Interesting Study on Children and Dog Bites

 |  Mar 25th 2011  |   0 Contributions

* Author's note: Apologies in advance for the wonky editing. I've been trying to adjust the formatting for quite some time this afternoon and the blogging software gods are not collaborating with me in this endeavor. Thanks in advance for your understanding!

I really try to keep current on any studies relating to the behavior of dogs, so I admit to being a bit surprised when a Facebook friend shared a study from 2007 that I'd not read previously. The full text article regarding the study, "Behavioral Assessment of Child-Directed Canine Aggression" is available via the National Institutes of Health website. The study was a collaboration between individuals at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Here is the article's abstract:

Records of bites to 111 children were examined. Children <6 years old were most commonly bitten in association with resource guarding (44%), whereas older children were most commonly bitten in association with territory guarding (23%). Similarly, food guarding was the most common circumstance for bites to familiar children (42%) and territory guarding for bites to unfamiliar children (53%). Behavioral screening of the 103 dogs examined revealed resource guarding (61%) and discipline measures (59%) as the most common stimuli for aggression. Anxiety screens revealed abnormalities in 77% of dogs. Potential contributory medical conditions were identified/suspected in 50% of dogs. When history before presentation was known, 66% of dogs had never previously bitten a child, and 19% had never bitten any human. Most dogs (93%) were neutered, and 66% of owners had taken their dogs to obedience training classes.
Most children were bitten by dogs with no history of biting children. There is a high rate of behavioral abnormalities (aggression and anxiety) in this canine population. Common calming measures (neutering, training) were not routinely effective deterrents.

While I think the article is a great start, for me it raises as many questions as it may answer. I hope that this study will encourage future studies which will address some of the questions raised. Here are some of my thoughts.

Familiar children were most commonly bitten in relation to food or resource guarding (n
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29; 26%) and benign interactions (n
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20; 18%) such as petting, hugging, bending over, or speaking to the dog.

I think our definition of "benign" needs to change - much like we don't get to decide what dogs find punishing or reinforcing, we don't get to decide what dogs perceive as being "benign." Hugging IS NOT benign in DogWorld. Most dogs do not enjoy being hugged and may exhibit any number of stress signals to indicate their discomfort - whale eye (where the whites of the eye are visible), lip licking, yawning, squirming to get away, "look aways" (turning the head away from the "hugger"), etc. Bending over a dog is also rarely perceived as benign in DogWorld. Another reason children frequently get bit (and why bites are often to the face and disfiguring in young children) is because they are at face level and may stare at dogs, which dogs regard as a potential threat or sign of confrontation.

Because the study did indicate that fear, pain, and generalized anxiety increased the risk for bites, even something as "benign" as petting may be uncomfortable to a dog who has skin issues, joint problems, or other medical problems. As pain can elicit aggression, it's very important that trainers work closely with veterinarians when rehabilitating aggressive dogs - if there is a medical factor contributing to the aggressive display, training alone will not solve the problem. (Also, if these factors elicit aggression, what of training techniques which rely on them?)

Regardless of neuter status, parents seeking a pet dog might be advised to seek a female.

I'm going to have to disagree here. This is a broad, sweeping generalization and one I feel is not only incorrect but potentially risky. Male dogs can and do make great family companions, even when small children are in the home. Owners should be cautioned especially when adding a female to a home where there are already resident dogs, about the risk of same-sex aggression between female dogs. Personally, I'd ALWAYS rather break up a fight between two males than two females, and the risk for redirection in households where two dogs do not get along is high. If there are breeding females in the home, there is the potential risk for maternal aggression as well. I would argue that genetics and socialization history are far more accurate predictors of aggression (or lack thereof) than sex. Also, there is a reason female dogs are called "bitches," and I say that as someone who is deeply devoted to my own Chow mix female. Just sayin'.

Two thirds of the dogs in this study had been taken to training classes by their owners. It is not known whether owners had made specific efforts to train or socialize dogs to be comfortable with children. Although the success of obedience training for individual dogs was not measured, the results of this study suggest that obedience training, like neutering, will not ensure prevention of future bites to children.

OK, this may be the most dangerous and misleading statement in the entire study for a number of reasons:
  • "It is not known whether owners had made specific efforts to train or socialize dogs to be comfortable with children." - This sentence makes the entire discussion of training null and void. If the dogs have not specifically been socialized to be comfortable with children, they have not been trained. Teaching your dog obedience behaviors like "sit" and "down" will not make them less likely to bite children - early and extensive socialization will.
  • What kind of training have the dogs had? There are a wide variety of training techniques, some of which have a very high risk for creating or exacerbating aggression problems. For more information, see the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Position Statements on punishment and dominance. I would hope that future studies would delve further into the issue of training - how much training, what type of training, and how training coincided with critical stages of canine development would shed a lot more perspective on the issue.
  • "Although the success of obedience training for individual dogs was not measured, the results of this study suggest that obedience training, like neutering, will not ensure prevention of future bites to children." I couldn't agree more. Obedience training will not ensure prevention of future bites to children. Early, extensive, and appropriate puppy socialization will. This is why owners should look for puppy socialization classes instead of "puppy obedience classes." You have your dog's whole life to teach sits and downs. You have very limited windows of socialization during puppyhood where you should focus specifically on prevention of behavior problems in the adult dog. In our puppy classes, we do exercises that teach puppies to be comfortable being approached, touched, and have hands around their food bowls when eating. We work on teaching them bite inhibition, so that they realize "human skin is very delicate." We teach them appropriate and safe ways to interact with children. This type of training absolutely will reduce bite risk to children.

Hmmm...maybe we need to talk about kids and dog safety on the Dogster Guide to Behavior and Training next week. Until then, happy training!


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