So Your Dog Bit Your Child . . . Now What?

Having a family puppy in the home brings about a sense of excitement and playfulness. But it can also come with a few challenges and annoyances — from peeing on the carpet, to chewing a shoe every now and then.

It's no secret that there can occasionally be a few fallbacks that families run into while balancing living with both a dog and a young child. But a pet owner's worst nightmare: you turn your head for one second and your beloved family dog bites your child, especially one that may be on the younger side. Whether it's just a small nip or a full-on chomp, parents who find themselves in this terrible position might wonder what the right next step is for their family. And some parents may be inclined to give their dog away, no questions asked.

First things first: this is a no-shame zone. The topic of rehoming dogs brings up incredibly strong emotions on both sides, but ultimately, it is a personal decision and one that you have to make for yourself, based on your circumstances. If you're unlucky enough to find yourself in this position, it's perfectly understandable to feel conflicted. Your dog is a part of your family as much as your child, and having to navigate a dog-biting situation is not ideal in any way, shape, or form. Fortunately, Charles Elmaraghy, MD, the chief of Nationwide Children's Hospital's otolaryngology department, who has performed countless dog-bite-related surgeries, has some advice for parents who are in this exact situation.

What to Do If Your Dog Bites Your Child

First, immediately separate the dog and the child and assess the wound. Did the bite 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 your pup are up to date on their vaccinations. "You have to really make sure the child is not in any more immediate danger," explains 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, or in the near future. "The child's going to be traumatized," warns Dr. Elmaraghy. "Because a dog bite can be painful and fairly severe." In general, until you can figure out why the bite happened and what you'll be doing to prevent it from happening again, keep the dog and the child away from each other.

How to Determine Why the Dog Bit the Child

This is an important question to answer, because it can make a big difference in how you proceed. 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 explains. "And that's a pretty important thing, because if the dog was unprovoked, the dog may be sick." Dr. Elmaraghy says that dogs rarely bite without reason; oftentimes a bite happens when they're ill or feeling threatened. "Dogs tend to be provoked into biting," he says. "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 the Kid Unintentionally Provoked the Dog?

It happens. "Toddlers can't really discern how to be gentle with anyone or anything," Dr. Elmaraghy points out. "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," he cautions. Even the gentlest dogs can be provoked. "Dogs are obviously very territorial and they perceive children more of a threat than I think people really understand," Dr. Elmaraghy says.

It's especially important for parents to keep their little ones away from the family dog while the pet is eating or sleeping, for safety. 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.

Should You Keep a Dog After It Bites a Child?

Again, except in the most extreme circumstances, this is almost always a personal choice. If the bite was not severe, and/or if you can clearly see that your child provoked the dog, and/or you find out your dog was ill and that's why they bit your child, you may choose to keep your dog and stick to some new strategies to ensure your child stays safe in the future. (You can always touch base with your vet to get some strategies specific to your dog and your situation, and get recommendations for a trainer or behavioralist.) But a decision to rehome a dog, as painful, scary, and disappointing as it can be, isn't always about not trusting or loving the dog — sometimes, a bite is a wake-up call to parents who realize they're not able to adequately care for the pet. "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."

How to Prevent Dog Bites From Occurring

While we can't go back in time, there are ways to prevent bites from happening. In addition to closely supervising your children whenever they're around your dog and making sure your dog is properly trained and up to date with their vet checkups, you may want to keep your dog safely in another part of your house when you are having play dates. "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," explains Dr. Elmaraghy.

But this all is also a good reminder that it's essential to put in due diligence before bringing a dog into your family in the first place, so you can avoid having to think about rehoming at all. "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 adds. "When you just have a newborn baby, it's probably not the time for that. And as supportive as I am of adopting dogs, you probably don't want to go to the shelter and adopt a dog when you have toddlers, either." Being realistic about your family's needs and capacity before you add a furry friend to the mix is the best bet for everyone involved.