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Beware of the Dog

What's not to love about your family's dog? It romps around the yard, eats scraps from under the table, and cuddles up with you in front of the TV. But it can also bite the little hand that feeds it. About half of all children are bitten by a dog by the time they turn 18, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. And usually it's by an animal they know: 50 percent of all kids are nipped by a family pet, and another 40 percent are attacked by a friend's or neighbor's pup. A dog doesn't necessarily bite because it's mean or because your child is picking on it. Usually, it's a simple misunderstanding between kid and canine. To protect your child from getting hurt by your pet (or anyone else's, for that matter), you need to understand animal-behavior myths -- and clue your kid in to them too.

Myth

Some dogs are always good around children.

Fact

Certain breeds -- like collies and golden retrievers -- are known as kid-friendly, but any dog can bite at any time, even if it has a flawless past.

Get Dog-Wise

"It's never a good idea to leave a young child and a dog alone unsupervised," says Bonnie Beaver, former chair of the American Veterinary Medical Association's Task Force for Dog Bite Prevention. A toddler can accidentally step on a paw or tug at a tail and get bitten. And preschoolers may not understand that they're pushing a dog's limits by cornering it or getting in its space. So monitor kids and dogs closely.

Myth

You can always pet your own dog.

Fact

There are some times when dogs should be left alone.

Get Dog-Wise

Teach your child to always steer clear of the dog when it's eating or sleeping. "There's a good reason for the saying, 'Let sleeping dogs lie,'" says Colleen Pelar, author of Living with Kids and Dogs. "Explain to your child how surprised she'd be if you suddenly woke her up, and that dogs sometimes react by biting, even if they love the person." You should also tell your child that dogs, unlike humans, do not like their mealtimes to be social. "We like to eat as a family, but Max likes to eat by himself, so let's stay away when he's having dinner." To help kids understand a dog's need for personal space, enlist your child's help in creating a special, private place like a bed or crate, where your pup can retreat when it's stressed out. Make a firm rule that the dog's space is strictly off-limits.

Myth

Dressing up your dog is harmless fun.

Fact

Even if your dog tolerates being dressed up, it's easy for the animal to get hurt or frustrated -- and bite to try to get away.

Get Dog-Wise

If you're really into play like this, try something that's not too invasive, like having your dog wear a bandanna secured with Velcro. But watch for signs that your pet's had enough. "If the dog is trying to get away, teach your child to let it go," says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States. "Tell her, 'Look, Sparky is walking away. Let's play something else now.'" Ideally, however, you should skip the dress-up altogether and do something the dog actually likes, like gently brushing its fur or tossing it a ball.

Myth

Most dogs will instinctively protect a baby or young child.

Fact

Dogs, especially those who aren't accustomed to young kids, can be afraid of their high-pitched noises, small bodies, and erratic movements.

Get Dog-Wise

If you have a baby at home, put your dog at ease. "Sometimes, when the dog gets close to a new baby, it's shooed away or told 'no,'" notes Shain. But it's okay for the dog to sniff at the baby or even give her a quick lick. Praise and pet your pup, and offer it treats when it's calm around the baby. When a dog is around toddlers, watch that kids don't yank its fur or tug at its ears or tail. "Tell kids, 'That makes Buster cry,' because they'll understand better when you put it in those words," Shain suggests.

Myth

When your dog wags its tail, it's happy.

Fact

Dogs sometimes wag their tails in a stiff, sweeping motion as a warning that they're uncomfortable.

Get Dog-Wise

"If a dog's whole body is wagging, its tongue is hanging out, and it's wiggling around, chances are it's in a friendly mood," says Crista Coppola, an ASPCA animal-behavior specialist. "But if its mouth is closed and its body is tense, stay away." Another good idea: Have your child call the dog. If it wants attention, it'll come over. If the dog won't come, it's better to leave it alone for now.

Make sure your kids follow these rules when they deal with other neighborhood pets.

  • Don't touch a dog without first asking its owner whether it?s okay.
  • Never run up to any dog. Instead, always approach slowly from the side or front, never from the back.
  • Always let a dog sniff you before you touch it.
  • Don't pet a dog on the top of its head. Instead, pat its back.
  • If a strange dog approaches you, try to stand still. Running away may encourage the animal to chase you.
  • When you see a dog loose in the neighborhood, always inform an adult.

Good obedience training is especially important for dogs that live with children. In addition to the usual sit, down, and heel, teach your dog these commands.

  • Go to your spot. This order gives your dog a place to go when things get chaotic. Put its crate or bed in a quiet spot. Toss a treat into it, and tell the dog, "Go to your spot." Teach kids to leave the dog alone when it's in its spot.
  • Leave it. This command keeps your dog from pouncing on dropped food or a child's favorite toy. To train: With the dog on a leash, put a dog treat on the floor and say, "Leave it." The second your pet stops trying to get the treat -- and especially if it looks up at you -- quickly give an even better treat from your hand (like cheese or a tidbit of chicken) and say, "Good dog!"
  • Off. The last thing you need when you're carrying a baby is Bowser jumping up on you. Teach your dog "off" by never, ever touching it when it jumps up on you -- don't even push it away. Instead, turn your back so it drops to all fours. Then, bend down to pet it.
  • Wait. If you're heading outside, keep your dog from getting overly excited. Put it on a leash, open the door, and tell it, "Wait." When it relaxes, release it with a cheerful "Okay!" and let it go through the doorway.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine.