Never leave children alone with dog, veterinarians warn

Staff ~ Transcontinental Media
Published on June 9, 2010

Montreal -

After hearing about Monday's fatal dog attack on a helpless infant in a small Quebec community, Montreal-area veterinarian Amanda Glue found herself thinking about a conference on animal behaviour she attended six years ago.

The conference topic: Would you leave a child alone with your family dog?

About 80 per cent of the veterinarians in attendance raised their hands to signal that they would. Then, Glue said, they were treated to a slide show with more than 100 horrific images, the human carnage from dog bites and maulings.

Many of the dogs had belonged to veterinarians and veterinary technicians.

"It was a visual 'oh my God,' moment," said Glue, a veterinarian at the Hudson Veterinary Hospital who also teaches at Vanier College.

"I think I had let my own guard down," she added, saying that she altered her own behaviour after that conference, crating her dogs rather than leaving them unsupervised in the presence of her own children. Even for a few brief moments.

The reasons became abundantly clear this week with the death of a three-week old baby girl mauled by one or two huskies when left briefly unattended by her young mother in a house in St-Barnabe-Sud, a small community about 60 kilometres north of Montreal.
While it has become commonplace to give dogs people names like Jack or Bill, deck them out in designer duds and treat them as part of the family, the bottom line is that a dog is a dog. Children should never be left unsupervised with one, no matter what its size or breed, animal behaviour experts caution.

Some animal adoption agencies will not place a dog in a home with young children for this very reason.

Children under 10 often lack the maturity to see when this natural instinct has been triggered. A dog's stiffened posture, forward lean and straight tail are all giveaway signs to an adult.

But they can be missed by a child.

In addition, that very prey drive can be triggered by a child's rambunctious and unpredictable behaviour, or an infant's flailing arms and cooing sounds.

Of the 25 fatal dog attacks in Canada between 1990 and 2007, 85 per cent involved children under the age of 12, said Enid Stiles, a veterinary behaviourist at Montreal's Sherwood Park Animal Hospital. The median age of those victims was five, she said.
Caution must be exercised when young children and infants are around dogs, especially strange dogs, said Stiles.

"We know that any dog -even the most kind sweet dog - can bite," she said. But "if we are there to supervise," those situations can be prevented.

Fatal dog attacks are not common and the circumstances around this week's tragedy involving an infant are "extremely rare," she said.

Stiles said she also worries many dog owners with young children will become fearful that their animals cannot be trusted or think they have to give up their pet dogs, especially if they are huskies.

Dogs that are socialized, fed well and supervised by a caring adult make wonderful pets that teach children about responsibility and companionship and, Stiles said, parents must not lose sight of that fact.

Education is the key, said Michel Gosselin, a veterinarian at the DMV Veterinary Centre in Lachine, Que.

Dogs lack the ability to see the full range of human behaviour as belonging to the same non-threatening, non-prey species.

"To a dog, an infant, a child, an adult, an old person, a woman, a man, they are all different beasts," Gosselin said. "Even race can change a dog's perception."

Rather than placing the onus on dogs to stop being dogs, Gaby Popper, a Montreal-area animal trainer said the responsibility lies with dog owners, who he says are all too often foolhardy.

"You shouldn't leave a three-year-old unattended period . . . Never mind unattended with a dog," Popper said. "You don't trust a child's judgment about anything else. Why should we trust them to be alone with a dog?"