Dr. Jillian Richter

children dogs

Dr. Richter and her first dog, Sandi circa 1992

Children can often be the recipients of serious and sometimes life threatening bites from dogs and cats. Without realizing it, children may be provoking the animal with their body language and actions! It is important to teach children the proper way to approach and interact with animals at a young age to keep both our furry friends and our kids safe.

How should my child approach a dog?

  1. ASK: It is imperative to teach children to ask before ever touching a dog. Not all animals being walked on the street are friendly!
  1. TURN YOUR BODY TO THE SIDE: By not directly facing the dog, the child is exhibiting non-threatening body language.
  1. OFFER THE BACK OF YOUR HAND: Make sure the child is not forcing his or her hand into the mouth of the dog! Allow the dog to make the decision to come up and sniff or remain where he/she is.
  1. NO EYE CONTACT: Dogs perceive eye contact differently than humans, so it is important for children not to look directly into their eyes.
  1. PET UNDER THE CHIN OR CHEST: Patting the head can seem like a threatening motion.

Dog Body Language: helpful hints when trying to determine if that pet wants to interact

But that dog looks friendly!

A wagging dog tail can indicate happiness, but dogs also wag their tails for other reasons! Use caution if the pet is exhibiting other behaviors below in addition to wagging his/her tail.  

But that dog has always been friendly!

Just because a dog has been friendly in the past doesn’t mean he is always safe to be around! According to one study, 66% of bites towards children were from a first time offender.

But that dog is just tired!

Yawning can be a sign of stress in our furry friends!

But that dog is giving kisses!

Lip licking is another sign of stress, and can be commonly confused for giving “kisses.”

But really, that dog is kissing my child’s face!

Giving “kisses” can be seen as a displacement behavior, or a behavior performed due to a perceived stressful situation.

Children should always be supervised around animals, however there are certain scenarios that put children at a higher risk:

    • Resource Guarding: Many bites obtained by children were in relation to an animal “guarding” their food or toys. Be sure to NEVER allow children to take something from a dog or leave children alone with food nearby.
  • Pain: If a dog is in pain, its innate response is to protect itself. The animal might feel threatened, cannot escape, and therefore feel trapped. This can lead to defending themselves in the manner of a bite. This can be seen in animals that just recently had a surgery or have a chronic and painful medical problem (such as osteoarthritis). This can also be applied to children chasing dogs, pulling their tails, or following them around when they are trying to find a safe spot.

It’s important to remember that the human animal bond is an essential aspect to the lives of children. Always supervise your children when they are interacting with pets; despite our best effort, our furry friends don’t always give us warning signs. This blog is meant to enhance the human animal bond by promoting safe interactions between dogs and kids, not for children to avoid animals!

Sources and photos:

Dr. Sophia Yin

Chapman, Simon et al. “Preventing Dog Bites in Children: Randomised Controlled Trial of an Educational Intervention.” BMJ : British Medical Journal 320.7248 (2000): 1512–1513. Print.

Davis, Aaron L. et al. “Dog Bite Risk: An Assessment of Child Temperament and Child-Dog Interactions.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 9.8 (2012): 3002–3013. PMC. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.

Reisner, Ilana R, Frances S Shofer, and Michael L Nance. “Behavioral Assessment of Child‐directed Canine Aggression.” Injury Prevention 13.5 (2007): 348–351. PMC. Web. 25 Jan. 2017.


Google Images, Dr. Sophia Yin’s handouts, and personal photo