Today I heard this sad story third-hand: as a baby is crawling away from Grandma’s dog, who has always been fine with him before, the dog without any warning pounces on the baby and bites him. The baby loses part of an ear and has deep wounds on his face. The dog is euthanized. The parents were there to supervise, but it all happened too fast to prevent. What went wrong?
The first thing I want to say is that at the point that a dog bites a child (or any human) this badly, I agree that the dog must be euthanized. He is not safe. For this reason, it’s really important to figure out how to keep this situation from happening in the first place, for the sake of the baby and the dog.
What was going on in that dog’s head? We can’t know for sure, but it sounds to me as though the dog was treating the baby like prey. He pounced when the baby was moving away from him, and he bit to injure. If he had been trying to play with the baby, he might have bitten hard enough to bruise, but dogs have excellent control of their teeth, and a bite bad enough to remove part of an ear was probably intentional. The fact that the baby was moving away from him at the time is supportive evidence — the sight of something small and helpless, which makes high-pitched noises and moves erratically, running away from him may have triggered him to act.
Do dogs really act like predators around babies, even if they know them? Some dogs, not all. I would be particularly suspicious of dogs with high prey drives — dogs who are obsessive about chasing small animals outside. They may learn to like small animals who are part of the family, like cats, but with dogs like this, I would be very careful with my introductions. In the case of a human infant, I wouldn’t leave the baby on the floor with the dog loose in the same room unless I really, really trusted the dog. I live with four good dogs who get along just fine with cats, but there is only one of them that I would trust with a baby on the floor. The price is just too high if you make a mistake.
How can you prevent such a situation, since the dog gave no warning signs? I was not there, but I can almost guarantee you that the dog did give warning signs; his owner was just not trained to read and understand them. The dog probably did subtle things like stare at the baby a little too long or sniff it a little too aggressively — things that wouldn’t make the average dog owner think twice, but would make the average dog trainer extra cautious.
So what do you do if you’re expecting a baby and you have a dog? Or if you are a grandmother and want your grandchild and your dog to get along? The safest and easiest answer is to not let the dog and child interact until you know you can trust them together. Put them together for short periods of time only, while you are holding the child, and observe the dog closely. Don’t leave them on the floor together until you are confident that the dog will ignore the child and that the dog shows no stress, fear, or predatory behaviors around the child. If you don’t think you can read the dog well enough to tell, hire a dog trainer to evaluate your dog. A dog trainer can help guess what problems your dog might have around a child, tell you specific signs to look for, be a resource to ask questions, give you tips on how to manage them together. To find a certified dog trainer in your area, search on the Association of Pet Dog Trainers site.
Dogs and kids can get along great, if they are introduced carefully, and when the kid is old enough. But the consequences of a bad relationship between the two are so serious that it is very important to take those introductions seriously, and to make sure you’re seeing things from your dog’s point of view before you assume everything’s okay.