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Schoolyard Dogs Redux: Should Parents Train Kids How To Act Around Dogs?

Do parents have an obligation to train their children how to act around dogs, just as dog owners should train their animals to be polite and obedient?

Jodi Marcus, adoptions coordinator for a dog rescue group in Woodbridge in Prince William County, says yes. Marcus responded to my Sunday column about the face-off in Bethesda between dog owners and parents who want to protect their children from dogs on school grounds by inviting me to train my children so that they know how to behave around dogs, even if they have no intention of ever living with or near a dog.

Here's Marcus's argument:

"All children, even those who do not live with dogs need to know how to act around dogs. I would love to see a program in all the school systems addressing this issue. Dogs should all have obedience training that is reenforced throughout their lives. Our kids were raised with dogs and so are our grandchildren. No one was ever bitten or hurt because they all knew the rules and knew those rules were strictly enforced. Dogs are an integral part of many families' lives and they are not going away. We all need to work to make human and canine lives interact harmoniously."

I liked Marcus right away because unlike many dog owners I've heard from this week, she immediately granted that many dogs really shouldn't be taken to school grounds:

"I see the problem as twofold: parents do not teach their children how to act around dogs and the dog owners do not train their dogs to be polite citizens. You mentioned two instances of dogs jumping on children. This is bad doggy manners. All dogs should go to obedience class as puppies, repeat as teens and again as adults; what they learn should be reenforced every day of their lives. If a dog is not used to being around children, then that dog should not be taken to school grounds until it has been trained and sensitized to kids. If a dog is rambunctious around children, the dog should be left at home when walking kids to school and attending school activities."

But initially, I wasn't too impressed by her suggestion that parents should train their children to behave in certain ways around dogs. I wrote back saying that I have not taught those skills to my kids, in large part because I wouldn't have the foggiest notion what to tell them. "Like most non dog owners, who are, after all, more than two-thirds of the population, I have no clue how one is supposed to act around a dog, nor do I care to know. And I see no reason for my children to know, unless they decide someday to buy a dog or live with someone who prefers a dog."

But Marcus persisted. And she scored some points:

She passed along ASPCA data showing that fully half of all American children are bitten by dogs before their 12th birthday, so perhaps it makes sense to take precautions against that danger.

And I have to admit that my instinct would be to do exactly what the ASPCA says not to on its list of behaviors that lead to dog bites.

Still, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that the responsibility to protect against animal attacks should rest with the parents of children who've done nothing but make their way to school, rather than with those who arrogantly choose to inflict their dogs on school kids at drop-off and pick-up.

Marcus gets the last word in our exchange:

"We teach our children what to do if strangers approach and act strangely. It is part of teaching them to be safe. I feel the same way about dogs. Dogs should be on leash and under control. Sometimes they are not. They escape from their yard or they have irresponsible owners who have not taught them their manners."

So: Should parents who have nothing to do with dogs--like the vast majority of American adults--feel obliged to teach their kids how to protect themselves against the animals? Or is that the primary responsibility of those who own dogs?

By Marc Fisher |  May 21, 2008; 12:55 PM ET
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I live in a townhouse and the majority of children in the area (double digits) want to interact with my dog (a Malamute) but have no idea how to, in most cases running at full speed towards him.

I've tried to let them know the best way to approach him, but they don't get any assistance from their parents. Thankfully mine isn't aggressive and doesn't mind them.

Posted by: Hemisphire | May 21, 2008 1:42 PM

I do not believe that the "vast majority" of adults have nothing to do with dogs- that is a baldfaced lie.

When I grew up in the 1970s the majority of households on our block owned one or more dogs- something I exploited as a dogwalker. Out of 13 houses on our block I remember 8 clients or roughly 75% were dog owners.

On my city block now I can name 10 dogs and presume there are at least 2 or 3 lap dogs who don't go outside much. Therefore every single adult on my block has something to do with dogs because 10 dogs live on our city block. 100% adults on my block have "something to do with dogs."

Any parent who does not teach their child how to act around dogs is, by definition, a bad parent. I have never met such a parent and most of us actively seek out the families with dogs so our kids can have the fun of playing with dogs. In the same way I take my kids to the county fairs and pony rides and teach them how to act around farm animals.

What would you say about a parent, even a city parent, who didn't teach their children how to ride a horse at the most basic level? Well, they'd be less than ideal parents. How to act around a dog? get a life Marc, this blog posting is all around stupid and based on a lie you are suggesting is true.

Posted by: DCer | May 21, 2008 1:49 PM

Sure, parents should teach children how to act around a dog, not a big deal.

