Crisis Control

My Dog Just Bit My Kid — What Should I Do? (You Know, Besides Panic)

We asked both a pediatric emergency physician and a certified dog behavior consultant for advice on handling this scary scenario.

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We've all seen the melt-your-heart cute videos on social media of dogs and babies snuggled up together in perfect harmony. While that's the dream for all dog-owning moms, if parenting teaches you anything, it's that the unexpected can happen at any moment — which, unfortunately, includes nightmare scenarios you didn't see coming. And the beloved family pup biting your child certainly falls into the latter category. It can be challenging to think straight in such an emotionally charged moment. Is your child OK, first and foremost? But also, is your dog OK? What brought on this uncharacteristic and alarming behavior? It's a lot. So, although no parent really wants to imagine a dog-bite situation taking place in their home, a little proactive research can help you keep your cool if it does happen.

Because, sadly, it's heart-wrenching but all too common. Scary Mommy spoke to both a pediatric emergency physician and a certified dog behaviorist so that if you ever find your family in this situation, you'll know just how to proceed.

My dog just bit my kid... now what?

Your first step as a parent is to separate your child and dog. While your emotions may likely take over, try to do this as calmly as possible. How you handle your dog will depend on the scenario. If it was a quick bite, remove your child, and don't try to punish your dog. Bring the dog into another room or place them in their crate. Of course, if it's a more violent situation, do whatever it takes to get your child away from the dog. K9 of Mine outlines several reliable techniques for breaking up a dog fight that you can similarly use to get your dog away from your child. Try spraying your dog with water, using a loud noise to distract them, or throwing a jacket or blanket over the dog's head.

Do I need to take my kid to the hospital?

Immediately after the bite, irrigate the wound by running water over it with as much pressure as possible and apply compression to the bleeding. Then, try to assess the injury. Dr. Christina Johns, a pediatric emergency physician, advises parents that if there is any bit of doubt that the wound will need medical treatment, it's better to seek it sooner rather than later.

There are two types of wounds: a puncture wound (caused by the dog's two large canine teeth) and a macerated ripping of the skin. "Sometimes, those puncture wounds can belie a deeper injury," Johns notes. If there is any question that the wound is more than "a nothing bite," take your child to pediatric urgent care or an ER — preferably a children's ER department if you happen to live by one. Johns shares that data shows children have better outcomes when seen by pediatric-specific providers.

What will happen once my child sees the doctor?

Johns breaks down the four criteria that the doctors will use to assess your child's bite:

  1. Size
  2. Location
  3. Depth
  4. Vaccination status of the dog

The bite will again be irrigated in the medical setting. While most parents may assume their child will then get stitches, this isn't always the case. Doctors will often make a loose approximation of the edges. "The reason we don't sew it in tight [is] even with vigorous irrigation, germs can be located inside the wound from that bite that can cause infection. We want to leave a little bit of open space that if that tissue becomes infected, it can drain easily," Johns says.

However, if the wound has a potential for cosmetic damages, for example, if the bite is on your child's face, they may stitch it up with a tighter or closer approximation. In these situations, Johns says it's important to note, "There's a real risk/benefit consideration to be had there because of the higher percentage of these wounds that get infected."

After the doctor finishes dressing the wound, prophylactic oral antibiotics will likely be prescribed. Johns shares that she has a "very low threshold" to start antibiotics because she'd rather do a short course of antibiotics than deal with a potential infection.

Parents should expect to be returning soon, as the doctor should want to closely follow up on the injury. Johns takes a look 48-72 hours after all dog bites to monitor for infection.

What happens if the dog hasn't been vaccinated for rabies?

The hope is that most dog owners understand the importance of having their dogs up to date on all shots. If it's your dog, you'd know well if its rabies shots are current. But maybe you've just taken the dog in, or perhaps it isn't even your dog who bit your child. In those scenarios where you don't know the dog's rabies vaccination status (or know they aren't vaccinated against rabies), doctors must take more cautious measures.

Doctors are required to report any dog bites to animal control. Together, animal control and your doctor will discuss if it makes sense to initiate the rabies vaccination series on your child. Typically, animal control will visit the home to access the dog. If the dog has not been vaccinated, stringent measures will be put into place (it varies by jurisdiction, but most times, a dog will have to be quarantined for a certain amount of time).

