Reducing the Risk to Children of Injury and Death by Dog
Dr. Norma C. Guy DVM, MSc
Department of Biomedical Sciences
Atlantic Veterinary College
University of Prince Edward Island
Given the close relationship that has existed between dogs and humans for
more than 10,000 years, the persistent desire of people throughout the world to
interact with dogs, and the enormous number of dogs that inhabit the earth, it
is unreasonable to expect to be able to completely prevent all dog-related
injuries or fatalities.
For the most part, dogs are scavengers with some residual predatory
tendencies. They have both the physical characteristics and behaviour required
to use aggression effectively. Domestication and selective breeding have
resulted in varying expressions of behaviour, but this process will never
completely eliminate aggression. Due to the nature of genetic inheritance, it is
not possible to breed out all forms of aggressive behaviour in dogs without
creating severe temperament problems associated with excessive submissiveness
and anxiety. Although it is clearly not advisable to deliberately breed dogs for
traits that put people or other animals at risk, the spectrum of normal
behaviour will naturally result in some dogs behaving more aggressively or
unpredictably in some situations.
There will always be a proportion of dogs that are inadequately supervised,
inadequately socialized, and subjected to treatment that causes them to behave
in a socially undesirable way. This will occur even in the absence of deliberate
abuse or neglect by their caregivers. In addition, dogs can experience
excitement, frustration, pain, fatigue, or fear. Any of these states can cause a
dog, or a person, to behave aggressively in what may appear to be an
Although we cannot completely eliminate all dog-related injuries to people,
it is clear from experience in other areas of human injury prevention, such as
with the use of seat belts, that simple measures that are promoted by health
care professionals and supported by legislation can have a dramatic and positive
effect. It is the purpose of the following list of recommendations to encourage
the development of better attitudes, policies, and legislation to diminish the
risk of dog bite injuries and fatalities, particularly where children are the
Recommendations to parents
Not all homes and families are suitable for dog ownership. When considering
adopting a dog, give full consideration to the impact this will have on your
lifestyle, and whether the lifestyle you would like to have is contrary to the
social and physical needs of a dog. Approximately 18 months of effort are
required to shape the behaviour of a dog that will be suitable for living within
a family environment. The breed of dog is less reliable as a predictor of the
dog's mature temperament and behaviour than is the behaviour of the dog's
parents and the degree of effort invested in socializing and training. Aside
from training, part of responsible dog ownership is maintaining a lifelong
awareness of situations that may disturb the dog, and taking precautionary
measures to prevent problems. Any dog may bite given a sufficient degree of
arousal due to excitement, play, fear, pain, territoriality, possessiveness,
sexual motivations, maternal motivations, or dominance.
- Delay dog adoption until children in the family are old enough (ie. school
age) to learn how to behave around dogs, and to actually participate in the
care of a dog. Children learn about responsible pet ownership by
observing their parents. Teach all children the basics of behaviour
around dogs to reduce the likelihood of aggression. They should be taught to
respect the dog, and to not handle it as if it were a toy or as if it will
automatically understand their intentions.
- Deliberately socialize young dogs to a wide variety of different
people and situations before1 year of age. The more isolated a dog's home
and the more limited its social contacts, the more important this planned
early exposure becomes.
- No preschool age child or infant should be left alone with a dog, even in
an adjoining room, regardless of the dog's history and experience with
children. Dogs have difficulty interpreting the behaviour of children, which
they often find erratic and confusing relative to the behaviour of adults.
- Preschool children have a tendency to want to touch and hug
dogs. They also have an undeveloped understanding of the feelings of
others or their own ability to cause pain and fear in a dog. As a
result, they can unintentionally threaten or harm a dog, and will not
recognize or respond appropriately to warning behaviour by the dog. They
are frequently bitten in the head and neck region because of the way
they behave around dogs.
- A dog may not understand that a newborn infant is a person.
Fatal attacks to infants typically show characteristics of predatory
- Recognize that dogs require frequent contact with social partners to
maintain balanced behaviour. Social isolation as a result of being tied
outside or kennelled excessively will predispose dogs to a wide variety of
behaviour problems, including aggression.
- Avoid using punishment in training. This is counterproductive to producing
a dog suitable for a family environment. Punishment increases fearfulness,
unpredictability, and aggression in dogs. Dogs raised to trust people
through reward-based training are more reliable and less likely to behave
aggressively in unusual or stimulating situations. In addition, children
that have observed their parents scolding or hitting dogs are likely to
mimic this behaviour themselves, inadvertently causing the dog to respond
Recommendations to municipalities
With the understanding that a significant number of community members will
continue to own dogs, but that not all dog owners will behave responsibly, it is
the responsibility of municipalities to adequately fund the personnel and
facilities required for effective animal control (including registration,
enforcement, and public education), similar in many respects to the support
provided for police, fire, and other municipal services. Municipal officials
should take the lead in demonstrating respect for animal control personnel,
providing a role model for community attitudes. Animal control and by-law
enforcement is difficult and often dangerous work, either because the animal
itself is dangerous, or more often because of the emotional reactions of owners
when their animals are impounded.
- Fund and maintain animal control separately from shelter/adoption
facilities, as the former is a municipal responsibility and the latter are
generally non-profit organizations.
- Increase the cost of dog ownership by markedly increasing license fees,
which can in turn be used to support animal control and by-law enforcement.
It should be noted that if enforcement is not increased when license fees
are increased, compliance can be expected to decrease. All dogs should be
neutered unless they are purebred, registered, and kept specifically for
breeding. Neutering should be required in order to obtain a permanent adult
license. Ownership of intact purebred dogs kept for breeding purposes should
require a special "facility" license.
