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Setting the Stage for a Safe Interaction between Dogs and Kids

Reviewed by Bill Saxon DVM, DACVIM, DACVECC on Friday, December 19, 2014
Posted December 19, 2014 in Dog Behavior

children playing with dog

Call me an uptight veterinarian or an overanxious mom if you like, but I get a deep-in-the-gut unsettled feeling every time I view a particular type of pet photo that has become all the rage these days, particularly on Facebook. I’ll bet you’ve seen these photos—the ones in which pets and young children are posed together. Have you seen the one of the newborn baby practically buried under the massive head of the family dog? How about the image of a young child carrying (dangling) a kitty by one leg? And then there is the photo that frightens me the most—the one in which a youngster is face-to-face with the muzzle of a dog, and the expression on that dog’s face is usually one of confusion or subjugation. When I view these images I cringe, wondering if and when that animal is going to lash out at that young child. I have the desire to shake the photographer while screaming, “Danger, danger!” These “kids and pets” photos are as anxiety producing for me as a high budget suspense movie.

What made Big Ben snap?
I’d like to tell you about Ben, a patient of mine many years ago who helped set the stage for my “nervous condition.” One or two adults along with two young children typically accompanied this lovely Saint Bernard to his appointments with me. The children were always busy interacting with their dog. At any given moment one might be dragging Ben around the room by his collar. Whenever Ben did manage to lie down, he was treated like a beanbag chair, the two children leaping and falling onto his soft belly. Ben always remained the gentle giant, ridiculously tolerant of the children’s disrespectful behavior. My attempts to tactfully educate the parents about setting limits for their kids failed miserably. They reassured me that their children were simply demonstrating love for Ben who, in return, would never dole out anything but affection.

I was saddened but not surprised to receive a phone call from the children’s mother asking if I knew of anyone who might be willing to adopt Ben right away, and it needed to be a home without children. It seems that Ben finally snapped, both literally and figuratively. He bit the youngest child in the face prompting an emergency room visit and extensive reconstructive surgery. The child would be permanently scarred (likely emotionally as well as physically) and the family needed to re-home Ben or have him put to sleep. Much as we tried, a suitable home for Ben could not be found. I remember crying as I set about the task of euthanizing my beautiful and dignified patient.  

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Nancy has more than 30 years of experience in the veterinary industry and is a board-certified veterinary specialist in internal medicine as well as a valued member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team since 2014.