Is Your Dog a Danger to Young Kids?

Michael O. Schroeder

More than one-third to nearly one-half of all households in the U.S. own a dog, and for many the animal is part of the family. Despite the close kinship, more than 50,000 children ages 6 and under suffered a dog bite injury in 2014, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Often standing at about eye level with the dog, research shows young children are more likely to be bitten in the head and neck, compared with adults who reach down to pet a dog and more often sustain bite injuries to the hand, arm or other extremities. Though the risk is still relatively small, Dr. Eddie Markul, an emergency medicine physician at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, says that because smaller children are more likely to be bitten in the face, head or neck, there's potential for catastrophic injury. A dog bite could leave a facial scar requiring plastic surgery or threaten to cause deeper damage and even life-threatening bleeding. More commonly, minor injuries can sour children to pets and make them more fearful or anxious around the dog, plus lead families to remove it from the home or have it put down.

[See: Is it Healthy to Sleep With Your Pets?]

Yet, the results of a recent study surveying dog owners to gauge their attitudes about supervising these child-pet interactions in the home show that often the risks are poorly understood or overlooked. The study, published in the July-August issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, surveyed more than 400 Austrian and German dog owners in homes with children ages 6 and under -- including parents and grandparents -- and clinicians in the U.S. say the concerns raised apply to pet owners with young kids here as well. Pet owners participating in the study frequently advocated taking a more laid-back, hands-off approach to supervising young children and dogs interacting than animal experts said they should. Pet owners also reported they'd be more vigilant monitoring interactions between a child and an unfamiliar dog than interactions with the family dog.

While it may be natural to trust the family dog, Markul says the study shows there's a lot of ignorance on the part of dog owners in regards to the potential dangers pets pose. "They think the dog just really, truly is a member of the family and would never hurt their child," he says. "While [dogs] definitely have more advanced cognition than some people give them credit for, they still are animals and do pose a risk to the child." While certain dogs may be more tolerant of rambunctious kids than others, experts notes that regardless of a pet's breed or disposition, any dog can bite.

"One of the most common recommendations about young children and dogs is, 'Never leave the child alone with the dog,'" Christine Arhant, who led the research, said in an email. "In our study, we found that children are left alone with the dog for a moment in more than 50 percent of the participating families," notes Arhant, a veterinarian and researcher at Institute of Animal Husbandry and Animal Protection at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna in Austria. She and fellow researchers note in the study that many dog owners need to do better in supervising child-dog interactions. "It is vital to educate caregivers about potentially unsafe behaviors and safety measures to use with the family dog," the researchers wrote.

[See: 10 Concerns Parents Have About Their Kids' Health.]

That means not errantly assuming dogs like the same things we do. Though petting a pooch may perk it up, for instance, research finds dogs hate hugs, despite the human inclinations toward a furry embrace. Kids naturally like to hang on their pets. A quick glance on social media finds many parents encouraging as much, taking photos and videos of kids posed, often with a visibly uncomfortable-looking dog, forcing a pooch hug -- or smooch. But like pulling a dog's tail, these time-honored embraces are a safety no-no that leaves kids vulnerable. "It's my sincere and strong recommendation that you don't allow your children to kiss the dog on the face," says Dr. Alex Rosenau, senior vice chair of emergency medicine at Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania, and past president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. "I've seen adults do that with tiny dogs -- kiss their dogs hello and get licked on the face. And I've seen terrible outcomes of facial bites by trusted dogs, because something got triggered in the mind of the animal by being that close to the face of the pet owner or the child."

Experts say simply being present when kids and dogs interact isn't enough, given that previous research finds adults are frequently in the room when kids are bitten by the pet. "Parents should learn to interpret dog body language to be able to recognize signs of a dog feeling uncomfortable during an interaction with the child," Arhant says. "They should learn how to supervise and guide interactions and when to stop interactions and give the dog time to rest." Types of dog body language to heed: "Licking the lips or nose, turning the head away, walking away, raising a paw, yawning and a so-called whale-eye (white of the eye is visible) ... can indicate that the dog feels uncomfortable in an interaction," she says. "A low body posture and 'freezing' can indicate that the dog is already very fearful. Stiffening up and staring or growling are obvious aggressive signals."

Ensure kids safely interact with the pet as well. "Don't allow the child to play aggressive games with the dog -- like tug of war or wrestling with the dog," says Dr. Deborah Ann Mulligan, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a professor of pediatrics Policy at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. "The dog gets excited and misinterprets and that ... can lead to bites."

Though it can sometimes be difficult to interpret a dog's body language, increased vigilance by parents can make a big difference in guiding positive interactions between kids and pets. Arhant recommends checking out dog bite prevention programs, such as Family Paws Parent Education for families living with a dog and kids ages 0 to 3, and The Blue Dog, for families with kids 3 to 6 years. Consider seeing a veterinarian specialized in behavioral medicine if you observe fearful or aggressive behavior, in particular, she says, as well as high arousal, withdrawal from the family or any other remarkable changes in the dog's behavior. "When dogs show high arousal towards newborns, the dog should be separated from the child and a specialized vet should be contacted immediately," Arhant says.

[See: 7 Ways Pets Can Make You Healthier.]

Animal training may be all that's needed to turn things around, and this should involve positive reinforcement. Don't aggressively punish dogs, such as yelling or hitting them to correct misbehavior, Arhant says. This can heighten a dog's fear and aggression, increasing the likelihood it might bite; plus, children may mimic this behavior, further putting themselves in harm's way with the dog. In many cases, simply paying closer attention to interactions between kids and the family dog may be enough to ensure safety. Whatever the case, parents shouldn't wait to take action to protect children, experts say, adding that being proactive, in turn, can also help preserve the treasured relationship the family has with their pet.

Michael Schroeder is a health editor at U.S. News. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at mschroeder@usnews.com.