know we think it disgusting, but dogs are like that.
The conjecture that I have heard from some quarters, that dogs view crying babies as injured pack members and instinctively “finish them off” is just plain wrong. If that were the case, dogs all over the country would be attacking crying babies, and cancer-detection and other assistance dogs, rather than helping humans, would be killing them off wholesale. A much more parsimonious explanation is that some poorly socialised dogs react inappropriately in some circumstances.
Dogs need adequate socialisation with toddlers too, because toddlers do not provide the same body language as adult humans. They are uncoordinated, they grab, hug and kiss – all things that can be very threatening for a dog that has not learned to expect and tolerate that kind of behaviour. And how do dogs react to threats that are imminent and can’t be avoided? They bite to make the problem go away; literally to get it out of their face.
So how do we address this mismatch? The answer is to make sure that pet dogs identify babies as human, and understand that toddlers mean them no harm through their odd-human behaviour.
To do this we need three avenues of approach. The first is to benignly socialise your pet dog with all manner of humans, including toddlers and babies, whilst it is young enough (from 5 weeks of age at the latest, although better before that too) and to continue to do that throughout its life. This people-proofing is one of the best favours you can do for your pet.
What if it is a rescue dog and you do not know how socialised it is with children? What if it is not your dog, for example when you visit friends with your baby or toddler? Easy, assume it is not socialised at all and do not allow contact of any kind.
Some of the better rescues will perform a battery of tests with dogs before rehoming them. Whilst these can be a good indication of the dog’s future behaviour, do not rely on them as an absolute guarantee. Look at the tests done, ask the advisor what they mean and then treat the results with caution. If the dogs are not tested at all, or if you are given no proof that they have been seen to be reliable, DO NOT TRUST THEM NEAR YOUR CHILDREN.
The second approach is to prepare your pet dog for the arrival of your baby. Don’t worry that your pet and baby won’t get on, because if you prepare them, they will. Start well before baby is born by providing your dog with a safe haven and teaching it to go (and stay) there when asked. You will be stressed and harassed at times when baby comes home, and being able to send your pet off to sit quietly on their own (maybe with a long-lasting food treat) whilst you tend to baby, will be a boon for you.
Then introduce dog to baby in a prepared, controlled and structured fashion; baby on your knee and dog rewarded for being close, but not showing too much interest. You can expand on this theme, and there are some ideas on how to do that in Dogs that Bite and Fight.
Third approach is to teach your dog how to interact with toddlers and your toddler how to interact with dogs. Dogs don’t automatically like to be hugged and kissed, but they can learn to tolerate and even enjoy it. They are more likely to tolerate it if you handle them regularly and have taught them to accept intrusive behaviour from people. It is a training exercise that all pets should go through – teaching them that human contact is not threatening. Likewise teach your toddler not to be rude to dogs. No kissing, hugging or close face to face contact. Dogs think it is impolite.
Finally, and I think I may have said this before, NEVER LEAVE A BABY, TODDLER OR CHILD ALONE WITH ANY DOG, no matter how reliable you think any of them are. There is no need for these tragedies, but we need to think it through.