- Dogs which are found running at large should be microchipped (to be
paid for by the owner) for permanent accurate identification before return
to the owner.
- Maintain an accurate and up-to-date database for license and
microchip data, including any reports of nuisance or dangerous behaviour.
Veterinarians could be electronically linked to this database, to provide
the municipality with information regarding the behaviour, death
(euthanasia), or change of ownership of licensed dogs.
- Adopt and enforce dog by-laws which will restrict or prevent the
ownership of dogs by individuals who have demonstrated themselves to be
irresponsible in the following ways:
- allowing dogs to repeatedly run at large
- having unlicensed dogs
- supplying inadequate care to dogs, such as by tying them for prolonged
periods (note: the passage of federal legislation Bill C- 10B would
enhance the ability to prosecute overt animal abuse and neglect)
- failure to respond to requests to resolve problems with nuisance
behaviour such as excessive barking
- Adopt and enforce dangerous dog by-laws to restrict or prevent the
ownership of dogs by individuals who have demonstrated themselves to be
irresponsible, and to provide a process for appropriate decisions regarding
the humane destruction of dangerous dogs. Banning particular dog breeds is
unlikely to be effective in reducing the number of serious incidents in the
long-term, unless steps are taken to prevent irresponsible owners from
adopting a different type of dog. The greatest proportion of dogs bites are
inflicted by family dogs of no specific breed who bite a member of the
immediate family. Predefined criteria should be in place for classifying or
ranking the level of risk to the public based on the history of individual
dogs and owners. Criteria could include:
- behaviour leading to the injury or death of other domestic
- threatening behaviour that affects the ability of people to enjoy a
sense of security on or near their own property or in public areas
- situations of injury to people, taking into account the severity of
the injury and the predictability of the dog's behaviour
- the ability of the owner to control the behaviour of the dog, or
conversely, any evidence that the owner is deliberately causing
aggressive behaviour by the dog.
Recommendations to family physicians, pediatricians, and public
- Approach dog bite injuries or fatalities as a largely preventable event,
not an accident.
- Support programs that educate children (in school or on television) about
appropriate behaviour around animals and respect for animals.
- Recognize the strong emotional bond that may exist between owners and
their pets, even when the pet is showing undesirable behaviour. The
human-animal bond is an outcome of normal human social behaviour towards
dependent individuals. Breaking this bond may be emotionally difficult, even
when a dog has behaved aggressively.
- Educate new parents as to the risks associated with dog-child
interactions. There are five major situations which may lead to serious
injury or death in children by dogs:
- an unattended newborn left alone with the family dog.
- a toddler interacting with the family dog or a dog known to the
family. The dog may not have any history of aggression towards children.
Most dog bites to this age group occur when the parents are present but
in another room. This is probably the most common situation for serious
injuries to children.
- an unattended younger child interacting with a dog that is either
roaming or tied in the neighbourhood, beyond the immediate
supervision of adults.
- a school age child, playing with friends, riding their bike or
delivering newspapers etc. Attacks may be related to factors such as
territorial behaviour, the movement of the victim, or the fact that they
are carrying an object.
- poorly supervised dogs, particularly in groups, attacking a
person of any age.
- Actively discourage dog ownership in families with preschool children who
do not already own a dog. A more appropriate time for dog adoption is when
the youngest child in the family is entering school.
- Participate in any systematic (municipal, provincial, Health Canada) documentation
of the occurrence of dog bites to children. Report dog bite injuries to
animal control or police. Dog bites should be reported regardless of the
ownership of the dog or its relationship with the victim. Dog bites to
family members by the family dog are typically undocumented until the
behaviour becomes more dangerous and the victim is taken to an emergency
room. Documentation will also encourage financial support of animal control
services and the enforcement of dangerous dog by-laws.
- Be aware of the strong association between child abuse and animal
abuse. In the interest of humane treatment of animals as well as
children, contact your local humane society if you suspect that an animal
may be at risk based on evidence of abuse to children in the same household.
Recommendations to veterinarians
- Support and implement early age neutering to reduce the number of
dogs who are easily available to irresponsible or unprepared adopters.
- Actively counsel clients on:
- the timing of dog adoption relative to the age of children in the
family. Dissuade dog adoption in homes with small children.
- the choice of an appropriate pet (dog, cat, or other)
- management of dogs to prevent bites
- preparing dogs for life with a new baby in the home
- teaching children to behave responsibly around pets
- Promote positive dog socialization experiences through:
- puppy classes
- fenced dog parks
- dog trainers who use positive reinforcement methods
- Follow-up on owner comments regarding aggressive behaviour,
fearfulness, or training problems. Encourage owners to use training methods
(reward-based) that will reduce the likelihood of aggression.
- Be supportive of owners who are electing to euthanize their dog
because of a legitimate problem with aggression, particularly if the dog
shows a high level of reactivity or unpredictability. Dogs with a history of
having bitten are more likely to bite again, and the only way to guarantee a
dog will not bite is to euthanize it. Behaviour modification is helpful in
reducing the likelihood of aggressive behaviour in some situations, but not
- Develop a cooperative relationship with the local humane society and
- Be proactive in drawing information about problem animals or situations to
the attention of the humane society or animal control. It is not considered
a violation of the veterinary-client relationship to report cases of
suspected animal abuse or neglect. Document all evidence as thoroughly as
- Actively oppose the breeding of any dogs without adequate regard to