Dog attacks on children – Expert Reaction

Another dangerous dog attack has been reported in Australia this morning as a three-year-old boy in Newcastle was bitten while riding his bike. While the boy is in hospital, his injuries are not thought to be life-threatening.

With the serious mauling of a toddler and a ten-year-old girl by pet dogs in recent days, the Australian SMC has created a Q&A with several animal behaviour experts. Further resources are available for registered journalists on

Gisela Kaplan is Emeritus Professor in animal behaviour in the School of Science & Technology at the University of New England. She is also an Honorary Professor at the Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland and is the author of many books on cognition and behaviour in animals

“Nasty dogs aren’t born that way, they are made. While we have obedience training for puppies, the owners of dogs would also benefit from training. Unfortunately, many dog owners haven’t had the opportunity to learn about dog behaviour and how to read the social signals of dogs before they become aggressive. Dogs are social animals as complex as a six-to-ten year old child. It is important to understand the individual likes and dislikes of our dogs and understand what is likely to trigger aggressive behaviour. Any trauma experienced in the dog’s life can have a similar effect as trauma in children.

“People often buy dogs because they want a cuddly ‘toy’ and then don’t know how to treat them or train them properly. It’s a big commitment to own a dog and the larger and/or stronger the dog is, the more important training becomes.

“One problem that we currently face is that some people train their dogs to be guard dogs and then leave them alone to guard property. This is a bad idea because training a dog to guard property often involves the owner giving up their own ‘top dog’ position in the hierarchy. When this happens, the dog’s behaviour can become unpredictable and may even result in the dog attacking people they know.

“Any dog or human can behave badly. Just like with humans, aggressive dogs can usually be rehabilitated. It is possible to help them rather than kill them.”

Dr Jo Righetti is an animal behaviourist who conducts private consultations with pet owners and also helps educate pet owners and pet professionals in councils, universities and media. She has written a book ‘Dog Aggression Problems Solved’ and has a website ( addressing pet behaviour issues

“I am very saddened to learn of dog attacks on several people in our country. I am sad for the people involved and sad for the dogs. Dogs often feel they have no choice but to eventually use their teeth. People often claim that dogs attack unexpectedly, yet when we go back over the history of the incident, the dog has often been communicating their displeasure, fear or likely intentions for many days, weeks or months.”

Why do dogs attack children/people?

“Dogs attack for many reasons but we always have to remember that most dogs never attack. Common causes of dog bites include fear-based aggression, resource-guarding aggression and predatory aggression.

“With fear-based aggression, which would be the most common form of aggression that I see in private consults with dog owners, stressed dogs use their ‘fight or flight’ option. When they try flight but cannot get away, they turn to fight and so the fearful dog becomes the aggressive one.

“With predatory aggression, the dog may be stimulated to attack when they come across small children whose behaviour (movements noise etc) may be prey-like. All dogs and children should be supervised.”

Why do some dogs attack people they know well?

“Dogs that attack people they know may be placed in situations in which they feel they have no choice but to use their teeth. For instance, if they are food-guarders and a child approaches to take food away (many owners mistakenly believe that this is the way to teach a dog to accept human presence during meal times), the dog may bite to keep their food.

“Research shows that dogs that are punished by handlers may eventually retaliate with aggression. So, owners who forcefully handed their dog or even shout at their dog may eventually push their dog to react.”

What can be done to prevent such attacks?

“Prevention is the best ‘cure’ for dog attacks. This can begin when the dog is very young, with a careful, controlled process of socialisation – from three weeks onwards. Dogs need to be continually exposed to a variety of situations throughout their life, in positive ways.

“It is best that people learn to reward their dog for desired behaviour and manage all unwanted behaviours, including potentially dangerous behaviours.

“People, dog owners and non-dog owners, should ideally learn dog body language and be able to understand what a dog is trying to communicate to them.

“Dog owners should seek help when their dog becomes difficult to manage or they are unsure about their dog’s behavioural intentions or suspect that their dog may be showing aggressive or fearful behaviour.”

