Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | February 21, 2010

Good Dogs Don’t Bite Children, Do They?

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Have you ever beamed with pride seeing your dog do so well with children?  Great!  This one is for you and your wonderful dog!

Historical bite statistics project that over 50% of our children will be bitten by dogs before age twelve, most often by a dog they know.  Despite the fact that dog bites rarely cause serious injury, families are distraught and dogs often lose their homes, or even their lives.

What’s that you say?  “Sure, that’s because of all those ‘bad dogs.’  Lucky for me, I have a GOOD dog and don’t have to worry about that.”

Think again.

Most of the cases I see involve a dog no one expected to bite.  When was the last time you heard a parent say, “Oh yeah, I totally knew my dog was dangerous and I just let the kids play with him anyway.”?

Instead, the calls usually start off with, “The bite came out of the blue!  He was always so good with the baby,” followed by a list of all the various things the dog has put up with without apparent complaint.

This is a clear case of The Curse of a Good Dog.

Most dogs known to be uncomfortable with small children are treated with caution and, thus, protected.  It’s the “good dogs” that are generally left to fend for themselves.

We all know how this happens.  A small child does something with the dog and the dog does not object.  Parents think, “What a good dog!” and are lulled into a false sense of security and a resultant lack of vigilance in guiding dog and child interactions.

What we forget is that all dogs, even good dogs, have limits to their tolerance.  Every action by a child that surprises, frightens, annoys, hurts or otherwise bothers a dog is, essentially, a withdrawal from that “bank account” of goodwill.  At some point this balance dips low, maybe on a bad day or maybe after an on-going history of incursions.  Bam!  That’s when you see the growl or snap or bite.

Didn’t come out of the blue at all.

Never forget that the Curse of a Good Dog has serious implications for the child, as well.  The child is acquiring unsafe habits of behavior around all dogs, not just this particular dog.  Most dogs actively dislike hugs, kisses, kids pushing them, pulling their fur or disturbing them while they’re sleeping — even if your own good dog has yet to object.

What your child does with your dog she will do with other dogs.

Instead of expecting more and more of our good dogs, let’s honor their forbearance with our guidance and protection.  Keep your good dog good:

  • Actively seek out opportunities to turn withdrawals into deposits.  Sure, all kids do some things that are annoying to dogs.  Your job is to make it worth your dog’s while.  Look at your dog, praise him and give him a treat.  Every time.  This increases your dog’s store of tolerance and prompts him to look to you when disturbed or startled.  It should never be your dog’s job to “correct” your child.  Show your dog that you will make it OK for him.
  • Learn the body language of a worried dog and contrast with how your dog looks when happy or relaxed.  Unless you’ve got a suggestion box where your dog can write you a note and stamp it with a paw print, body language is all your dog has.  Luckily, once you know what to look for, you can’t miss what your dog is telling you.
  • Teach your children true respect and empathy for animals by clearly supporting the animal’s likes and dislikes.  If your child truly loves your dog, she’s got to show that love in a way the animal truly appreciates.  Dogs love children they can feel safe around.  Save the hugs and kisses for Grandma.

Oddly enough, we get to have our happily ever after with our dogs and kids when we stop assuming a “good dog” is the most important part of the equation.


  1. Hey There,

    Wow.. It’s a very valid point you make and definately a trap that’s easy to fall into.

    Thanks for the post and delivering such a clear message.

  2. Very good article. EVERY parent (and/or dog owner) should read and re-read this.

  3. Madeline: This is one of the best articles I’ve seen written concerning children and dogs; can you email me regarding reproduction/posting this on our website? Thanks much, Tonya

  4. Yes! Exactly what is needed. May I also recommend

    He only wants to Say Hi

    I hope showing links is OK – if not, please pull it and accept my apology.

    • Yes, I love that “He Only Wants to Say Hi” article. Even though it’s written about other dogs rushing up, it’s equally applicable to children rushing up. Thanks for sharing the link!

      • amazing article (only wants to say hi). It has changed my perspective on what has been occurring between our 10-year old dog and the 5 month old puppy we are fostering.

  5. The big warning is when dog owners say “my dog is great with the kids, they can do anything with him. They sit on him, dress him up, sleep with him in his basket…”

    What they are actually saying is “We have no respect for our dog, we let the children treat him like a toy”.

    Then a child gets bitten, and the owners have the dog euthanised because he has become “unpredictable and untrustworthy with the kids”. Actually this long suffering dog was just pushed a bit too far on a day when didnt feel very well. Tthe Curse of the Good Dog rides again!

    • Hello Jed. Thanks for your comment. It’s a perfect, succinct summary! “My dog is great with kids” is a red flag to me, especially because it’s usually followed, as you say, by “you can do anything with him.” When did that become a measure of a “good” dog? We don’t say that about our children, do we? “She’s a good baby — you can do anything to her and she doesn’t complain.”

  6. […] the left side of the continuum and “Bad Dogs” live to the right.  That’s because good dogs don’t bite children, do they?  Once you determine that you have a “Good Dog,” you tend to leave it at that […]

  7. […] The Curse of a Good Dog […]

  8. Wow, bravo! Well said. I am bookmarking this site, as I know it will be an excellent resource for my clients who are parents of young children and parents-to-be. Thank you!

  9. Wonderful! I love this piece and will refer people as needed.

  10. How hip! This looks great.

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