Why Did My Dog Bite My Child? 15 Possible Reasons

If your dog bites your child, you are right to be deeply concerned. Hundreds of children are bitten by dogs yearly, and they can often be quite serious. There are several reasons why dogs may bite.

Why Did My Dog Bite My Child? 15 Possible Reasons

If your dog bites your child, you are right to be deeply concerned. Hundreds of children are bitten by dogs yearly, and they can often be quite serious. There are several reasons why dogs may bite.

Younger children, specifically boys, are statistically more prone to being bitten by dogs.

Statistics of Dogs Biting Children Are Disproportionately High

If your dog bit your child, rest assured in the fact that you are not the only one this has happened to. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 4.5 million dog bites occur every year, and approximately 20% involve children.

Children that are most likely to be bitten are those between the ages of five and nine years old, with boys being more likely to be bitten than girls.

Amongst bites caused by domestic animals, dog bites account for 80–90% of them, while cat bites rank second place, though just accounting for 5–15%.

Children under the age of five are particularly susceptible to bites affecting the head and neck region, which vary in severity from insignificant scratches to fatal injuries (damage to vital structures) and/or infections.

Areas on the body that are particularly vulnerable are the lips, nose and cheeks, which makes them the ‘central target area’ considering a child's smaller body and larger head size. This vulnerability is likely connected to a child's height and tendency to crawl or play on the floor.

In children older than nine, bite incidents mostly involve their extremities. This is most likely because they are taller, and the extremities are the body part closest to the dog's mouth, and thus more susceptible to a bite.

In 70% of cases, the dog biting the child is family-owned. The biting is most likely to occur during the summer months, on weekends and between the hours of 4 and 8 p.m. This reflects the times when children are most likely to be at home and when parents are likely busy preparing dinner or right around mealtime.

Fear Is the Most Common Underlying Cause

There is still a strong belief that dogs who bite are dogs being "dominant" or the "alpha." It turns out, in the majority of cases, a dog’s aggression toward a person is unlikely to be motivated by an attempt to establish dominance but rather is based on other causes, such as fear and conflict. This is pointed out by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists in their position statement.

It's known that dogs who have shown to be naturally fearful or nervous are more likely to struggle when around children.

According to research, more than three-quarters of dogs with a history of biting children had a history of displaying fear-related behaviors in other contexts, such as in the presence of loud noises or upon being separated from the owner.

Fearful dispositions are more likely to be seen in dogs who weren't socialized much during their prime critical socialization period and dogs who have endured traumatic experiences. However, there can also be genetic factors at play.

Staring directly at dogs is a common culprit in them biting children.

So Why Did My Dog Bite My Child?

The reasons why dogs bite children may vary depending on several factors, such as the context in which the biting occurred and what the child was doing at the moment. The 15 causes I discuss below are just a few reasons why biting could have occurred. Because the context of the bite varies so much, there may be several others why your child was bitten.

Hopefully, the reasons discussed below help you narrow down and understand the situation that ensued between the dog and your child to help prevent any future bites.

1. Your Dog Was Resource Guarding

Resource guarding is a dog's tendency to "protect" anything that the dog perceives as valuable. Simply, it's a dog's way of saying, "this is mine, don't get close to me when I am in possession of this."

A lack of "trust" is what ultimately triggers resource guarding in dogs. In other words, the dog is fearful of losing access to something they deeply care about.

Dogs may resource guard things such as their food bowl, food bags, toys, bones, sleeping areas (beds, mats, couches), and even random things found on the floor (like a candy wrapper, feather or stick) and even people.

Did you know? According to research by Reisner et al., 42% of cases involving family-owned dogs biting children involved dogs who were guarding food.

2. Your Dog Was Cornered

Dogs may bite children as a defense mechanism when cornered. The classic example is a child chasing a dog around, and then when the dog is cornered against a wall or beneath a bed, and the child reaches out to the dog, they get bitten.

In general, when dogs find themselves stuck in a situation they aren't comfortable with, they may engage their so-called fight or flight response.

This means they may remove themselves from the situation by taking ''flight" (in other words, leaving and therefore increasing physical distance) or fighting back (growling, snarling, or, of course, biting).

When cornered by a child, a dog's flight situation is removed, leaving dogs only with the option to defend themselves to stop the interaction.

3. Your Dog's Eyes Were Stared Into

A small child's height puts them in the unfortunate position of staring dogs directly in the eyes.