Are our pet dogs being sufficiently trained and would better training prevent attacks like this?

“Pet dogs are rarely sufficiently trained but we are lucky that they enjoy living with us, are very forgiving of our ‘mistakes’ in dealing with them, such as our inability to read their body language discomfort signals or our failure to get them away from potential stressful situations.

“People often fail to understand that putting their dog into the backyard to prevent them potentially interacting with children in a dangerous way in the home, may then contribute to territorial behaviour. Then, when the child enters the backyard, the dog feels threatened and may attack.

“Dog owners need to understand the importance and the correct procedure of socialisation when the dog is young so that the puppy grows into an adult dog which accepts all situations throughout their lives. Dog owners also need to seek help when they are unsure about their dog’s behaviour.”

Can further regulation of dog ownership help prevent such attacks on children?

“Our regulations vary from state to state. Even the most stringent rules and regulations cannot stop some dog attacks. Responsible people register their dog, try to understand their dog’s behaviour, manage their dog in potentially stressful or dangerous situations, and seek help when unsure or worried about dog behaviour. Those less responsible or aware may end up with a dog that bites. NSW has a Companion Animal Act but dogs still attack (some dogs are just not reading the rules!).

“While attacks like we have seen reported are terrible incidents that we never wish to see repeated, we always have to remember the wonderful canine companions that support humans by being guide dogs, assistance animals, even emotional support animals. Most dogs love being with humans and most humans love being with dogs.”

Professor Paul McGreevy is a veterinary behaviourist in the Sydney School of Veterinary Science at The University of Sydney. He is also a member of the RSPCA’s Scientific Advisory Panel.

Why do dogs attack children/people?
“The main triggers are resource-guarding and fear.”

Why do some dogs attack people they know well?
“The same triggers arise among groups of dogs that are familiar with one another, so we should not expect to be spared just because we are known to the dogs or because we think we know them. Dogs are good at keeping the peace by issuing signs of their being upset by a potential threat (to themselves, their resources and their puppies) and other dogs are generally good at responding to behavioural signs that warn of aggression. Sadly, humans often miss these signs.”

What can be done to prevent such attacks?
“Children should not be left unsupervised with dogs;
We must not treat dogs as if they are furry humans or playthings;
Resources, such as bones and toys, should not be left lying around where children play;
Children can be educated to avoid unwittingly challenging or threatening dogs;
To avoid a build-up in frustration, dogs need to be exercised at least once per day, preferably off the leash if they can be under effective control.”

Are our pet dogs being sufficiently trained and would better training prevent attacks like this?
“Dogs can be trained to relinquish resources but this requires expert guidance.”

Can further regulation of dog ownership help prevent such attacks on children?
“Current evidence from overseas is that this would be unlikely to have the desired effect.”

Dr Susan Hazel is Senior Lecturer in Animal Behaviour, Welfare & Ethics in the School of Animal & Veterinary Sciences at The University of Adelaide

Why do dogs attack children/people? 
“There is no single reason. It may be because they are scared of something, or that their predator drive kicks in, or that the dog was playing and did not mean to bite. If something is bothering a dog, an attack is usually the last resort for the dog and they will try other things first to dampen down the situation.”

What can be done to prevent such attacks? 
“There is no single intervention that will prevent all attacks. Education programs for young children and parents are important as young children are at higher risk of an attack. Appropriate socialisation and training of dogs is critically important. A lot of people don’t know how to recognise signs that a dog is stressed and may bite. Local councils do a lot of work in managing animals and regulations can help, e.g. managing dangerous dogs that have already attacked.”

Are our pet dogs being sufficiently trained and would better training prevent attacks like this? 
“Reducing the use of training methods that cause stress to dogs will help as there have been studies showing an association between use of positive punishment such as yelling, hitting and electric shock collars, and aggression in dogs.”

Can further regulation of dog ownership help prevent such attacks on children? 
“No – dogs are our most popular pet and provide many benefits to our society. Limiting dog ownership is not likely to help – education is key.”