This is the second blog post in a series of three, discussing the three hazards that justify fencing playgrounds for toddlers and preschoolers. The first post discussed the risk presented by traffic, and can be found here.
This post is about dogs. I love dogs, and I’ve been very happy that my children have had some exposure to our sweet dog Tui (who is now living out a happy retirement at my parents’ house, where she can sleep under my mother’s desk all day and get thoroughly spoiled by everybody), but I am very cautious about dogs we don’t know. Dogs are unpredictable, and so are young children, so it’s unsurprising that there are sometimes catastrophic outcomes when you put these two unpredictable elements together.
And this post focuses almost entirely on the risk of dogs attacking children, but let’s not forget two other anti-social dog-related elements: urinating on things (I don’t really want my children climbing up or dog a playground pole that might be covered in dog wee, especially as that’s just at little kid height if you’re dealing with a large dog, and particularly given how often children put their hands in their mouths…); and pooing on the grass. Yes, responsible dog owners should always pick up after their pets, but not all dog owners fall into that category. This is why dog poo is toxic to people: toxocariasis, which is caused by parasitic worms in dog faeces. If that is ingested by children, or gets into their eyes, it can have terrible consequences, including blindness.
As with traffic, there are no specific statistics that address whether children have been frightened or hurt by dogs while in playgrounds, so I’ve once again attempted to investigate the degree to which dogs can pose a threat to children, and how relevant experts recommend parents and caregivers handle the situation.
I started with the Government’s page about dogs: Dog Safety. It offers the following guidance in its Frequently Asked Questions:
I often meet a man in my neighbourhood who walks his dog without keeping it on a leash. I’m nervous of dogs and it ruins my walk. Is he allowed to have the dog off the leash?
Dogs must be under the control of their owners at all times. Most councils have areas identified where dogs can be exercised off a leash. You may wish to avoid those areas. In other areas dogs may be prohibited or required to be on a leash at all times. Your local council can advise you where these areas are.
If a dog runs up to you ask its owner to put it on a leash. If the owner is not in sight you should stand still with your arms by your sides and look at your feet. Dogs will get bored if you do not respond to them and they will eventually wander off. If you are concerned about the situation you should contact your local council.
I have two young children and we love visiting my mother-in-law and her big, friendly dog. But with the recent stories of dog attacks I wonder if I should ask that the dog be kept away while we’re there?
Even the friendliest of dogs has the potential to attack if it is teased, hurt or frightened. Make sure the dog is restrained while you visit. To find other ways to reduce any danger, read Dealing with Dogs. Make sure your children know how to behave safely around dogs and always supervise children when they are with a dog.
The guide Dealing With Dogs can be found here. It mentions three likely places of contact with dogs: in the street; at parks or recreation areas (and what else do we find at parks and recreation areas? You guessed it… playgrounds!); and at people’s houses. The section ‘Avoiding Risky Situations’ includes the following advice:
Here are some tips to avoid situations in which a dog could become aggressive.
Don’t act in a way that could make a dog feel threatened
- don’t force a dog into a corner or hug it tightly, always leave an easy way for a dog to get away from you
- stay away from dogs that are showing mating behaviour
- don’t tease or hurt a dog
- don’t approach, play with, pet or excite a strange dog
- don’t make eye contact or try and pat a dog on its head or ears.
Don’t encourage chasing
- some dogs have a very strong instinct to chase. for some, chasing is play, for others it’s more like hunting prey.
- even though dog owners are legally responsible for keeping their dogs under control at all times, it’s better not to take chances. Avoid running, cycling or skateboarding close to a dog. It’s better to slow down and angle away from the dog, until you are well past and can speed up again safely.
- in public areas, dogs should be kept on a leash. If your children are playing close to an unrestrained dog in a public area, you should use your judgement about the situation. If the dog owner is present, you can ask the owner to keep the dog on a lead. If you remain concerned, you can contact Dog Control office.
And that’s all great, but seriously: given the varied behaviour that dogs might find threatening – being looked at, running near them, trying to pat them, etc – and the likelihood that even the most dog-savvy small child could easily forget themselves and run around, making a noise and generally being excitable, wouldn’t it just be easier to use a fence to separate dogs and playing children? Is it really fair that parents and caregivers must be constantly vigilant while their children are supposed to be playing, in case somebody’s dog runs over and takes offence?
The section for Keeping Children Safe is even more specific about the dangers of dogs and little kids:
Most dog related injuries happen to children, in their own home or the home of a relative or a friend and by a dog that they know.
When a dog is around, small children should be supervised at all times because:
- they can unwittingly provoke an attack, for example by trying to take a bone away from a dog, hugging or kissing git
- dogs may get excited by games being played and jump on or chase a child
- dogs may try to dominate a child because of a child’s small size.
Children should be taught basic safety habits around dogs, with parents and caregivers showing the way.
Be extra careful with toddlers
Toddlers are especially vulnerable because of their small size, and lack of understanding of risks and verbal instructions. Toddlers should be closely supervised at all times around dogs. A toddler should not be allowed to:
- be around dogs, including puppies, without adult supervision
- put their faces down to a dog’s face, hug or kiss it
- play with a dog’s food, feeding bowl, toys or bedding
- wander into neighbouring properties where there may be dogs.
Again, wouldn’t it just be easier to give children a guaranteed dog-free space in which to play?
The Dog Safety website also offers the following advice under the heading Getting Out of Danger:
Stop. Stand. Leave
The lowest-risk response to an aggressive dog is to ‘Stop. Stand. Leave.’ This is what you should teach your children.
- Be like a tree (or a statue).
- Stop what you’re doing.
- Stand still. Don’t kick at the dog, squeal, wave your arms around or jump. Look down at your feet or the dog’s feet (looking directly at the dog might be interpreted as a challenge). Keep your hands by your sides.
- Leave once the dog has calmed down. Slowly back away from the dog, and when there is enough distance between you and the dog, walk away slowly and calmly.
If you are confident that you can control the dog, you might try commanding the dog very firmly to ‘sit’, ‘down’, or ‘no’. Look directly at the dog to assert your control. If the dog does not respond to this or the situation escalates, revert to ‘Stop. Stand. Leave.’
I really struggle with this advice – I think it is totally unrealistic. I can guarantee you that, despite being pretty intelligent children, if either of my two three year olds was faced with an aggressive dog they would be highly unlikely to remember to stand still, not make any noise, not wave their arms around, not look at the terrifying dog, and stay calm and move quietly. They would scream their heads off and try to run to me as soon as possible – which is exactly the kind of behaviour that would make a dog attack more likely. And that’s the whole problem: small children and dogs are not a good mix. I’d even argue that it would be a rare child aged under ten that would have the presence of mind to remember that kind of advice when faced with an angry dog. I think I’d struggle myself!
Plunket touches on safety around dogs, but its advice is similar to that of the Dog Safety website, and links to that source. It advises teaching children to leave dogs alone, which is undoubtedly a good approach to take, but then reverts to the ‘drop like a stone’ or ‘stand still like a statue’ advice for a child under attack. It doesn’t discuss the feasibility of providing children with guaranteed dog-free play space, and I think that’s a serious omission.
I feel like dog lovers might be straining at the leash at this point, complaining that I’m blowing out of proportion the rare event of children being attacked by dogs. Unfortunately, dog attacks are not rare in New Zealand: the equivalent of more than 35 attacks take place each day – 12,937 people were attacked by dogs last year.
I’ll end this dog-related downer post with a nice photo of our lovely Tui, who we’ve never taken near a playground.
Join the campaign for safer play spaces for little Kiwis by liking Kiwi Play Safe on Facebook.