If the vaccination is administered, your child will need five shots over the month, as well as rabies immune globulin (antibodies that fight against rabies), which is given half at the site of the bite and half as an intramuscular shot.

So, if unsure, this is your sign to check your dog's vaccination status now.

What do we do about our dog now that they've bitten someone?

This is an extremely sensitive topic, and there are a lot of considerations for a family to take moving forward. Certified dog behavior consultant Kayla Fratt says parents should start with two questions:

  • What happened in that situation?
  • How bad was it?

Take into account how severe the bite was. Many trainers use scales to assess the bite, the most popular ones being the Dr. Sophia Yen scale and Dr. Ian Dunbar one. Using these scales, you can better evaluate how dangerous the dog is, if at all.

Why did my dog bite my child?

There are a series of factors to look at and questions to ask, which Fratt broke down for us. By looking at all these factors, parents can decide if the dog stays and possibly gets some training — or if the dog stays and the family has a bit more management of the dog and child to prevent the situation from happening again. In extreme cases, the dog may need to be rehomed or potentially euthanized (a very gut-wrenching and contentious situation that hopefully doesn't need to be addressed).

  • Provocation is a big component of your assessment. Little fingers getting into crates, tails being pulled, food being taken from the dog… you get it. In these situations, it is easy to see what caused the dog to react, which can ultimately lessen the concern that the dog is dangerous.
  • You should also consider the dog's history. Is your dog usually an amiable, friendly pup? Or does he have a history of anxiety?
  • Another question to ask is, how controllable is the environment? For example, if the dog has an issue with toddlers, is the family planning to have more children? Are the kids a bit older and able to understand certain behaviors to avoid?
  • Lastly, what is the size of your dog? The larger the dog, the greater likelihood they can cause a more severe injury.

There are a lot of considerations here, and Fratt recommends that if you have the resources, you should consider working with a professional dog trainer. They can help you figure out how to manage your dog's behavior going forward and some more basic training that your pup may need. For example, if your dog is not crate-trained, this may be a good solution as a future safety measure.

How do I find the right dog trainer?

If you find your dog has some aggression issues, look to work with a certified dog behavior consultant, certified through IAABC (not just any old dog trainer). As part of their training, they must demonstrate they have worked with dogs with bite histories.

"You also want to work with dog trainers that are Humane Hierarchy-based. One of the things we really don't want is trainers out there who can achieve what looks like results by basically slapping a shock collar on a dog and shocking the dog until the dog has decided that it's not worth it to bite anymore. And that can really backfire because they have learned that being near kids leads to them getting shocked," Fratt explains.

Is there anything parents can do to prevent dog bites from occurring?

Of course, nothing is 100% guaranteed, but parents can do their best to prevent these situations. Closely supervise toddlers and babies when they are around your dog. Certain situations are common bite triggers, so familiarizing yourself with what they are and how to prevent them is valuable information.

The first category is when the child provokes the dog, as previously mentioned: tail pulling, riding the dog, using the dog to pull themselves up, etc. Secondly, space invasion. These are moments when your child may do things like get in your dog's food bowls or crates, or try to remove their toys from the dog's mouth. Lastly, exciting times when there are lots of kids or people around, high-energy moments, and overstimulation could lead to accidental bites.

There are also a host of things expecting parents can do to prepare their dog for a new family member. Knowing your dog's current personality and weaknesses (i.e., does he jump up on you whenever you arrive home?), you can focus on some pre-baby training.

Fratt suggests getting your dog used to the new baby devices and toys that may end up all over your place. Introduce your pup to the bouncy seats and practice wearing a carrier with something in it. Practice walking them alongside the stroller if your dog happens to pull when on their leash. "A lot of bites happen because people feel guilty about putting their dog behind a gate because their dog isn't happy behind it," says Fratt. "We want to focus on helping the dog feel comfortable and relaxed with that, so the dog doesn't have to feel left out."

A little proactivity on your part can go a long way toward preventing dog bites in the future.