An Evidenced-Based Approach to Safe Dog-Child Interactions
Last night (29/03/2022) I had the pleasure of being part of an Instagram Live chat with Charlotte of The Birth Club. Charlotte and I went to vet school together and are both fierce advocates of evidence based and informed decision making in our fields (animal behaviour for me, and perinatal education & birth physiology for Charlotte).
We ended up talking for nearly 2hrs! There was lots to say. If you want to check it out here's the link: https://www.instagram.com/tv/Cbs7jtJgVRR/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
I wanted to share the key points from last night's chat along with some resources and references that were mentioned during:
Weaknesses in Dog Bite Data in the UK
- No specific bite data. Bites are recorded in the 'dog bites & strikes' category so this would also included injuries sustained by scratched, knocked over, headbutted etc by a dog.
- Very poor consistency between facilities (typically collected in A&E)
- No details about context of injury
- No dog details recorded
Key Research Findings For Parents
- Dog related deaths 2013-2019 in England were average of just over 3 a year. Max 5 in one year.
- 2013-2019 adults most likely to be fatally injured. (esp. elderly likely due to higher risk of falls, coexisting morbidities etc).
- Hospital admissions due to dog bites & strokes in the last 5 yrs in England have increased from 7500-9000 a year.
- Same period approx. 3500 surgical interventions needed for such injuries each year.
- Under 5s have a greater risk of head and neck injuries (stature, behaviour etc)
- Main risk groups for bites & strokes under 2yrs and 9-12yrs
- Most bites happen at home, with a well known dog
- Children under 6yrs are MORE likely to be injured in a ‘non-aggressive’ incident such as accidental bites during hand feeding, play etc, or being knocked over.
- Researchers identified warning signs approx. 20 seconds prior to most bites (if observer was able to identify this then good chance bite could be prevented)
- Big dogs can cause greater injury. BUT less effort generally put into reducing likelihood of aggression in small dogs.
- Dog experts allow less high-risk interaction than dog owners and perceive risk higher than dog owners.
- Dog owners perceived ‘family friendly’ breeds such as Labradors as lower risk despite same behavioural signs as other breeds in study.
- Child education doesn’t correlate with real life behaviour change.
- Breed Specific Legislation doesn’t adequately protect the public, further human education is required.
How To Risk Assess
Risk assessment allows you to make an informed decision about the safety of an interaction.
Risk = Likelihood x Consequences
We must consider what the chances of injury occurring are, as well as what level of injury could be expected.
What to consider?
- Dog history (behaviour, medical etc)
- Dogs physical size
- Baby / Childs stage of development (are they mobile etc?)
- Physical environment (ability to separate etc)
- Back up management strategies
- Owner experience
- Other children
- Other pets
Risk assessments are always changing!
When considering new-born babies and dogs, the dogs size is irrelevant, as ANY size dog could fatally injure a new-born baby.
Living with dogs & babies
What to do
- Break stimulus down
- Aim for low arousal, calm behaviour
- Minimise stress for pets
- Have a backup plan!
- Never take the risk
- First aid training AND know how to react if a dog bites
What not to do
- Allow an unknown dog near a baby or child without slow, careful and well managed introductions
- Leave dog and baby without active adult supervision (sleeping isn't supervising!)
- Punish aggression (punishing a growl is like taking the batteries out of your smoke alarm)
- Fail to meet your dog’s needs increasing frustration
- Ignore warning signs
Preparing for a baby joining your dog owning family
What will a new-born mean?
- Some areas being off limits or restricted access
- Lots of new equipment
- Less routine / more changes of plan
- Less structure to walks times & maybe less time for walks
- Mum maybe not being able to do dogs walks for a while
- Noise and disruption in day and night (sleeping patterns)
- Not able to immediately provide attention at all times (such as when feeding)
- More visitors both family and strangers (health workers etc)
Things to plan now:
- What changes to access will there be?
(The dogs must not be allowed access to the baby unsupervised, such as whilst you are sleeping).
- Where will you want to be doing most your feeding / changing etc?
- Will there be any big daily routine changes?
- Any big furniture reshuffles?
- Start to assemble and bring equipment into the house as soon as possible. Do it a little at a time so it’s not overwhelming.
- Leave things around so they can be sniffed and investigated.
- If things move, make noise etc start to demonstrate them and pair some tasty treats.
- Start to intro the buggy with one person walking the dogs on lead, and the other pushing the buggy. Make sure they have enough distance to remain calm, and gradually get closer until they are able to walk along side.
- Babies smell (from a dogs POV anyway!). They are milky and poopy and interesting. They also come with lots of smelly lotions and potions.
- I would start introducing the dogs to these smells now.
- For example, if anyone offers to give you some old baby stuff ask them not to wash it first. Or if you are seeing a baby use a muslin to gather scent to take home to the dogs.
Sound Therapy & Firework Training for Dogs | Dogs Trust
If you scroll to the bottom of the page, you’ll find the ‘sounds smoothing’ section which is especially for baby preparations. It also has a downloadable how-to-guide.
Signal of non-interaction:
It’s not ideal to have the dogs jumping up when you are holding a baby. We can try to teach them that they won’t get attention whilst you are carrying the baby to help reduce this.
To start we need a fake baby. Maybe a teddy in a baby grow? Or a large doll?
When you are carrying the doll (like a baby) the dogs will not get any interaction or attention from you.
Pick up the ‘baby’ and ignore them for 10 seconds, then put the baby down, or pass to someone else (who will do the same) and give the dogs a fuss.
We want them to notice the difference between you holding the ‘baby’ and not. Slowly start to build up the duration and practice in different scenarios and with everyone who will be involved in day to day baby care.
If you already have a baby, don't panic. It's not to late, if everything seems fine then start planning for the next development stage. If you have any concerns at all, prevent contact between the dog and child and contact a suitably qualified clinical animal behaviourist ASAP.
Where to find dog behaviour professionals?
If you don't have a 'problem' and you have no specific concerns, you just want to make the process as smooth as possible then you could work with anyone on the ABTC registers.
If you have concerns, your dog has ongoing behavioural challenges etc then you should aim to work with a Clinical Animal Behaviourist or Veterinary Behaviourist.
You can find all the ABTC registered practitioners here: Practitioners – ABTC
Links to resources mentioned in the live:
Sound Therapy & Firework Training for Dogs | Dogs Trust
Safety | Learn With Dogs Trust
dogs trust dogs children - Search (abtc.org.uk)
Freedom Project | Help & Support | Dogs Trust
Links to Papers References:
Pet dog bites in children: management and prevention - PMC (nih.gov)
Defra, UK - Science Search (click 'final report' link)
Deaths and hospitalisations following a dog bite from 1981 to 2019 - Office for National Statistics
Admissions to hospital for dog bite injuries - NHS Digital