By Erin Petersen
Coordinator, Family Safety Programs
Minnesota Safety Council
As they grow, preschoolers spend more time playing at parks, friends’ houses and other places where they may encounter dogs, this an especially important time to think about animal safety. Most dog bites affecting young children occur during everyday activities and while interacting with familiar dogs. Most bites can be prevented as long as children and parents interact with the animals properly and react appropriately should the dog appear aggressive.
Explain to children why it is important to be cautious around unfamiliar dogs. If your family has a dog or other pet, both parents and children should treat it with respect. Even very small children should be taught not to tease or hurt animals. Because young children are the most common victims of dog bites, parents should never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog, even a dog well-known to your family.
Teach your child to always ask permission before petting someone’s dog. Explain why it is important to allow a dog to sniff your hand first before reaching to pet it. Always pet a dog gently on its chest or shoulders, not the top of its head. (Petting the top of a dog’s head is thought to be a sign of trying to establish dominance and dogs generally do not like it.)
Instruct children to speak quietly and move slowly around unfamiliar dogs. Quick movements and loud voices can frighten the animal, making it more likely to try and defend itself. Tell your preschooler not to try to pet a dog that is eating, sleeping or playing with a toy. The dog could be startled and is likely to be protective of their toys or food. This is a great age to incorporate imaginative play with stuffed animals and toy versions of dogs to act out dog situations that your child might encounter.
Children should not scream or run if they are approached by a dog that may attack; the dog’s natural instinct will be to chase. Teach your child to stand still with their hands at their sides, avoiding eye contact with the dog. When the dog loses interest, your child can then back away slowly until the dog is out of sight. Show your child how to curl into a ball, remaining quiet and still, with hands protecting the face if a dog does attack.
If your child does receive a dog bite, wash the wound immediately with soap and warm water. Contact your physician for additional advice and call animal control to report the bite. Tell them everything you know about the animal, the owners name and address or if the dog is a stray, where the attack happened, and in what direction the dog left.
Dogs are wonderful companions. By teaching young children how to interact with dogs properly, dog bite injuries can be reduced and empathy for animals enhanced.