It's any pet owner's worst nightmare: you turn your head for one second and your beloved family dog bites your kid. Whether it's just a nip or a full-on chomp, moms and dads who find themselves in this terrible position have a ton to think about. While some may be inclined to give their dog away no questions asked, others are a lot less willing to part with their pooch. If you're unlucky enough to find yourself in this position, it's perfectly understandable to feel conflicted. Fortunately, Charles Elmaraghy, MD, Chief of the Department of Otolaryngology at Nationwide Children's Hospital, who has performed countless dog bite-related surgeries, has some advice for parents who are in this exact situation. While dogs bite children for a variety of reasons ranging from their temperament to being provoked, how bad is it if this happens in your home? The short answer is . . . it depends.
What to Do If Your Dog Bites Your Child
First thing's first: assess the wound and separate the dog and the child. Did the dog break skin? Is there blood? Does your child need to go to the emergency room? Once you have a plan, double-check to ensure both your child and you pup are up-to-date on their vaccinations. "You have to really make sure the child is not in any more immediate danger," explained Dr. Elmaraghy.
Depending on the severity of the wound, don't be surprised if the child is skittish — or plain terrified — around dogs for the time being. "The child's going to be traumatized," warned Dr. Elmaraghy. "Because a dog bite can be painful and fairly severe."
Why Do Dogs Bite Kids?
Although parents may be inclined to rehome the dog, Dr. Elmaraghy suggests taking a deeper look at what situation the pup was in when he or she lashed out. "You want to decide whether the incident was provoked or not provoked," he explained. "And that's a pretty important thing, because if the dog was unprovoked, the dog may be sick." Furthermore, he explained that dogs rarely bite without reason, whether they're ill or feeling threatened. "Dogs tend to be provoked into biting," he said. "It's not a thing that they randomly do. If your pet does bite your child, parents should be concerned. It may be a real, significant issue and the dog may need to see the vet."
What If Our Kid Unintentionally Provoked the Dog?
Believe it or not, children might test our pets' patience more than we think, especially if they're on the younger side. "Dogs are obviously very territorial and they perceive children more of a threat than I think people really understand," Dr. Elmaraghy said. "Toddlers can't really discern how to be gentle with anyone or anything. If you watch how a toddler interacts with their parents, sometimes they smack them in the face or they poke their fingers in their eyes and ears. They are exploring their world. And when they see a dog, that's just one more thing that they need to explore by poking and prodding. And a dog is not going to process that very well."
Parents should be especially wary to keep their little ones away from their four-legged friends while they are eating or sleeping. Boundaries are everything, whether your little one is old enough to be perceptive of them or not. Moreover, toddlers should always be supervised around dogs, regardless of your pup's disposition.
Can You Keep a Dog After It Bites a Child?
If the bite is less severe — or more of a nip — giving the dog away might not be the most popular option. If parents choose to give their pup another chance, they should have a plan in place. "I think a parent has to make a realistic assessment," Dr. Elmaraghy said. "They need to ask themselves if can keep a child supervised while a dog is present. If they can't, the answer is pretty obvious."
Another tip for dog owners? Keep the crowds to a minimum when there are little people involved. "We tend to see injuries when there's a slumber party, for example, and the dog is overwhelmed by 10 kids trying to pet it," explained Dr. Elmaraghy. In short, it's completely up to the parents as to whether they give their dog away or not. But going forward, Mom and Dad need to keep their eyes peeled for signs of aggression.
How to Prevent Dog Bites From Occurring
While we can't go back in time, there are ways to prevent bites from happening. "When looking for a pet, parents should consider a dog's breed and being careful about when you introduce dogs into a family," Dr. Elmaraghy advised. "When you just have a newborn baby, it's probably not the time for that. And as supportive I am of adopting dogs, you probably don't want to go to the shelter and adopt a dog when you have toddlers, either." The bottom line? Constant supervision and teaching little ones boundaries at an early age can go a long way.