Also, dog owners should observe leash laws, clean up after their dogs and remember that dogs are not people.

Posted by: WFY | May 21, 2008 1:51 PM

I asked my cousin, the nurse, about childhood dog bites and she said that in Raleigh they get about 2-3 per month at her hospital. If it was true that 50% of children are bitten by dogs before age 12, they should be seeing about 100,000 kids over a 12 year period or roughly 690 kids per month split amongst different hospitals. As it is, they see 2-3 per month.

The numbers are incorrect. period. prove they are at all accurate.



Posted by: DCer | May 21, 2008 1:54 PM

Of course parents should teach children how to behave around dogs, cats and any other animal. They should also teach them how to care for animals and how to train their pets to be safe and polite (this tends to be easier if thepets are mammals). If you are not going to allow your children to have pets, at least take them to a petting zoo.

Animals are part of the world around us. Children who do not learn to appreciate them and interact with them grow up to become adults like Marc and that would be very sad.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | May 21, 2008 1:57 PM

This is a no brainer - people make sure that their children know how to act around cars in the street, even if their family doesn't have a car, right? Why?Becuase they could get hurt. The same priciple applies to dogs and other animals. Just because you don't have any in your home doesn't mean that your child isn't going to encounter them out in the world. Of course all pet owners should make sure that their animal is well-trained under under their control, but accidents happen - service people leave doors and gates open, etc... What's the use in saying "they should have trained their dog better" after your kid gets bitten because it ran up to a strange dog and pulled it's tail? You can shut the barn door after the horse gets out if you want but it seems pretty pointless. Teach your kids to be safe.

Posted by: Spinit | May 21, 2008 2:01 PM

"I asked my cousin, the nurse, about childhood dog bites and she said that in Raleigh they get about 2-3 per month at her hospital."

I am not defending the statistics on dog bites, as I don't know if they are true or not. But why would you assume that every single dog bite results in a trip to the hospital? I would assume the opposite, that most are not that serious and don't require hospital attention.

Posted by: CJB | May 21, 2008 2:30 PM

Parents, please Leash, Curb and Clean Up after your children.

Thank you.

Posted by: Fido | May 21, 2008 2:44 PM

i'm often walking my brothers dog a 110 lb female rottie and children will often run right up to her and try to pet her. now Roxie is the biggest creme puff you ever met but the kids don't know this. i always stop them and come down to thier eye level and the dogs. i formally introduce them Roxie this is a kid, kid this is roxie. i then tell the child to make a fist (no tempting dangling fingers) and i wrap my hand around theirs and let Roxie sniff thier hand in mine. i usually have to keep her from rolling over for a belly rub immediatly (she knows kids are good for at least a 20 minute belly rub). i then let them pet her.

i do it this way on purpose; just becuase MY Rottie is a big ole softie another large dog might not be. i like to know i did my part in teaching a child how to approach a strange dog.

by the way if we come across an adult who wants to meet her i do something very similiar, except i put my hand over her mouth and let her smell the new person while my fingers are in/near her mouth. by this time her tail is about to fall off because she just knows that new people mean either a belly rub or good ear scratch!

Posted by: nall92 | May 21, 2008 3:03 PM

We are teaching our son to walk to a dog owner and ask if he can pet the dog. We are actually trying to get him more accustomed to dogs because we want one! Though he's timid around animals now, I want to make sure he has a healthy awareness about dogs - do not touch unless given permission, do not shriek/yell, be gentle and NO TAILS! :-)

Also, most important, if there is no owner near a dog, get away from it.

Posted by: md | May 21, 2008 3:08 PM

I can't believe you'd suggest a parent shouldn't teach their kids how to act around dogs. It's a basic safety issue on par with stove or swimming pool safety.

I walked dogs for years and was amazed that passers-by would let their kids run right up to the dogs and hug them like they were teddy bears. If I'd say something to the parent like, "This dog is nice, but not all dogs react so well to children," they'd usually give me a look like I was trying to tell them how to raise their kids.

It's a two-way street. Dog owners need to keep control of their dogs, but parents need to teach their children common sense animal interaction rules.

Posted by: TheGreenMiles | May 21, 2008 4:25 PM

We've invested in training our dog and he is very docile and well behaved around children. However, any animal may react badly when frightened. Nearly every day children approach him when we're on a walk. Some have been taught the proper way to approach him and ask permission first and others bum rush him. I am incredibly thankful for the parents of the children who have been properly taught how to interact with a dog, because no matter how well trained my dog is, if he feels threatened and acts on natural instinct and harms a child that has flung itself at him, the parents of the child and the court are most likely going to be calling for my dog to be put down.

