Recently, in Houston, a grandmother's family dog killed her 1-year-old grandchild.
This is a tragedy that no family should undergo, and one which is easily preventable with the right information and precautions.
First, we need to know something about dogs. The optimal socialization period, when dogs learn how to accept all the things you want them to tolerate throughout their lives, is incredibly short.
Puppies should have many experiences with novel stimuli before they are 16 weeks old! Such social experiences should be continued into adulthood, but if you miss the critical period, your dog may never fully recover the ability to tolerate new things as well as a better socialized counterpart.
It used to be that vets advised owners not to take puppies out until they'd had all their shots. Now, the conventional wisdom, especially among behavioral veterinarians, is that behavior problems are even more dangerous to dogs than disease, so we temper prevention of disease with calculated risk and we take puppies to puppy class much earlier. The Pet Professional Guild has a position statement on puppy socialization that is worth reading: http://www.petprofessionalguild.com/PuppySocializationPositionStatement
Dogs that live with older people and don't get early exposure to children of all ages may regard them, with their screams and running and giggling, as scary — or worse, may regard a small toddler or infant as prey. So, it's imperative for grandparents to raise their dogs with grandchildren in mind, or keep the dog safe when children are present. That's the best way to keep the children safe, too. It is fine to crate a dog with a stuffed food toy and let him out later when the children are gone.
While no breed is inherently "bad" or "good," there are some that have genetic predispositions to be more predatory, or more reserved with strangers, or more apt to herd or guard.
Know the breed standard for your dog's predominant breed and heed the hidden warnings. Words such as "aloof" or "reserved with strangers" suggest that a dog may react to a perceived threat or try to protect territory or people. Strong "herding instinct" suggests a dog that wants to move things or keep things still, and may use its teeth to enforce that desire.
Individuals of such breeds are often great family dogs, but it pays to understand their capabilities and use socialization, training, and management, to keep kids safe.
Too many adults think that dogs can safely be left alone with children, or that they should tolerate anything that children do. They also often fail to notice their dogs' pleas for assistance and stress-related body language.
Doggone Safe has a wealth of information on dog bite prevention, and resources to help you learn to identify dog body language that can help you avert a tragedy: http://www.doggonesafe.com.
Contrary to popular myth, dogs don't need to be punished or dominated to be trained, and such methods can actually increase the likelihood of a bite. Studies show that aggressive owners have more aggressive dogs.
If you need help with your dog, you can find a professional trainer through the new Pet Professional Guild (www.petprofessionalguild.com). If your dog is becoming aggressive, and you would like to speak to a veterinarian behaviorist, there's a listing at The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, http://www.dacvb.org/resources/for-the-public/.
Dog Bite Prevention Week is May 20 to26.
Is your dog protected? Do you know how to prevent dog bites? To get more information on preventing dog bites, visit this site: http://www.avma.org/public_health/dogbite/.
Anne Springer is the public relations director of SeniorCare Inc., Cape Ann's local area agency on aging. To reach SeniorCare, call 978-281-1750.