Unless conditioned to accept or even enjoy eye contact, dogs tend to feel uncomfortable when being stared directly in the eyes. This is because, among dogs, a direct stare is a sign of intimidation. It's different than among humans, where the act is seen as a sign of engagement and interest.

This failure to recognize that, under certain circumstances, eye contact may be perceived as a threat is what causes parents to expose their children to risky situations unknowingly (Náhlík, J et al. 2021).

This lack of awareness seems to be even more prevalent among owners of dogs presumed to be friendly, like Labrador retrievers.

4. Your Dog Was Kissed/Hugged

Hugging and kissing dogs can lead to a variety of problems. One of them is that, as discussed above, dogs don't like not having escape routes.

When a dog is hugged and kissed, the child is likely to hold the dog tightly, and such restraint may cause the dog to feel "trapped."

On top of that, consider the fact that hugging and kissing aren't natural dog behaviors, and therefore, such actions may be misinterpreted by dogs.

5. Your Dog Was Overwhelmed

Let's face it: young children tend to perceive dogs more like stuffed animals, and they are likely to interact in ways that overwhelm dogs.

Children may grab dogs by the tail, tug at their fur or try to poke them with their fingers. It doesn't help that children also move in unpredictable ways, and their high-pitched voices may be startling.

As much as we dream of a dog who can tolerate this and maybe even brag about their amicability on social media, the reality is that most dogs struggle to some extent when around children.

How much they struggle may vary from one dog and another—based on their individual temperament—but they all can reach a breaking point. Ideally, we hope dogs will leave before choosing to bite, but dogs don't always make the choices we hope for.

Most likely, the dog was giving signs of feeling stressed and overwhelmed, but such signs weren't recognized.

6. Your Dog Wasn't "Listened" To

Young children cannot be expected to recognize early warning signs of the dog getting overwhelmed, so close supervision is always a must.

However, studies reveal that even parents sometimes struggle to recognize the most subtle signs. Something that makes things even worse is that some signs look like the total opposite, causing us to categorize them as displays of love and "affection."

For example, one big sign that is often misinterpreted is what Jennifer Shryock, a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), calls the "kiss to dismiss."

In this case, the dog appears to be giving 'doggy kisses' when in reality, the dog is licking the child's face in hopes of making the child stop.

Another misinterpreted signal is the dog gently grasping the child's hand in the mouth, moving it off their body when the dog is being petted. Sometimes this is perceived as "affectionate mouthing" when in reality, it's often a cut-off signal, asking the child to stop.

Other signals to pay attention to are dogs who suddenly have an itch and scratch themselves, yawn, and suddenly have the urge to drink or lick a paw insistently.

7. Your Dog Was Punished for Growling in the Past

Many dogs with ritualistic aggressive displays around children are often punished; the common cliché is a parent who scolds the dog for growling.

As much as this may seem tempting to do, this approach will only backfire because it risks leading to a dog who bites without warning.

It's sort of like taking the batteries out of your carbon monoxide detector or telling a child to stop using his words.

8. Your Dog Was Sleeping

The old saying, "let sleeping dogs lie," is full of wisdom. Just like you would dread having somebody wake you up repeatedly— so do dogs—especially after they've claimed their sleeping spot for a break from the kiddos.

While we humans can put a "do not disturb" sign on our hotel doors and shut off our cell phones, dogs can't really do much about communicating an intent to get some restful sleep other than relying on their body language.

Add to this the startling effect of being awoken from sleep. Dogs may react instinctively by biting if they are sleeping deeply and then are suddenly awakened by a child.

9. Your Dog Was Stressed

Trigger stacking in dogs is a phenomenon where cumulative stress pushes dogs to the edge, lowering their threshold for biting.

We can see the effect when dogs are subjected to many stressful events, one after another, eventually reaching a breaking point and lashing out.

It's important to give dogs "breaks" to allow them to recover from stressful events and to learn how to recognize the signs dogs give when they are stressed. This is a step in avoiding exposure to repeated triggers. Of course, minimizing the stress in dogs' lives is important, so a stress-reduction program and, possibly, the use of calming aids are paramount.

10. Your Dog Was Redirecting

Sometimes dog bites happen when dogs are in a highly aroused state, and they are touched, or you happen to be nearby during their "fury."

For example, a dog may be barking at the mailman from the window, and when he is touched, he reacts by biting. Or a bite can happen when two dogs get into a scuffle, and a person reaches in to separate them.

Children are vulnerable to redirected bites because they fail to read the body language of the dog in an aroused state.

