Education promotes safety in children’s interactions with dogs: a pediatric emergency physician’s perspective

by Donna K. Wren, M.D., FAAP
Arlington Town Meeting Member (Pct 10)

During the debate at Town Meeting over Article 28, which addressed off-leash times at parks in Arlington, many issues were discussed. However, one of the issues which did not get discussed at length was safety. Many people stated emphatically that they didn’t want dogs off leash because it would be a safety hazard to other park users. But no one mentioned appropriate ways to make everyone safer. As a pediatric emergency medicine physician, I have seen my share of children with animal bites, mostly from dogs. In the 12 1/2 years of my experience I do not recall ever treating a child who had sustained a bite from a dog while out in a park or other outdoor recreational setting. My experience has been that children are primarily bitten by their own dog and usually there is some provocation: touching the dog’s food, teasing the dog, or otherwise startling the dog.

I decided to see if medical research supported my observations so I reviewed as many studies as I could find evaluating dog bites with regard to statistics of location, familiarity with the dog, and prevention. By and large, my observations were supported by the literature. Children make up 60% of all dog bite victims. The peak age to be bitten is between 5 and 9 years of age and boys are more likely than girls to be bitten. In every article, it was found that most bites occur on the dog’s property ranging from 58% to 70% of all bites. Between 77% to 91% of all bite victims (of all ages) knew the dog; most often it was the victim’s dog.

The most striking finding in all these studies was that dog safety education was instrumental in reducing the risk of bites. Education was the single most effective way to prevent injury. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports educational programs teaching dog safety to children in the schools, in the community, in the doctor’s office, and in the home. Teaching children makes sense as they are statistically most likely to be bitten, but teaching adults, parents, dog owners, and the entire community is best. Even a single short session has been shown to improve safety and decrease risk.

I applaud the efforts of the Green Dog Committee to find a solution to the needs of everyone in the community regarding dogs. It must be stressed that any community program requires education of all members of the community. It would be ideal to have this message available in many different places in our lives: in all the schools, including preschools; in the parks when the Friends of the various parks hold community events; at Town Day; public service announcements on the local access channel; perhaps even a safety video that could be checked out of the library. Parents should consider it something their children need to know, on the same level of importance as traffic, water, fire, stranger, and bike safety. Our family does not have a dog but we encounter dogs in the parks frequently. We use every encounter as a chance to teach our 2 children how to behave and be safe.

As with so many other parts of our lives, education is the key to prevention and reduction of risk. I hope that a community safety education component can be included in the Green Dog Committee’s future plans.

6 thoughts on “Education promotes safety in children’s interactions with dogs: a pediatric emergency physician’s perspective

  1. Thank you to Dr. Wren for her insightful comments about the low risk of unfortunate park encounters between dogs and children, as well as the benefits of educating children to behave safely around dogs they encounter in their daily life–especially their own dogs.

    A-DOG will sponsor a bite-prevention workshop for children in the near future provided by the Middlesex County Sherrif’s Office and its trained canine, Archie the Bloodhound. We welcome parents and other adults concerned about this issue to work with us on the logistics of the workshop.

    In the meantime, excellent educational material is available from the American Kennel Club via that organization’s Safety Education Program for Children at

  2. Thanks for the info, we have a dog who loves children and is even clamer around them than with other dogs. I have two two-year old cousins who roam free with the dog and the dog even looks out for them like they’re pups. This is certanly important and due evidence in getting some more rights to be off leash.

  3. I have to disagree with Wren’s article; unleashed dogs are a public safety hazard. Take a look at the June 17 police log as reported by the Arlington Advocate:

    “At 7:03 p.m. a 23-year-old man told police he’d been attacked by a rottweiler while walking on Massachusetts Avenue in East Arlington. The victim saw the rottweiler coming at him out of a driveway and went to put him, but the dog lunged for him and bit him on the cheek. The homeowner said two men brought the dog with them to look at possibly buying a trailer for sale in his driveway. The animal control officer will follow up.”

    For public safety, please leash your dog.

  4. Anecdotal misfortunes do not undo what the validated public health statistics tell us: people are at greater risk from a leashed dog than from an unleashed one–and even then, the risk is relatively small. You have a greater chance of being struck by a car in Arlington than you do of being bitten by an unleashed Rottweiler. And not to blame the victim, but no one–adult or child–should ever reach to pet (which is what I assume is meant by “put”) a strange dog. So I must disagree that this incident changes anything about the basic premise of Dr. Wren’s helpful post.

  5. I was set apon by not one but two unleased dogs receantly while trying to enter robbins farm. I have lived in arlington since age 5 and i am now 50. I have several injuries caused by this attack. The dogs came with teeth beared and prevented my exit by blocking my route out of the park. The human reaction by the owners took some time to take place. I agree that any statistic can be made to favor ones arguement as we all know. All people should feel safe and not have to fear unleased dogs anywhere in our community. As a dog owner I have the responsibility to keep my dog on a leash and respect other peoples person space when walking my dogs in the outside world. we all need to be more sensitive with our owner responsability and obey the law , even if we disagree with it. please make yourself aware of the laws and consiquences of your actions. Thanking you for your time.

  6. To Mary… it sounds like you had quite a traumatic experience. I think it’s fair to say that any dogs who would come at a person with “teeth bared” should not be taken out in public, leashed or unleashed, and responsible dog owners would not have done so. If, indeed, you suffered several injuries from this encounter by which, I assume, you mean you were bitten, then I hope it was reported so that the Animal Control Officer could investigate. Stories such as this support the notion of defining off-leash hours and locations, so that people who are afraid of off-leash dogs will have times when they can enjoy a park without fear. Such stories also argue for more, not fewer, opportunities for owners to socialize their dogs, not only to other dogs, but to unfamiliar people of various ages. As many other communities have come to accept, continuing to impose unreasonable restrictions on dogs and dog owners is not the solution. Well-socialized and properly exercised dogs, and responsible, aware dog owners, are an asset to a community. This brings us back to Dr. Wren’s original post, about the power of education in promoting positive canine-human interactions.

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