Posted by: Alexandria VA | May 21, 2008 5:08 PM

Re: the dog bite statistics. Many bitten people do not go to a hospital. If a bite does not break the skin, or is fairly punctures, no tear damage, many will self treat at home. Others with more damage may go to a family doctor. This will be reported to the authorities, but a nurse working in a hospital would not be aware of them. So, unless it is an attack or a very damaging bite, hospital emergency rooms don't see many dog bites.

Posted by: dancingakitalady | May 21, 2008 5:33 PM

Marc, I will take issue with some of your wording. "arrogantly inflict their dogs". I think many of my comments to you have been reasonable, but now my pet peeve comes forth. Many children in today's world are brats, who have no idea of manners or how to act politely in public. I am sure there are myriad reasons why this has come about, but I will not go into those now. Sometimes I would rather be "inflicted" with dogs, even bad mannered ones ( I can do something about those) rather than bad mannered children. I cannot do much about those because their parents get highly incensed at the very suggestion that their little darling is ill behaved. There are way too many times brats have been inflicted upon me and mine while we were shopping, eating in a restaurant, walking down the street both with and without dogs. It is a two way street. Yes, some dog owners inflict their badly behaved dogs upon the public, but there are just as many parents who inflict their badly behaved children on the public and their pets also.

Posted by: dancingakitalady | May 21, 2008 5:44 PM

As someone who WAS bitten as a toddler and has carried a phobia of dogs to this day, and this is going to make me extremely unpopular here, I'm going to agree with Mark: "I'm uncomfortable with the idea that the responsibility to protect against animal attacks should rest with the parents of children who've done nothing but make their way to school, rather than with those who arrogantly choose to inflict their dogs on school kids at drop-off and pick-up." Even a leashed dog was a pretty terrifying obstacle to me as a child. I could count on some parent waiting right outside the door with their dog every day once the weather got nice. I had no choice but the try and make my way past what, to my child eyes, was this horrible thing that wanted to jump on me, lick me, or worse, to get home from school.

Don't even get me started on the irresponsible owners who let their dogs off-leash and then have the gall to tell me, "oh, he won't hurt you!"

Posted by: Birdie | May 21, 2008 11:08 PM

Well, yeah, of course they do. But not primarily for the dog's sake, but rather for their kids' sake.
It's critical to note that people need to take care of people first and formost, if only to prevent Canis familiaris reverting to Canis anything else, ie Lupis.

Posted by: Mark | May 21, 2008 11:17 PM

Yes, dogs should have training. But so should people. It is the only responsible thing to do if you are a parent who loves your child.

I taught my kids how to swim even though we don't live anywhere near the water.
Teach them how to swim too. You may not wish to live by the water, but you never know who/what/where you children will encounter when you are not around.

Posted by: SoMD | May 22, 2008 7:45 AM

Why wouldn't any parent want to teach their child how best to greet and interact with a dog that is much, much more likely to show unconditional love?

When my sweeter-than-sugar border collie has a lovely petting or play session with a dogless child, words are inadequate to describe the pure joy and delight in the child's face and my dog's eyes.

And I don't want my sweet puppy exposed to anxious, fearful and unbalanced humans either. He might get the idea that people are dangerous.

Posted by: Pam Coblyn | May 22, 2008 8:09 AM

I never had a dog growing up, but my parents taught me how to be non-threatening to dogs, to avoid bites. It's common sense. There are a lot of dogs around, and some of them aren't nice.

Parents should keep their dogs under control at school pickups, if they bring them at all, which I'd rather they not.

Posted by: Lindemann | May 22, 2008 10:07 AM

Actually this whole conversation isn't necessarily about teaching your children to protect themselves against aggressive dogs, but more about teaching children how to act around ANY dog. If a child is not taught how to act around dogs, the lack of knowledge may lead them to do something or creating a situation that leads to a bite. I was bitten as a 9 yr old. We had not had dogs, only cats. We were visiting friends of the family who had a Pekinese. The dog was on a chair, I was kneeling in front of it and staring at the dog, whom I think (not sure) may have looked away a few times, but as I continued to stare, got fed up with my rudeness and bit me on the face. I learned very quickly that you do not stare at dogs. My mom did not make a big deal out of it. I was cleaned up, stitched, got a tetanus shot, a lecture and life went on. This was not an aggressive or vicious dog. This dog's owner set it up for a bite by leaving it alone in a room with a child not familiar with dogs. Had I been taught how to act around dogs, I would never have exhibited the behavior that led to me being bitten.

Posted by: dancingakitalady | May 22, 2008 10:25 AM

But why would you assume that every single dog bite results in a trip to the hospital? I would assume the opposite, that most are not that serious and don't require hospital attention.