11. Your Dog Was Herding

Dogs who bark and chase children while nipping at their legs are often assumed to be herding. Herding behaviors are carried out by breeds with a history of herding other animals; examples would be corgis, border collies, Australian shepherds and Australian Cattle dogs.

However, in several cases, what looks like herding behavior can be actually fearful behavior, and differentiating the two may not be easy.

Something to consider is that fear-related aggression is the most common diagnosis among dogs who bite.

On top of this, dogs who herd do so to control the movements of livestock (or, in this case, children), and they shouldn't be afraid of doing so.

Dogs who are instead fearful will often bark, growl, and chase, with the goal being scaring the animal or person away. They may also show other signs of stress, such as yawning, lip licking and baring teeth.

"Of course, chasing and biting children might be related to herding behavior in breeds like Welsh Corgis and Aussies, but these dogs should not be exhibiting fearful behavior such as growling, avoidance or raised hackles," points out board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta.

12. Your Dog Was Playing

Dogs, especially puppies and young dogs, can be very mouthy when they play. Their rough playstyle can sometimes be confused for aggression, especially when they emit play growls as they tug at the child's clothing.

Fortunately, several signals can denote a true intent to play from aggression. In general, dogs who are play-biting will show the following signs:

  • Relaxed body language
  • Play bows
  • High-pitched barking
  • Gentler biting compared to a dog with a true intent to harm

13. Your Dog Was Teased

For hundreds and hundreds of years, humans have taught guard dogs to put up a threatening display and potentially bite any intruders.

Such confidence to tackle poachers or intruders was built by purposely threatening the dog and then fearfully backing off when the dog displayed aggressive behaviors.

With time, the dog grew more and more confident, up to the point that if a person stood up to the dog without backing off, the dog would likely escalate, possibly to the point of biting.

Something similar may happen in the interaction between children and dogs. Children may provoke the dog and move away, and then one day, they may not remove themselves in a timely manner which may lead to a bite.

14. Your Dog Wasn't Feeling Well

Various health conditions can lower a dog's threshold for aggression, specifically those causing pain.

According to a study on pain and behavior problems in dogs, the aggressive behavior seen in dogs with chronic musculoskeletal problems is most likely seen when the dog is approached and often when the dog is lying down. Affected dogs also showed general signs, such as a reluctance to move.

Other forms of pain, such as ear pain from an infection or tooth pain, can cause a dog to become reluctant to be touched near the face area.

15. Your Dog Has an Underlying Medical Disorder

Other than pain, there are medical conditions that are known to cause behavior changes in dogs.

For example, low thyroid levels in dogs, also known as hypothyroidism, can cause a range of behavioral changes in dogs, such as becoming more aggressive, anxious, or confused.

Even having a medical disorder requiring certain medications can indirectly cause behavior changes. For instance, steroids such as prednisone are notorious for causing dogs to develop an almost ravenous appetite which can trigger food guarding.

On top of this, steroids can increase the cortisol levels in the dog's bloodstream, which can ultimately alter their brain function and mood.

Dogs Give Out "Please Don't Make Me Bite You" Signs—Are You Listening?

Recent research focusing on analyzing videos of dog bites has revealed that, in fact, in the 20 seconds or so before biting, dogs give out several signals of aggression.

The signals presented were in accordance with Kendall's Shephard's "Ladder of Aggression," a widely used chart displaying seven levels of signs dogs use to communicate their discomfort, with each level increasing in severity.

This research suggests that dog bites are predictable and preventable events rather than mere accidents.

This would mean that a good portion of dog bites endured by children can be prevented by supervision. However, close supervision is not always the answer.

Why Does Supervision Often Fail?

Many bites to children happen under a parent's eyes; why is that? This can be due to a combination of factors.

One of them is the aforementioned notion of failing to recognize the early warning signs occurring seconds prior to the actual bite, but this isn't likely the only factor.

Something else that contributes to the biting is perhaps the common belief that family dogs are somewhat "immune" from acting aggressively toward family members. In reality, any dog put into a provocative enough circumstance will have the potential for biting.

Despite the common notion that dogs demonstrate "unconditional love" to us and would put their lives at risk to protect a child in danger, it's important to recognize there is always a level of risk when dogs and children interact.

This belief often causes risky behaviors like allowing children to remove a bone the dog is chewing, petting a dog while eating or waking the dog up.

This dog's body language is clearly showing signs of feeling deeply uncomfortable.

