For a greyhound, Sunshine was a bit of a scaredy-cat. She had lived in Media, PA with Rob Graff for several happy years before a new baby entered the family. So it came as a shock when the normally nonaggressive animal started to bark sharply in the infant’s face, defending her territory once the tyke began to crawl.
To deal with Sunshine’s sudden belligerence, Graff sought the expert help of Carlo Siracusa, DVM. “We learned to read her signs of anxiety,” Graff says. His son is now 2 years old, and Sunshine’s been a peaceful pooch since the family learned to understand her behavioral cues.
“Lots of dog bites happen in benign situations,” says Dr. Siracusa, director of Animal Behavior Service at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Sometimes sweet gestures, like hugs and kisses, do not go over well with a dog. “Actions that are polite and signs of affection to a person can be threatening to a dog,” he explains.
How to read a dog
“Kids are really bad at reading dog body language,” says Laurie Bergman, VMD, a veterinary behaviorist at Keystone Veterinary Behavior Services in Villanova, PA. This is especially true for children 6 and younger, whether they live with a dog or not.
The mouth, eyes and ears are the most important parts of a dog to understand, says Dr. Siracusa. Teach kids never to pet a dog that shows the following signs, which indicate an animal on the alert.
- Its ears are back.
- Its eyes are big and wide open.
- It is yawning, licking or otherwise showing its tongue.
- It is snarling and/or its lips are pulled back, showing its teeth.
According to the ASPCA, there are 4.7 million dog bites each year, a full half affecting kids under the age of 14. Furthermore, 50 percent of American kids will be bitten by a dog by the age of 12, with 70 percent of those bites coming from a dog the child knows. Five- to 9-year-olds have the highest rate of injury, but kids under 4 tend to get the most severe injuries, often to the face, neck and head.
“All dog bites should be thoroughly cleaned to avoid the chance of infection, then call your pediatrician to obtain medical advice,” says Kate Cronan, MD, an emergency physician at Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. Also do your best to find out the dog’s rabies vaccination status.
A dog can be more aggressive with a fearful child, says Dr. Siracusa, because frantic behavior (screaming, jerky movements) can appear threatening. “One of the biggest mistakes kids make is to take off running from a dog” that’s barking or scares them, says Lisa Aumiller, DVM of House Paws Mobile Vet based in Mt. Laurel, NJ. She advises kids to turn their back and look the other way if a dog becomes menacing. Because it’s impossible to outrun a dog, it’s better to “try to be as boring as possible so it’ll lose interest in you,” says Jennifer McCue, duPont Hospital's injury prevention coordinator. Instruct kids to stand like a tree, with their arms crossed over their chest. If the dog knocks them down, they should curl into a ball like a rock.
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.