Whenever 18-month-old Xavier comes over, the first thing he does is look for Toby, my yellow Lab — he can hardly wait to wrap his arms around his buddy’s furry neck. Like most Labs, Toby is wonderfully patient with children and graciously accepts Xavier’s exuberant hugs. We make sure we supervise, but Toby’s never shown a hint of aggression toward his toddler friend. However, Xavier’s love of dogs extends beyond Toby to the canines he meets on the street and in the park, and that’s a bigger concern. How do we teach toddlers to be safe around dogs they don’t know, and even those they do know, but who might be less tolerant than Toby?
Caution is necessary
Miki Shibata, an Ottawa veterinarian, points out that caution is always necessary — even with a dog as gentle as my Lab. “All dogs are capable of biting,” she says. “It just takes the right stimulus.” For some dogs, that could be having a toddler wander over when they’re eating, or being startled awake when they’re asleep, or just being poked in the wrong place.
Older dogs may actually be more likely to bite than those bouncy puppies we tend to worry about. “An older dog may have arthritis or be in pain for other reasons, and the toddler may accidentally hurt him, so that the dog bites out of self-protection,” Shibata explains. “The older dog may also have limited hearing or vision and be more likely to be startled.”
Smaller dogs are also a higher risk. “To a small dog, a toddler is scary. The child is big enough that if he fell on the dog, it would hurt, and he moves around in an erratic way that little dogs can’t figure out. That means the dog is more likely to snap or nip at the child,” Shibata says. She adds, though, that a larger dog’s bite is certainly more dangerous, and because the toddler is much smaller than the dog, a bite is more likely to be in a vulnerable area such as the face or neck.
Stacey Blackburn of Halifax has been involved in bite prevention programs with humane societies in the US and Canada, so she knew what to do with her own two children, Addison, two, and Paxton, 17 months. “I taught my own children the same principles I taught in the bite prevention program,” she says. Those include:
1. No hugging, kissing or chasing dogs. Remember that hugging and kissing are not natural behaviours for dogs, and they may feel threatened by having a child grab them. Yes, some dogs tolerate it, but it’s safer for the child not to do it. Chasing a dog can get them overexcited and they may knock the toddler over or nip because they think the child wants to play.
2. Pat gently. Blackburn found Addison loved to touch their dogs’ fur, so she spent time with her hand over her daughter’s, teaching her how to stroke dogs in a gentle way. Try reminding your child to pet “from head to tail.” You can practise this with a stuffed animal.
3. Never leave toddlers and dogs alone. “Teaching children how to behave around dogs is important, but you can’t count on either the child or the dog to remember the rules of good behaviour. It only takes a second for the child to get hurt,” Blackburn says.
4. Parents should ask the dog’s owner if it’s OK before allowing the toddler to approach a strange dog. “If you see your child heading toward a dog, pick him up and ask first,” Blackburn stresses. Then teach the child to hold his hand in a fist for the dog to smell (little fingers can look too much like treats), before using his gentle patting technique.
5. If approached by a strange dog, tell your toddler to “stand still like a tree and hug herself,” advises Blackburn.
Being bitten is not the only hazard for the toddler who loves dogs. Shibata points out that some diseases can be passed from dogs to humans, and toddlers are at more risk because they tend to put everything in their mouths. “Many of the bacteria or parasites are found in the dog’s feces,” Shibata explains. “So what happens is that the dog licks his bum and then licks the toddler’s hands, and the toddler sucks on his finger. Some of these infections, while rare, can be quite serious. Roundworms, for example, can cause blindness in humans, and salmonella may not make the dog ill, but can make a toddler very sick.” Shibata strongly recommends monthly deworming of dogs in families with toddlers, and suggests washing the child’s hands after playing with the dog and before eating.