Infant bitten in “unprovoked attack” by family dog: What can we learn?

In the news today is the report that a baby girl in Indiana was the victim of an unprovoked attack by the family dog.  It’s not unusual to hear this declaration from victims of bites, parents, animal control officers and the media. Even scientific literature lists a lack of provocation as a common reason for biting (sometimes an inference drawn by the authors, at other times simply a repetition of the available data).

Almost all bites are provoked. Dogs are social animals and respond to very subtle cues. We can work to figure out the reasons for a bite, including the likelihood that it was aggravated by anxiety around the baby. There is a danger in concluding that bites are random. If there isn’t a “real” stimulus triggering the aggression, how can it be prevented or managed?  The basic premise that bites occur in response to something is exactly what helps us understand dog and child behavior. Dog and child behavior work together to increase bite risk.

What about this particular story? The baby is 9 months old, and was placed on the floor “to play” while the family’s dog lay nearby. We’re not told just how close the two were to each other. According to the article, the dog had not shown aggression prior to this bite. So what can be the cause – what was the provocation?  Here are three possibilities, and of course there may be more:

1. Babies develop and grow very quickly. To the family dog a resting, cooing infant (which might have taken a little time to get used to) might suddenly start to reach, grab and — particularly frightening to dogs — crawl towards them. At 9 months, the baby in this story is likely to have started crawling and otherwise trying to move on her own. The previously “good” dog is now dealing with a potential threat, and bites defensively.

2. Resource-guarding, or aggression related to high-value items like food, toys and even the owner herself, is very common. Even in cases when it is not shown towards adults, it might certainly be triggered by young children. If there was a toy or rawhide nearby and the mother inadvertently placed the child too close for comfort, a resource-related bite would be provoked.

3. It is always important to consider poor health, pain or other medical problem led to irritability and biting. At the age of 7 years, this dog might have been aching or ill. Disease lowers the threshold for aggression and biting, and might have been involved in this case.

These three possibilities each could have led to prevention of the bite. If you have an infant and a dog, watch your dog carefully as your baby begins to vocalize, crawl, pull up and otherwise explore his or her world. If the dog is showing avoidance behavior (leaving the room) or signals of conflict and worry such as lip-licking, turning his head away, lowering his body, yawning or whining, intervene by separating the dog from the baby. Some dogs simply should not be in the room with a crawling baby. If they are both present, pick up rawhides and special toys, and be aware when the baby approaches the resting dog at your feet (you are an important resource!). Be sure to have your dog checked by a veterinarian at least once a year — and after the age of 7 years twice-yearly — to identify and treat arthritis or other problems. Seek the help of an experienced and educated dog professional for advice about safety.

A good mantra for parents,  dog owners, pediatricians and veterinarians is that bites are just about always provoked by something. By understanding the dog’s and child’s behavior and carefully monitoring their interactions, we can often prevent such bites. But assuming that dog bites are random events can lead only to more unfortunate surprises.

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4 Responses to Infant bitten in “unprovoked attack” by family dog: What can we learn?

  1. Pingback: Infant bitten in “unprovoked attack” by family dog: What can we learn? | Reisner Veterinary Behavior Blog « Responsible Dog ~ It’s all about dogs

  2. “Bite” covers a lot of ground, from a minor nip to body parts all over the place. Somehow all such actions seem to come under one heading as far as the media is concerned. Was this a case of a dog nipping an infant to “warn the child off”? Or was it a full blown attack?

    • Ilana Reisner says:

      It’s unclear whether there was one bite or more than one, but the injuries were severe – “puncture wounds to the head, neck, skull and brain”. Very sad. The language of dog bites is interesting, though. I try to call all of these events “bites” rather than nips or attacks because it seems to be the most objective name for the behavior.

  3. Well said! The implications of the continued belief that most dog attacks are “unprovoked” and “unpredictable” are quite serious for both people and dogs. Education of both the public and animal professionals is key to facilitating better understanding of our pets.

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