Many Dog Owners Struggle Recognizing a Dog's Conflict Defusing Signals

What to Do After the Bite?

Hopefully, your child didn't sustain major injuries, but all bite wounds should be treated as potentially being infected. The doctor may want to know whether your dog was vaccinated against rabies and whether your child is still protected against tetanus.

Following the bite, it's important to carefully manage the situation so that no future bites occur.

This could involve installing an environmental barrier, such as placing a secure baby gate that the dog cannot circumvent in any way. A second barrier, past the first one, is reasonable to prevent the child from accessing the gate area (sticking fingers through it, trying to open it) and further stressing the dog.

Next, it would be important to contact a behavior professional (board-certified veterinary behaviorist, certified applied animal behaviorist) as soon as possible. A vet visit is important to rule out medical conditions.

While waiting to see a professional, crate and muzzle training may be worthwhile. It's important to make sure the process remains as stress-free for the dog as possible and uses positive reinforcement.

Tips for Preparing for a Consultation

  • Provide the professional with details about your dog's exact age, breed and sex (intact, spayed, neutered).
  • Provide details about your dog's medical history. Include vaccine records, what medications your dog is on (if any) and when he last saw your vet.
  • Provide the professional with factual descriptions (rather than personal interpretations) of both the dog's and child's behaviors before and during the incident.
  • Avoid using labels to describe your dog's behavior, such as "territorial, jealous or spiteful."
  • Recall all past events and provide details about previous instances of aggression and nervousness.
  • Describe the biting and its impact on your child (Did it break the skin? Did it require stitches?)
Recall past events that have triggered your dog to feel stressed when your child was around, and report said details to a professional.

Prognosis of the Dog Bite

The prognosis will vary based on factors such as the level of the biting, your child's age, your dog's size, time and commitment to work on the issue, etc. There are usually three outcomes after a dog bites a child.

  1. Successful Rehabilitation: This is the hope for almost any situation where a child is bitten. It means the dog becomes more well-behaved, the owners understand the dog better and the dog gets to stay a part of the family.
  2. Rehoming: Rehoming may be an option, but it requires full disclosure, and therefore the dog should go strictly to a family with no children.
  3. Behavioral Euthanasia: This is usually considered when all options have failed, the dog has bitten to the point of causing considerable damage, and is considered too high risk to consider behavior modification.

Beyond Physical Repercussions

Did you know? Research by Boat et al. found that in more than 70% of dog bite cases directed toward children, parents reported the presence of at least one new concerning behavior in their child.

Nearly one-third of children exhibited a new fear or avoidance of dogs, and one-fifth experienced nightmares following the dog bite incident.

On top of this, 85% of parents involved reported changes in their feelings following the bite incident, with two-thirds reporting feelings of guilt and just under half feeling angry or fearful for their child’s safety.

For the sake of all people involved and, of course, for the sake of the dogs themselves, it is important to pay attention to your dog's and child's behavior and work to mitigate any potential biting. I hope this piece gave you enough details and scenarios to pay attention to that a serious bit from your dog is never inflicted on your child.

References

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  • Cook JA, Sasor SE, Soleimani T, et al.. An epidemiological analysis of pediatric dog bite injuries over a decade. J Surg Res 2020;
  • Reisner IR, Nance ML, Zeller JS, Houseknecht EM, Kassam-Adams N, Wiebe DJ. Behavioural characteristics associated with dog bites to children presenting to an urban trauma centre. Inj Prev. 2011 Oct;17
  • Sleet DA. The global challenge of child injury prevention. Int J Environ Res Public Health 2018;
  • Reisner IR, Shofer FS, Nance ML. Behavioral assessment of child-directed canine aggression. Inj Prev 2007;13:348–51. 10.1136/ip.2007.015396
  • Schalamon, Johannes & Ainoedhofer, Herwig & Singer, Georg & Petnehazy, Thomas & Johannes, Mayr & Kiss, Katalin & Höllwarth, Michael. (2006). Analysis of Dog Bites in Children Who Are Younger Than 17 Years. Pediatrics. 117. e374-9. 10.1542/peds.2005-145
  • Kale, KM & Wadhva, SK & Aswar, NR & Vasudeo, ND. (2006). Dog bites in children. Indian Journal of Community Medicine. 31. 10.4103/0970-0218.54927.
  • Boat BW, Dixon CA, Pearl E, et al.. Pediatric dog bite victims: a need for a continuum of care. Clin Pediatr 2012;

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