According to the HSE, around half of all children will be bitten by a dog at some point, and the dog usually belongs either to the family or to a friend or neighbour. Boys aged five to nine years old are the most likely to get bitten.
Fiona Simpson, senior education officer for Dogs Trust, says the most effective way of ensuring your child doesn’t suffer a dog bite is never to leave them unsupervised with any dog. “Parents too easily leave children alone with dogs. The perception is ‘he’s the family pet — he’s grand with the kids’. But it’s still a dog we’re talking about.”
Like all animals, dogs are unpredictable, says Simpson. “We don’t have complete control over them.” And children are unpredictable too. By approaching the dog at an inappropriate time or by making a loud sound or sudden movement, they give the animal a fright.
A recent UK survey by Dogs Trust found 19% of children kiss a dog’s nose. Simpson isn’t surprised. “Children don’t realise that human-type interactions aren’t understood or even liked by dogs. Children quite often think it’s OK to give a dog a huge hug. There are ways of loving dogs without giving them a big squeeze or hug.”
Between 2006 and 2014, Dogs Trust educated 219,000 children nationwide about responsible dog ownership and safety. In 2014, the charity visited 229 primary schools and 148 youth groups. Simpson cites some of the don’ts around dog safety: Never disturb a dog when it’s eating, drinking, resting or sleeping. “It’s a big no-no to hug a dog when it’s sleeping. The dog is using that time to relax, to get some space.”
She recommends parents teach children never to approach a dog they don’t know. “Teach them never to run up to a dog, to jump around it or make loud noises. The child should never take a dog for a walk on their own — if he gets into an altercation with another dog, it certainly isn’t safe.”
Nor should children presume to know what a dog is thinking/feeling. The survey found more than 50% of children thought a growling dog was smiling. “We tell children dogs are as different from each other as each child is from his classmates. A wagging tail might mean a dog is nervous.”
In the UK survey, 18% of children admitted to pulling a dog’s tail, with 14% confessing to shouting at or hitting a dog.
* Email education @dogstrust.ie for further information.