News & Features

Dogs and Tots: A Bad Mix

Medically reviewed by Nayiri D. Scaff, M.D.

Tragedy and terrible wounds often result when infants and toddlers live with even the most placid dogs. Experts say it’s because canines are programmed by nature to attack certain sounds, movements and situations into which many tots fall. Any time a parent sees a dog causing a deep penetrating wound on a child or a loss of flesh, a plastic surgeon should be consulted, experts say.

The situation was tragic enough to make strong men cry.

A normally placid German shepherd, a beloved family pet for seven years, lived with a couple who bore their first child.

But one day, while the new mom was out shopping and dad was in the shower, the tragedy took place. The family pet -- who had never bitten anybody -- attacked and killed the newborn. Local newspapers were filled with indignation that a drooling, savage beast had just been biding his time for an opportune moment to wreak revenge and then struck when left alone with the infant. The media called for putting the dog down and the dad behind bars.

“But that’s probably not what happened,” says Cheryl Carlson, a Michigan dog trainer and expert witness in dog attack cases. “What usually happens in such cases is the baby makes its usual cries and coos which, in a dog’s ears, sounds like a small wounded animal.”

Carlson, owner of Cher Car Kennels in Ontario, Canada, knows what makes dogs bite because she also works as a Campagne Decoy in a full body suit and allows herself to be bitten for a living while training attack dogs.

“Any dog is hard-wired by nature to investigate wounded animals which may become a source of food, so the family dog probably jumped onto the basinet, tipped it over and knocked the infant to the floor,” Carlson told

“The newborn then howled even louder and that triggers aggression in even the sweetest dog,” she says. “In the mind of a dog, the bawling infant had become prey and the pet obeyed its most basic instincts. Judging by the baby’s fatal wounds, the dog grabbed the infant by the face and shook him violently.”

The German shepherd was later euthanized but the grief stricken dad did not go to jail.

To help prevent such tragedies, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and several other concerned groups have created National Dog Bite Prevention Week, observed in 2005 from May 15th through the 21st to help remind parents, dog owners and others of ways to prevent dog bites which too often are suffered by children.

Dogs and Tots: A Bad Mix Another troublesome household scenario takes place when well meaning parents try to warn toddlers away from Fido’s food bowl, toys or sleeping place. But the dog sees the upbraiding and then places the little shaver at a rank one notch below himself. Because dogs live in packs, they rank everybody in the family either above or below themselves. Outside, running, playing, screaming kids can trigger an instinctive predator-prey reaction in some dogs. And, when children roughhouse with the family pet, dogs equate that type of play with litter mates and other canines in which using teeth is normal.

The devil's own luck strikes again when a child pulls a dog’s ear too hard, approaches the pet’s food, water bowls or pups. The dog then thinks it is his job to do a little upbraiding of his own which, in the canine world, is usually a small nip with some very sharp front teeth. But a child’s face can’t withstand the assault and a terrible wound results. Dogs and Tots: A Bad Mix

Were it not for the careful – and repeated -- attention of a plastic surgeon over many years, a lifelong scar would also result.

“There are about 800,000 dog bites in the U.S. annually,” says Ben Lee, a Colorado plastic surgeon in Denver Colorado. “Dog bites are extremely dangerous because the rate of infection is fifteen times greater than that of a routine cut. Moreover, 40 percent of dog bites on a child involve tearing away of skin, muscle and other tissues.”

One of Dr. Lee’s patients, two-year-old Brooke was bitten so badly, the internal structures of her face were ripped opened, with crushed nerves and torn blood vessels exposed to anybody who had the stomach to look.

“Of all dog bites each year, 60 percent are on children under 12,” says Dr. Lee. “The family pet, or a neighbor’s dog, is usually the biting animal. The wounds are so terrible because a dog bites and then shakes its head until flesh comes off.”

Then, a surgeon’s job is formidable – the wound must be cleaned while flesh is repositioned or replaced with tissue taken from other parts of the child’s body. Because of the high infection rate, the surgeon usually puts the victim on the strongest antibiotics. Moreover, the wound must be inspected to check for crushed or severed nerves and torn facial muscles. With a large gash on the child’s face, the surgeon must carefully and precisely trim the edges of the wound which is sewn back under a microscope.

“Sutures used on the face of a child dog bite victim are about as thin as a human hair,” says Babak Azizzadeh, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If the wound heals with a noticeable scar, it can be treated some weeks or months later by laser to reduce the thickness of the scar.”

Sam Speron, M.D., a Chicago plastic surgeon, has seen and treated child dog bite cases so severe the tyke’s brain was exposed and a young nose was almost completely torn off.

“In almost every case, the attacking dog was the family pet, grandma’s pooch or some other dog that never had a history of hurting anybody,” Dr. Speron says. “In the end, the child’s physical injuries are not nearly as bad as the psychological scars that can turn an active, outgoing child into a withdrawn youngster.”

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons in Chicago, dogs are more likely to bite children when startled, when chained or when playing aggressive games. A sick or injured dog is also more likely to bite. Children should be taught never to flee from an aggressive pooch or stare a dog directly in the eye. If an unfamiliar dog approaches, the child should “stand still like a tree” with arms tucked to his side. If push comes to shove and it looks like the dog is going to attack, the child can put something, like a bicycle or a backpack, between the animal and himself. If a dog knocks the child over, he or she should roll into a ball, cover the face and stay still.

“Dogs must see various situations – small children, people with canes and wheelchairs and so on,” says Carlson, “or they will become frightened and lash out.”

Adds Dr. Lee: “My opinion is: dog bites on children are a serious public health issue. When I worked in an emergency room, those bites were the bane of my existence. It seemed like it was always a two-or-three-year-old child who was bitten by a normally nice family or neighbor dog.”

Dr. Azizzadeh has seen enough bite injuries on tykes, he knows he can no longer keep a dog at home.

Because he has a two-year-old crawling on the same carpet where the child would be eye-to-eye with the family pet.

For more information:

Introducing Your Pet and New Baby

Why Dogs Bite: A Guideline for Children

Dog Bite Prevention

If you have any more questions about this topic or would like more information Click Here.

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