Children, Dogs, and Aggression

Not Happy Dog Face

Children, Dogs, and Aggression

September 28, 2009

Joyce Kesling

“How To Behave So Your Dog Behaves” by Sophia Yin D.V.M. is one of my personal favorites. The title describes the most effective way to communicate with our dogs. How to act both emotionally as well as physically and my personal way for describing this behavior is being Cool, Calm and Collected, the three C’s!

I’m going to begin by first exploring some statistical numbers related to dog bites. First, according to literature and studies it would seem the incidence of dog bites is a growing problem. The problem is many of these studies have flawed results. The contributing factors include the specific populations studied (urban vs. rural), guarding type dogs who are socialized to be aggressive, tend to be favored in urban environments as opposed to rural and the number of social contacts is directly influenced by the environment is which the dog resides. In addition, the number of favorable social contacts with dogs compared to the number of fatal dog attacks would indicate this is a rather rare occurrence. Also, according to statistics “…the average child is at a far greater risk of being seriously hurt or killed by a parent or relative than by the family dog” (Lindsay, 2001).

Even the number of dog bites reported annually in the United States is widely disputed by the reporting agencies. Contributing factors include errors in “population estimates…inconsistent definitions of what constitutes a dog bite…tallying dog-bite incidents…widespread underreporting” (Lindsay, 2001). The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) suggests “standardized forms be produced for collecting information” including information on the age of the victim, circumstances, extent of injury, and specific information related to the dog involved. This “task force” would like to see better-defined “legal requirements for reporting” and developing a better source of “collecting and keeping dog-bite statistics” (Lindsay, 2001). Lindsay also suggests, this task force failed by not including a “professional dog trainer” saying “…most owners with dog-aggression problems turn to such people for advice and guidance” (Lindsay, 2001).

In 1997 the AVMA estimated “52.9 million” dogs lived in the United States and the Pet Food Institute estimated there were “57.6 million” dogs averaging at least one dog to every U.S. household at that time. According to Lindsay, the number of dog bites ranged from “2 to 5 million” annually, with many by family dogs going unreported. The estimate for children bitten is “1.5 times” more likely than adults and “over 3 times” more likely needing medical attention. Estimates in 1999 compiled from the Insurance Information Institute, estimated dog bites costing the American public approximately “1 billion dollars in losses” with claims totaling “$250 million” and according to State Farm the average payout is $12.000 per bite (Lindsay, 2001).

Vital statistics regarding dog bites and children

  • Children more commonly associated with dogs in homes
  • Majority of dog bites are directed toward children ranging in age between 5 and 14 years
  • Boys are bitten nearly twice as often as girls (Harris et al., 1974)
  • Boys receive the majority of severe bites (60 – 78%) (Wright, 1991)
  • The most significant difference between sexual differentiation involved boys between the age of 1-4 y.o. with 64.2% (Sacks and coworkers 1989) with the possible explanation that boys spend more time with family dogs than girls
  • A large statistical study done in 1928 (Lehman) revealed boys spent more time with the family dog, but the amount of time steadily declined as they matured
  • Another suggested cause is boy’s tend to engage in more risk taking behavior than girls (Ginsburg and Miller, 1982)
  • Most bites occur during summer months and on weekends…most frequently occurring between 1:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m….peaking around 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
  • Statistics show more dog bites occurred during the months of March and May…between the hours of 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
  • Fatal attacks occurred more often during winter months…stray dog attacks occurred more often in the fall…least often during the summer
  • Majority of dog bites are directed toward the face and head…children under 4 years being bitten 63% in the face, neck and head
  • Children between the ages of 5-9 are more likely bitten on the extremities or torso 84% and face and neck 18.5%
  • 87.5% of the dogs involved in dog bite reports are owned…and 10.5% directed toward family members…these numbers are probably not representative of the actual numbers

Emotional trauma

According to studies, one’s experience being bitten by a dog at an early age cannot be corroborated with the development of “cynophobia or fear of dogs” (Lindsay, 2001). The amount of previous contact with dogs may be one of the most compelling factors determining one’s susceptibility to acquiring this fear response. Researchers suggest “…prior ‘noneventful’ exposure to dogs may impede the development of phobic reactions in response to dog bites and other sources of fear” suggesting that “information transmission may be more important in engendering fear of dogs than studies of adults” indicate (Lindsay, 2001).

Fatal attack statistics – Children and Elderly

  • The majority of fatal dog attacks are directed to older children…especially boys and are rare in comparison to toddlers and infants
  • According to Voith (1984)…majority of fatal or serious attacks are instigated by “aberrant predatory motivations” and not sibling rivalry or other commonly cited motivations (i.e. jealousy)
  • Most attacks are delivered by dogs known to the victims family or neighbor
  • Most of the dogs lacked any prior history of aggressive behavior and known provocation by the victim (Pinckney and Kennedy, 1982)
  • Fatal dog attacks on infants are rare and should be emphasized
  • Children at greatest risk are between the ages of 1-4 year old
  • The elderly represent another group at high risk, with 18% of fatal dogs attacks directed toward adults over 70 years of age
  • 77% of fatal attacks occur on the dogs owner’s property…18% restrained…59% unrestrained
  • The death rate has remained relatively constant over the past 16 years and approximately 15-18 fatal attacks in the U.S. each year

In 1999 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reported “1196 children were killed in the United States” because of maltreatment during 1997…another government, report estimating the number closer to 2000 children (Lindsay, 2001). Using these numbers 75% of the abusers were parents and 10% relatives of the children. Additionally, over 1 million children sustain abuse and neglect yearly and according to the USDHHS, children 3 years and under “…accounted for 77% of the reported fatalities” (Lindsay, 2001).

