It is well established that young children are at the greatest risk of serious injury from being bitten by a dog. It is also well established that young children, when deprived of their mother’s care, can experience significant disturbed emotional responses which can escalate from protest, to despair, to detachment, and sometimes aggression.
I have worked with several dogs in homes with family troubles, with children who are hitting the dogs, and the dogs then biting the children. It isn’t as simple as teaching the dog not to bite. It is also about getting at the root problems that are causing the children to process their disturbed home lives by taking that emotional hurt out on the dogs.
Young children are particularly susceptible to having difficulties if they are physically or emotionally separated from their mothers. Separation can be a result of illness or a difficult pregnancy. Let’s say she must be in a hospital for 2 or 3 months. Or she is a drug addict, and the child has been taken away by protective services and placed into some kind of foster home or institution. Or she rejects the child, and even though the child is around her, there is no reciprocation by the mother to the child’s normal requests for care. All these types of situations can profoundly and deeply upset a child. Even momentary absences of parents, even just a few minutes, can trigger some children to hit a dog, which is why we always caution parents to never leave dogs and children unsupervised. If you know your child is going through this kind of upset pattern, you need to make arrangements to keep the dog safe from the child.
I’ve seen this kind of thing when the parents are viciously fighting and heading for divorce, whether they are all still living together or the parents are now living apart. (We can probably imagine where this goes if there is also substance abuse or domestic violence. That isn’t something that I would normally find out doing a dog training lesson, however.) The normal safe attachments between the child and the parents are disrupted, the child isn’t getting sufficient safe and prompt nurturing responses, the home turf often changes to a new location which is innately upsetting to children and dogs, and substitute caregivers are brought in but aren’t taken by the children as the same as mom or by the dogs as being the same as family. It is a distinct possibility that the child will take all that hurt and lash out at the dog. The dog’s environment and social situation stops being safe, the parent/ child bond with the family is damaged or broken, and the dog will bite to defend itself if threatened further. When bonds are severely strained or broken, the result from people or dogs can be aggression.
I remember some of my first encounters with these kinds of problems. The first, about 20 years ago, was on the east side of Mercer Island, WA. The husband and wife were going through a divorce, the child was hitting the dog, and the dog had bitten the child. I became attuned to these warning signs early in my career. My standard response has become: begin by keeping the child away from the family conflicts, if any. Explain, as best as possible what the situation is, though young children won’t understand. Try to find the best surrogate “mother” for the child (sometimes a father can fill that role, and sometimes he can’t), if the mother isn’t available or willing to care for the child, while going through the crisis. Get professional assistance for the family if possible. Protect the dog from the stresses and the child. And in some cases, find the dog a new home.
This pattern of protest, despair, detachment, and sometimes aggression could also occur with children being left by their parents, at too young an age, such as being in a hospital, foster home, daycare, school, or left behind with someone else while the parents go off and live their lives. I have witnessed how kids, on the first day of kindergarten, are crushed when mom drives away. When piloting a grade school therapy dog program, our team tried to make it better using therapy dogs on the playground. For some kids it helped, for others, they were still inconsolable. Speaking with the school dean, she said that the bigger impact was the following Monday, after the kids had been home again for a weekend, and then forced to be separated again. I think we should all reconsider how we transition kids from home life to school, and whether it is healthy for parents to leave their kids in daycares, babysitters, or with nannies and then to take off for a 1- or 2 or more-week vacation. Do your research. Our modern lifestyle, and the way we treat kids, isn’t the way families did it 100 years, or more, ago. What we are doing is unnatural. Young kids used to be with their mothers and only gradually attained normal relationships outside their immediate families as natural maturity worked things out. Young children who break down when separated from their mothers aren’t that way because they are “spoiled”. They are normal kids being subjected to the abnormal forces and expectations of our goofy modern concepts of parenting. If we mess with nature, then we set up risks we might never have imagined. This isn’t a popular concept in today’s “Me” society, but the science says we are heading in the wrong direction. Look at the mess we are witnessing with children these days and tell me they are being raised appropriately. The proof of this breakdown is obvious and can be tracked through numerous metrics. In my world, I’ve seen children, from recently broken homes, hit dogs during dog training lessons. I can’t be the only trainer who has encountered this.
Kids can’t handle adult problems. Dogs can’t handle adult human problems. Kids can’t handle parents who ignore or neglect their innate needs for social safety and interactions, especially when they are very young. Likewise with dogs. If you know that everything is going through an emotional earthquake, I recommend protecting your child from your dog, and your dog from your child. When you see your child’s responses go from protest, to despair, to detachment, and to aggression (maybe just hitting you, a sibling, or bashing a toy) … watch out! Everything is going in the wrong direction. You are endangering your child.