Dog attacks can be avoided with care

In the midst of another spate of dog attacks against small children, La Trobe University  academic Dr Pauleen Bennett has called for community calm.

DogDr Bennett, dog owner and canine behaviour expert, says with responsible adult supervision most dogs pose very little, if any, threat to children. 

‘It is a very complex situation. A well socialised dog is a safe dog, however dogs are less socialised with humans now then they were 100 years ago, where dogs and children would interact more freely,’ she says.

‘There are more than 4 million dogs living with Australian families and unfortunately fear of attacks has seen many dogs kept away from the community. While this is sometimes an understandable cautionary measure, it’s actually better for dogs to be familiar with people of all sizes, ages and personalities.’

While most dog owners would find it inconceivable that Rover could ever take a chunk out of the leg of their child, sceptics might argue that humans can never predict the nature of their otherwise placid dog. After all, we all have bad days, right?

‘Personally, I’m not convinced that all dogs have the capacity to bite, or turn violent. It’s generally an inherited trait and most dogs are not bred to be aggressive. Those that have a propensity to attack are rare, but they should be clearly identified as ‘dangerous dogs’ and should be kept far, far away from children.’

Dr Bennett also says parents should be wary of the size of the dog in comparison to their child.

‘A small dog is going to pose less of a threat to a small child than a large dog if all else is equal, but a fearful or aggressive small dog is still more dangerous than a placid and friendly large dog.’

So how can we recognise a fearful, possibly dangerous dog?

‘The signs are pretty straightforward. If the dog is cowering, has stiff legs and its hair is hackled that is a good sign to keep away. If a dog appears friendly, relaxed and happy I would be less worried.’

Dr Bennett is mostly concerned that the isolated incidents are stigmatising dogs unfairly when there are so many long terms benefits of canine ownership.

‘There are always going to be risks in raising children, studies show they are more likely to be harmed by a car, bike, a stray bucket. Pets and children can form a close bond and it is great to watch them interact. Apart from obvious companionship and affection, there are many other benefits for children sharing their lives with a pet including learning responsibility, increased self esteem and the added bonus of extra physical exercise.’

So as a parent, when choosing a dog, should we avoid going to animal shelters where the history and breeding of a dog is hard to trace?

‘Actually, I believe it is the opposite.  Dogs in shelters are assessed for their temperament, where a qualified person actually takes time and care to assess if the dog is safe before it is put up for adoption.’

She advises that families plan to have their dogs properly trained, disciplined, included in family activities and taught to co-exist with children in the home and even encourages a little ‘rough-housing.’

‘I say that, so if a child falls onto a dog by accident, the dog has learnt that this is not threatening behaviour. I’d expect the dog would become resilient to this type of play. Although there is a difference between boisterous behaviour and animal cruelty and it is never ok to hurt an animal.’

However, nothing is foolproof and parental and owner vigilance is best.

‘Parents and dog owners should never leave children and pets to play unsupervised.’

‘I own a large selection of dogs, who I love. But, I would never put them in a situation where a child might hurt them, where they might respond out of fear and bite that child. The result of this scenario would be there would be no choice but to have that dog destroyed and that’s not a risk I am willing to take.’

For more information or to arrange an interview please contact:

Meghan Lodwick

La Trobe University Communications Officer
T:  03 9479 5353 M:  0418 495 941 E: M.Lodwick@latrobe.edu.au

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