A dog bite that doesn't involve a trip to the doctor isn't really a bite, is it? Are we afraid of being nipped at by animals now? Or are we all just afraid of any person or any animal that doesn't look like us. Because I fail to see the dividing line between being afraid of a potential animal attack and a potential mugging based on looks alone. I don't see the difference. And there is no reason to support the OTHER prejudice in a civil discussion, right?

Posted by: DCer | May 22, 2008 1:58 PM

"Or are we all just afraid of any person or any animal that doesn't look like us. Because I fail to see the dividing line between being afraid of a potential animal attack and a potential mugging based on looks alone."

Are there dogs that look like us?

I'm not afraid of being nipped by a dog. But it's the responsibility of the dog owner to keep dogs away from humans who do not invite their company. An analagous situation does not apply to humans.

Posted by: Lindemann | May 22, 2008 2:58 PM

I do not have children. I have 3 dogs. I do my best to socialize them and never leave them alone with children or people who are not used to them. I think people need to teach their children how to behave around dogs for their own safety. There are many irrsponsible dog owners who do not socialize or train their dogs.....not to mention the occasional stray. If a child is not taught to "introduce" themselves to a dog or to stay away from dogs where the owner is not visible they could be bitten. It would be horrible for a child to experience a dog bite or attack because they did now know how to protect themselves. And to those of you who have a fear of dogs from a bad experience I am so sorry that happened to you and hope that the dog lovers in your life/neighborhood are sympathetic.

Posted by: mtairy | May 23, 2008 5:24 PM

DCer -- first, 8/13 is 60%, not 75%. Second, I suspect the percentage is lower in cities because many apartment buildings don't allow dogs. And you see to be talking about an urban ER. Third, my husband is an ER doctor, and is in his ER about 1/6 of the time it is open. I assume nurses are there more, say 1/5 of the time. And there will be more than one nurse in your cousin's ER at once. So maybe your cousin sees 1/10 of all patients who go through her ER. So unless she went through the other 90% of patient records, she is going on how many dog bites she has seen. Correction, how many dog bites she REMEMBERS seeing. So take your conservative estimate of 3 per month and multiply it by 10 -- that's 30 per month. In just one hospital. Raleigh has about half the population of DC, and there are 8 ERs that I know of within DC's city limits. So let's guess there are 5 in Raleigh. So it's probably more like 150 children each month being bitten by dogs severely enough to go to the ER, just within Raleigh's city limits. That's much closer to your required figure of 690. Plus there are probably a couple of urgent care centers, and kids who don't warrant emergency treatment (believe it or not, some people only go to the ER for actual emergencies) but go to the pediatrician when the wound doesn't heal well. And then, who knows how many just get neosporin and a band-aid at home, and never need to see a doctor. Yet the dog drew blood. You'd really argue those kids have not been bitten? Finally, the kicker -- you are actually saying that city-dwelling parents who don't teach their kids how to behave around FARM ANIMALS are bad parents? Farmers around here don't have massive public ranges, so they tend to keep their animals on private property. So our urban kids are going to randomly come across cows, while not in the presence of someone who is familiar with them, how? I think they're much more likely to come across gang members in DC than unruly cows, so a good parent should be teaching their kids how not to accidentally wear rival gang colors, right?

Posted by: also a DCer | May 25, 2008 9:03 PM

People who don't know how to act around dogs, and to whom it never occurs that they need to teach their kids dog manners, are bad parents.


People who bring dry-cleaning into their homes are also bad parents, because dry-cleaning chemicals cause cancer.

People who put their kids in cars are bad parents, because 40,000 people die in car crashes every year in the US.

People who don't force-feed their kids carrots are bad parents, because vitamin A is good for your eyes.

People whose kids don't graduate at the top of their class must be bad parents, because those kids didn't live up to their potential.

There sure are a LOT of bad parents out there. Wonder how any of us survived?

(A question: are people who make value judgments about other parents good parents?)

Posted by: SO many bad parents... | May 25, 2008 9:19 PM

What does one have to do with the other? Yes, parents should teach their kids how to behave around dogs. But what does that have to do with bringing dogs to schools during arrival and departure time? And letting them loose?
Why assume that if a kid gets bitten by a dog running loose, that its the kid's fault? Especially if its at school. My definition, the kid is supposed to be there and the dog not.
My son is autistic and terrified of dogs. Its amazing how offended dog owners get when they learn that he's scared of dogs. All of them offer me advice on how to fix the "problem". Hey, keep your dog on a leash and there's no problem.

Posted by: bowiemd1 | May 26, 2008 7:23 AM

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