Why dogs are not your child’s best friend - Macleans.ca

Why dogs are not your child’s best friend

A tragic death in Quebec is a cold reminder that dogs are animals, always capable of attack

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Keri Leary/GETTY IMAGES

The tragic death of a 21-day-old girl in Saint-Barnabé-Sud, Que., last week puts a lens on a little-discussed issue in a culture that views dogs as family members and delights in YouTube videos of babies frolicking with protective St. Bernards: that these beloved animals are increasingly biting and attacking—most often the hand that feeds them.

Animal behaviourists shudder over the scant public details known of the Quebec case. The newborn had been strapped into a car seat placed on the floor and left unattended while two Siberian huskies, a male and a female, ran free. A third husky was found by police in a cage with her puppies. The baby’s 17-year-old mother, who was outside of the house when the attack occurred, was charged with manslaughter and will appear in juvenile court on Aug. 31.

As a minor, she cannot be identified. Police say the baby had been left unsupervised for at least 20 minutes; her lawyer, André Williams, says it was no more than five. Crown prosecutor Caroline Fontaine told reporters the charge stemmed from the mother’s alleged failure to provide “the necessities of life” to her child, a statement that gives rise to many questions, among them: does leaving a child alone with a dog constitute a failure to provide for a baby? Or is this situation a special case due to the mother’s age and socio-economic standing?

She and the baby’s 19-year-old father had lived in the house with two other families, one of which owns the dogs, for less than a week. No complaints had been registered against the animals, Williams told Maclean’s. The baby’s father told media they were gentle: “Strangers could approach them and they wouldn’t even bark.”

But dog behaviourists point out that bringing a newborn into a household alters the dynamic, particularly when the dogs are not trained. “The smell of a baby is different; its movements can make a dog uncomfortable,” says Kelowna, B.C.-based dog trainer Brad Pattison, the host of the TV show At the End of My Leash. Dogs taught boundaries can take on a nurturing disposition when a baby arrives, he says, though risk increases if there’s more than one dog. In 2008, a two-month-old baby in Tulsa, Okla., left in a windup swing was killed by one of the family’s two dogs—a black Lab puppy—while his 17-year-old mother, who wasn’t charged, slept in the next room.

Dogs often attack out of jealousy or to protect perceived territory, Pattison says. A woman he knows was bitten by her dog while breastfeeding: “The dog had been allowed on the bed for the duration of her life.”

The Quebec case has focused attention on Siberian huskies, known to kill newborns in similar circumstances. Pattison calls such canine profiling “breedist”: “Every breed is capable of attacking because they are an animal first and foremost,” he says. “We underestimate the power of a 16-lb. dog.”

The unnamed baby is one of three children killed in Canada this year by canines. In February, a 10-year-old boy was mauled by a pack of dogs in northern Saskatchewan; in March, a four-year-old boy was killed by sled dogs in the Baffin Island hamlet of Pangnirtung, Nunavut. Though dog owners are legally liable for their animals’ actions, no charges were laid in either case. Most attacks in Canada occur in rural areas or native reserves, says Colleen Lynn, founder of Dogsbite.org, a blog that tracks dog bites.

Children, unsurprisingly, are the most vulnerable. A June 2008 Canadian Veterinary Journal study found that of the 28 people who died of dog attacks between 1990 and 2008 in Canada, more than 85 per cent were under age 10. A survey of non-fatal dog bites to children by the Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program found 17,474 injuries between 1990 and 2003, most among children aged five to nine. Some 70 per cent of dog-bite victims know the dog; a quarter live in the same house, reports the Canadian Safety Council.

Such attacks are destined to increase, Pattison believes, given the “fur kid” phenomenon that sees owners treat dogs like children themselves. “People dress them up, they feed them human food in high chairs, they sleep with them, they’re pushing them in strollers,” he says. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

The numbers are already rising. Hospitalizations for dog bites in Britain have increased by 40 per cent in the past four years—to almost 5,000 people a year. A Toronto Humane Society study found that dog bites in Ontario rose to 4,819 in 2009 from 4,381 in 2003, even after the 2003 pit bull ban.

“Bites are extremely common and not taken seriously enough,” says Enid Stiles, a Montreal veterinary behaviourist, who says many are oblivious to the risks: “I wouldn’t leave my child with someone I don’t know and I wouldn’t leave my dog with my child unattended,” she says.

It’s wise if unrealistic to say you should never leave a child alone with a dog, says Pattison. “But everybody I know who owns a dog and has children has run upstairs to change the laundry or take the garbage out.” That five minutes can bring heartbreak: last year, a two-week-old baby was mauled to death by a chow-mix in Arizona. No charges were laid against her mother, a policewoman who was in the bathroom.

A major attitudinal shift is needed, says Pattison: “People need to be aware dogs are not your best friend.” But that’s not the message of a heartwarming YouTube video showing a newborn sharing a blanket with a Siberian husky imitating the baby’s wails. As of this week, it had nearly half a million views.