Statistical comparisons

  • Sacks and Colleagues (1996b) during the 5 years between 1989 and 1994…reported 45 children (0-4 years of age) were killed by dogs
  • 4605 children (3 years and under) were killed during a similar period by humans
  • Approximately 9 children each year using the same statistics are fatally attacked by dogs
  • Based on these numbers it would take dogs “over 100 years to kill as many children” as parents, relatives and guardians annually

According to Lindsay, the media can be blamed for exploiting serious dog bites and fatalities, which in turn has lead to demands for breed bans and other associated legislation. I tend to agree and think the answer lies in better education of the public concerning the seriousness of dog bites and impose legislation requiring stiffer penalties for owners who are complicit in respect to their dog’s aggressive behavior, including lack of proper management and control necessary to protect the public and their own family members. Additionally, owners should be educated about the importance of socialization, selecting appropriate breeders looking out for the public’s interest, early training, and using behavior intervention when undesirable behavior first appears. In addition, parents should be more concerned about teaching children the proper way to interact with dogs and be vigilant in how to control their children around dogs.

Child Abuse and Neglect

This subject may surface during the course of one’s behavior consulting and training career and deserves mentioning. According to Lindsay, “[c]hildren exhibiting abusive behavior toward the family dog should be referred to a child psychologist for evaluation (Ascione et al., 2000). Such activity may presage the development of more serious sadistic and violent behavior later in life. Many violent offenders abused animals as children. In addition, animal-abusive children may themselves be the victims of similar abuse in the home. There are reports (Ascione et al., 2000) of findings by others indicating that pet abuse and neglect frequently present together. In one study mentioned, children exposed to sexual abuse were significantly more likely to abuse animals (27-35%) than nonabused counterparts (5%). Unfortunately, research is still lacking, but anecdotal reports and psychological case studies point to a significant relationship between child abuse and animal abuse” (Lindsay, 2001).

Preventing problems between children and dogs

I have demonstrated the majority of dog bites are directed toward children; now I intend on focusing on how to prevent children from becoming a victim of their family dog.

Children need to learn how to interact, play and handle the family dog. One should not expect this to come naturally; therefore, parents should take an active role in demonstrating appropriate and inappropriate care and handling of the family dog. Supervision should be mandatory with all children under the age of 6 to 7. There may be exceptions depending on the maturity of an individual child and an owner’s willingness to supervise and compliance from the child.

The willingness to engage in playful interaction may be dependent on the dog as well as child, parents should act appropriately to their dogs communication attempts and understand what canine social signals may mean. This effective strategy will prevent miscommunication that often leads to inappropriate escalation of unacceptable behavior. It is the duty of all parents to set appropriate examples in handling, playing and training the family dog.

Training is as an important aspect for teaching your family dog social skills they will need for the remainder of their lives. Children can be an important part of this process. The basic social boundaries according to Lindsay, are “…no jump, bite, chase, bolt, or pull” and once these boundaries are established young children can reinforce the family dog’s cooperative behavior using games, treats and affection. Training the family dog provides foundation skills which lead to “enhanced communication, cooperation, compliance, and compromise” according to Lindsay. Children themselves can benefit from taking an active role in the family dogs training (Lindsay, 2001).

According to Lindsay, Levinson (1980) says, “many subtle psychological benefits may be obtained by allowing children to participate in training activities” which contribute to becoming a “self directing human being.”

  • Acquiring autonomy by taking over control of one’s behavior
  • Developing self-disciplining and impulse control
  • Developing delayed gratification
  • Patience
  • Assists in developing responsibility
  • Recognizing and deferring to others needs
  • Acquires the ability to transfer these skills to the family dog, in turn the dog learns these same skills
  • Reinforces self control if he’s successful in training attempts
  • Through trial and error the child learns to control frustration when success is slow
  • Through bitter experience the child learns scolding and punishment only impedes the pets ability to learn
  • Child may become more tolerant and more understanding of his own limitations

Having a family dog may even provide a “living being” giving the child an opportunity to “explore and test” his affectionate and caring treatment (Lindsay, 2001). An important consideration means understanding dogs do not necessarily enjoy hugging and may consider this behavior threatening. Here an understanding of canine social acceptances is paramount. Caution exercised with children when dogs are engaged in activities such as feeding or during resting periods will be helpful in preventing bites. Screaming and running should be avoided and owners should provide a safe resting place for the family dog to escape those hectic household moments one may not be able to avoid.

Parents should discourage children and dogs from engaging in “…provocative play like roughhousing, chase-and-evade…and inappropriate tug-of-war games” (Lindsay, 2001). Improper play activities consisting of “excessive teasing” and agitated play may increase “…the development of adjustment problems…competitive excesses and hyperactivity” in the family dog (Lindsay, 2001). Parents should discourage allowing children to constantly tease, scream and run wildly around the house. These activities may be unsettling to even the calmest dog, this type of behavior can negatively lower a dogs “…threshold for aggression” (Lindsay, 2001). Parents should take the time to teach children how this type of behavior can adversely affect the family dog and how in turn it may affect them. Teaching children appropriate and acceptable games, handling and proper care will go a long way in protecting them and the family dog.


Lindsay, Steven R. Handbook of applied dog behavior and training. 2 Vols.
Iowa: Iowa SP. 2000. Vol. 1.

Wright, JC. Canine Aggression: Dog Bites To People
Reading in Companion Animal Behavior

Responsible Dog & Cat

Training Behavior Solutions, LLC

Sarasota Florida

Joyce D. Kesling, CDBC (2005)

Copyright Responsible Dog & Cat 2005 – 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *