The question is on the minds of anyone introducing a dog into a family. Dogs’ wolf lineage reveals many behaviors that no longer exist or remain dormant under ancient genes Preventative measures you can use to assess a dog's killer instincts would include assessing; the dog’s DNA, its background, the breeder’s values, the breeding bitch’s environmental challenges before, during and after birth, and cognitive testing.
When a News story reports on several dogs mauling a child or killing a small dog we know that the dogs must have had excited enough to have stimulated a dormant instinct to hunt smaller prey.
We also hear of dogs biting children, which is likely to have been a warning to the child that went too far. According to Karen Overall (Dipl. ACVB) and Molly Love (IIABC, AABP), in their paper, “Dog bites to humans—demography, epidemiology, injury, and risk,” it is clear that boys age 5-9 years are bitten more often than other groups.
“In a 3-year annualized study of new dog bite injuries seen in US emergency departments, the highest incidence rate (60.7 bites/10,000 people) was for boys age 5 to 9 years. 3,6,29 Males were bitten significantly more often than were females in all age groups other than human males over 60 years old.6,25 The only exception to this pattern was found on an Indian reservation where dogs were neither owned pets nor stray but took shelter where people worked.55 These statistics strongly indicate that some patterns of interaction (possibly including play) between dogs and humans are gender-biased and that some aspects of these interactions may be conducive to aggression.”
From a dog’s point of view of a bite given to a child, derived from our knowledge of wolf to dog evolution, and current scientific studies, they likely were correcting poor behavior with a nip. A child was possibly viewed as being impolite, or disrespectful, or simply not paying attention to social cues sent by the dog. Being impolite to a dog may be reflected in a child who has reached for the dog's toy, or removed food from its bowl, or perhaps pulled their tail after the dog signaled it was not in a play mindset.
A bite that punctures skin may still be the dog's attempt at correcting bad behavior in the child, and then further challenged by a dog who has poor mouth control. Puppies learn 'mouthing,' a form of biting not meant to hurt, but to play and correct. ‘Mouthing’ is a critical lesson established during puppy-hood where experimentation on the strength of a bite is prevalent. Hurting another puppy during play through a too-hard bite can be signaled by a yelp, and is usually met with contrition by the biter. If repeated again too soon, the defender will return a bite as a correction to immediately stop an action which is painful, scary, or in some other way not wanted. Mouthing capabilities in puppy-hood are essential for mouth control and bite-control. When a puppy does not developed good 'mouthing' capabilities, their bite may break the skin, without any intention to hurt.
When we consider a family being fearful of a dog threatening their children, often breed selection is used to assess a dog's aggressiveness. Dogs like the Pit Bull or the Doberman would be perceived examples of aggressive dogs. Unfortunately the breed of dog has very little to do with unpopular tendencies which vilify certain breeds. Dr. Hare's studies on dogs and their cognitive abilities have definitively shown that a dog’s breed does not correlate to aggression. A dog's breed is not relevant to how one individual dog collects, processes and acts on information like aggression or even submission. There is significant variation of personalities, behaviors and mindsets within breeds. Popular ‘kid-friendly’ dogs like Schnoodles can be just as imbalanced and as a Bull-Mastiff, and a Maltese and a Doberman can be cognitively assessed to be highly calm, gentle, submissive and confident. Breeds provide us only with the original intentions of dogs’ role, hunting and retrieving, and pulling and carrying, but linking behavior to a breed is a myth and should be avoided. It is the breeders who decide on the generational culling of cognitive traits, such as aggression or friendliness. Whether a Poodle or a Great Dane, a breeder with a design focus on delivering aggressive dogs, are the real threat to society.
Your family dog with a long caring and gentle lineage, and children under 10 who are monitored and trained in dog's signals is the perfect combination to avoid accidents. If you are adopting a dog, make sure you invest in collecting as much information as possible about the dog. A visit to the Vet for a full check-up for health conditions, interviews with past owners, an emotional and cognitive test of the dogs to assess personality strengths and weaknesses, will help you to ensure you can minimize risks.
'Sparky' Smith is a Canine Behaviorist and Practioner, educated through the International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour, earning her ISCP.DIP.CANINE.PRAC.