When Michele Godlevski heard about the two incidents of dogs killing children in the Triangle, she felt empathy for the families who’d lost children. But she was also curious about the circumstances leading up to the incidents.
Last week, Johnston County Animal Control seized two rottweilers after they killed an 11-month-old girl. In April, two pit bull mixes killed a 7-year-old girl and injured her mother in Garner.
Godlevski is the founder of Raleigh dog training service Teamworks Dog Training and a certified behavior consultant. She said that while some dogs are bred for certain tasks, their individual experiences, learned behavior and their environment also determine how dangerous they are.
“You can’t just say a rottweiler is this or that,” she said.
More than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States, with more than 800,000 getting medical attention, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At least half of those bitten are children, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
When dogs injure people, it is often because they have poor “bite inhibition,” Godlevski said. Good bite inhibition lets dogs know how hard to bite to not hurt anyone.
Socializing puppies helps them develop good bite inhibition, Godlevski said. “They play with each other with their mouths and determine how to control their jaws,” she said.
Dogs often show signs of being irritated before they attack, Godlevski said. “Sometimes dogs tolerate our behavior, but they aren’t really fine,” she said. “Every dog has a breaking point.”
Godlevski advised parents to look at a dog’s eyes, ears and tail to see if it is enjoying a hug from a child.
Educating children is also very important. She has written a book called “Dogs Have Feelings Too” that shows dogs and children experiencing different emotions. It helps children determine whether or not a dog wants to be petted.
Godlevski said parents should set zones to make sure the dogs and babies don’t cross paths, especially when a dog is eating. Not doing this sets both the dogs and the babies or children up for failure, she said.
Spaying and neutering dogs can make then less likely to bite, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The ASPCA recommends never leaving a child under 10 alone with a dog.
Teaching children dog safety
Angel Wasserman, the owner of dog training service Paws in Training also said teaching children how to interact with dogs is essential.
“We have to teach our kids when to engage with animals, when not to engage with animals,” she said. “That is something that is really lacking in our community.”
She believes children should be taught safe interaction with animals in school because parents don’t always have the knowledge.
“Dogs give a lot of very early warnings, but if you don’t know what to look for, that can easily be missed,” she said.
Here are tips from the veterinary medical association on when to avoid petting a dog.
- If the dog is not with its owner
- If the dog is with its owner but the owner does not give permission to pet the dog
- If the dog is on the other side of a fence — don’t reach through or over a fence to pet a dog
- If a dog is sleeping or eating
- If a dog is sick or injured
- If a dog is resting with her puppies or seems very protective of her puppies and anxious about your presence
- If a dog is playing with a toy
- If a dog is growling or barking
- If a dog appears to be hiding or seeking time alone
Wasserman recommends private training for children and dogs. The American Humane Society also has resources to help educate children at http://americanhumane.org.