What circumstances might lead a dog to bite a child? Learn what mistakes people often make, and what to do if your dog bites your child.
A listener recently wrote to me in distress because one of her dogs bit her 11-month-old son, Michael, on the cheek. Lita, the dog, is a 2-year-old Brussels Griffon and, at 10 pounds, just about the right size for this small breed. Janie describes Lita as “fearful of kids, people in general, and other animals,” but though Lita has “growled and snapped at dogs,” this is the first time she’s ever aggressed against a person. Her usual MO is to “run away or towards me [Janie] when she gets anxious.”
How the Bite Happened
The bite happened when Janie’s husband, Bill, was wiping Lita’s paws on a wet day. At first Michael sat and watched, but then, as Janie puts it, he “lunged” into a crawl toward Lita. Janie acknowledges that with Bill holding her foot, Lita may have felt cornered. Yet in her heart she feels her dog should never bite. She mistrusts Lita, can’t forgive her, and wonders what to do.
Fearful Dog + Family with a Kid = Bad News
This is the kind of situation in which dog trainers drop our heads into our hands, wishing someone had called us sooner. Engrave this on your heart: A household with a kid in it needs a dog who loves kids. That’s loves kids – not “accepts” kids, not “is okay with” kids, not “tolerates” kids, and emphatically not “is afraid of kids.” In her email, Janie wrote that Lita bit “without warning,” but the truth is that every fearful response Lita had to Michael and to other people constituted a warning. If I could turn back the clock I would have Janie and Bill start looking for a new home for Lita the moment they got an inkling of her fears.
Why not keep Lita and get behavioral help? That would have been the other option, but not my first choice. Many people see rehoming as a failure and a tragedy. I don’t. It’s relatively easy to find a good home for a young, tiny, pedigreed dog, even if she has some behavioral problems. Remember, Lita had not visibly aggressed toward people until she bit Michael. Most dogs adjust well to their new situations and quickly bond with their adopters. And of course, the adopter could and should work with Lita to help her feel more confident in the world and more comfortable with all kinds of people.
Common Mistakes with Fearful Dogs
To her great credit, Janie did recognize Lita’s fears and tried to help her. Unfortunately, the poet Alexander Pope was right on the money when he remarked that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Janie clearly understood that the way to go was to change Lita’s perception of Michael for the better – as she wrote me, “I make sure my son is gentle when petting and gives them lots of good treats.” And right there are two critical mistakes – mistakes that almost every layperson, and many undereducated trainers, would make.
First, Michael shouldn’t have been petting Lita at all, unless Lita herself happily solicited closeness and attention. Even then, any contact should have been super-brief, ending at the first hint that Lita was less than 100 percent comfortable and relaxed. I might have recommended teaching Lita to enjoy wearing a muzzle, for extra safety in case of toddler lurches and trainer mistakes.
Second, Janie, not Michael, should have been the one to deliver treats. Many food-loving dogs will eat even when they’re somewhat anxious and will even take treats from a person they’re anxious about. But usually their body language spells out a big neon AMBIVALENT AMBIVALENT AMBIVALENT. The giveaway is that their body weight will be shifted rearward, over their back legs, and they’ll stretch out their neck as much as they can to take the treat. For “take” here, read “snatch,” because a dog who’s uneasy won’t linger to nuzzle or lick the treat-delivering hand.
What Should the Family Do?
So, what now?
Bill wants to keep Lita, but Janie doesn’t want her anywhere near Michael. Since the bite, Lita has spent all her time crated except for breaks to eat and to eliminate. Constant confinement and loss of social companionship -- that’s obviously not the quality of life anybody wants to see a dog have. Where to go from here depends partly on whether Janie can forgive Lita, partly on the risk entailed in keeping her, and partly on Bill and Janie’s honest assessment of how meticulous and careful they can be.
I can’t speak to the first of those concerns. Janie clearly feels betrayed by Lita. She herself knows that’s not entirely fair, but feelings aren’t easy to change or dismiss. (If it were easy to change feelings, dog behavior work would be a lot easier, too, since it’s largely about changing dogs’ feelings!)
Assessing the Risk
As for the risk, we should ask first what factors are at work. Lita is small and so a given intensity of aggressive behavior from her is less dangerous than the same intensity from a larger dog. Janie doesn’t mention taking Michael to the doctor, so I’m going to assume that even though the bite broke skin the injury was insignificant. Lita is young, which may mean her behavior is more flexible and changeable than that of an older dog. She has shown in the past that she doesn’t default to the offensive – instead, retreat is her go-to tactic when she’s afraid. And at least one member of the family is willing to keep Lita and work with her. All those are good signs, prognostically.
On the other hand, it sounds as if Janie’s bond with Lita has pretty much broken. Without the commitment of both adults, safety management and behavior modification are likelier to fail. As young as Michael is, it’ll be years before he can consistently regulate his own behavior, so his parents will have to be super vigilant. Janie believes that Bill isn’t good at reading dogs’ body language and that he responds too slowly to what he does see. If her perception is accurate, that’s not a good sign.
Furthermore, it’s proverbial that the only dog who will absolutely positively never bite is a dead one. In fact, the code of ethics that certified trainers and behavior specialists sign specifically forbids us to guarantee the results of our work. Now that Lita has bitten, she may be more inclined to go on the offensive in future; if that happens, Janie has already decided to euthanize her. We’d be looking at an injured child, a dead dog, and probably some pretty significant strain on Janie and Bill as a couple. I don’t like that outcome.
If keeping Lita and working with her is too high risk, that leaves euthanasia and rehoming as options. In general, it’s difficult and dangerous to rehome a dog with a history of even one bite, especially if that bite was to a child. But in Lita’s case, the factors in favor of behavior modification also suggest that rehoming might be the right thing to do. She’s small, she’s young, and she has almost always retreated from a perceived threat when she could. If she comes from a conscientious breeder, I would send her back. If she doesn’t come from a conscientious breeder, Janie and Bill might well be able to find her a home. They’ll need to be picky about it; dogs with aggressive behavior problems are often subjected to abuse by hack trainers and general-purpose chumps. Lita’s new home should have no kids in it, obviously, and her adopter should be savvy about behavior and willing to invest considerable time, and probably considerable money, in working with her.
Hope for a Happy-ish Ending
The big pitfall for Janie and Bill to avoid here is denial. Denial will lead to trouble, every time. I think an honest, realistic approach can bring everybody a happy outcome – or, at least, a happy-ish one.
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Brussels Griffon image from Shutterstock