Are your kids really safe around your dogs?

By Litaletu Zidepa
19 August 2016

Parents often overlook subtle signals of discomfort given by their dogs around their kids, experts say.

The heartbreaking news that a toddler in Oudtshoorn had been killed by the family dog sent SA dog-lovers into a frenzy in 2016.

Just months later, it has emerged that a three-year-old girl in Mayville, Durban had been mauled by her grandfather's dog, allegedly a pit bull.

But whatever the breed, parents need to be careful when it comes to dogs and little ones says Cape Town-based animal behaviourist Lucy Breytenbach.

“There is no specific breed that will be better for families with young children,” the founder of Just Dogs told YOU.

“Labradors for example do usually have a high tolerance level for being pulled about but it is never guaranteed.”

Head of the Emergency Centre at Mediclinic Panorama, Dr Irma Aggenbach, says it’s not uncommon for children to be brought into casualty after being bitten by a dog.

The emergency unit team see about one case a week, but more often over school holidays.

“In the past three years we have had one serious case where a child ended up in ICU after a dog bite, luckily she recovered and went home.”

Even with superficial wounds, bites are dangerous, she adds.

“All animal bites have a huge incidence of infection. That is why we very seldom suture small wounds, and patients with bigger wounds should be admitted and cleaned in theatre.”

Clinical Psychologist and Social Work Manager, Chrismari Herholt says the emotional consequences of injury by a pet are more severe on your children than one might think.

“It can affect children for years. Children can experience emotions ranging from anxiety to depression to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

They could also develop an intense fear of animals and be afraid of venturing outside after incidents like this.

Read more: A new leg for brave Siya after pitbull attack

What should parents be looking out for?

Unfortunately, parents often overlook subtle signals of discomfort given by their dogs around their kids, says Lucy, who also specialises in training medical alert dogs.

“It is unfortunate that in some circumstances the dog feels there is no other option than to bite.

“Parents expect the dog to behave and be okay with being pulled around by their child, yet do not understand that it is not a normal behaviour to expect.”

“Parents should look out for signals of anxiety that are shown by the dog when in the presence of a child.”

“These include lip-licking, avoidance behaviours such as turning of the head or averting eye contact, growling, moving their bodies away, and even staring at the child.”

A dog that is a threat to children usually won’t have basic obedience skills, she says, and will seem distressed when a child runs or shouts.

The dog may even try to chase them down.

“Unfortunately many dogs have what we call ‘prey drive’ and if that cannot be interrupted then you have a recipe for disaster.”

“An obedient dog that is properly stimulated and exercised should not be a problem.”

But even if your dog seems docile, you need to supervise their interactions with little ones

“So many parents allow their children to climb all over their dogs which leads to problems,” Lucy says.

“A dog will not often tolerate this for long and then will build up resentment against the child.”

It's crucial to teach your children a healthy respect for dogs and other animals, Dr Irma Aggenbach says.

“[If a] dog feels insecure and threatened, and are then more likely to attack.

“If you or your child is bitten by an animal, always seek medical attention as soon as convenient.”

“Early cleaning of the wound leads to less complications and better wound healing. Be vigilant, as infection can occur some days to weeks after the wound has healed.”

More pet advice:

This is why you really shouldn’t be hugging your dog

Doggie depression is real – is your pup suffering from it?

This is why you really should microchip your pet

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