Tagged Animal Behavior

Got a Pandemic Puppy? Learn How to Prevent Dog Bites

The Checkup

Got a Pandemic Puppy? Learn How to Prevent Dog Bites

With new puppies and kids at home, doctors are worried about treating more children for dog bites.

Credit…Manon Cezaro

  • Feb. 23, 2021, 2:33 p.m. ET

The surge in pet adoptions during the pandemic brought much-needed joy to many families, but doctors are worrying about a downside as well: more dog bites.

A commentary published in October in The Journal of Pediatrics noted an almost threefold increase in children with dog bites coming into the pediatric emergency room at Children’s Hospital Colorado after the stay-at-home order went into effect.

The lead author, Dr. Cinnamon Dixon, a medical officer in the Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said: “If someone were to tell me they were going to get a new dog during Covid, I would first and foremost want to make sure that family is prepared to have a new entity in their household, a new family member.”

Dr. Dixon said that as a pediatric emergency room doctor, taking care of children who get bitten had been a priority for her. Still, she said, from the stories she heard, she often felt “that dogs are victims in this as well.”

Brooke Goff, a partner in the personal-injury law firm the Goff Law Group in Hartford, Conn., said, “We’re definitely seeing a huge uptick in dog bite cases.”

Ms. Goff said that dog bites harm children in ways that go well beyond the physical damage. “It creates major emotional issues and PTSD,” she said. “If you’ve ever spoken to a dog bite victim as an adult that was bitten as a child, they are deathly afraid of dogs.”

Dog bites are “an underrepresented public health problem” in the United States, said Dr. Dixon, the daughter of a veterinarian who grew up around animals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s best estimates from old research put the number of dog bites at 4.5 million a year. There are over 300,000 nonfatal emergency department visits a year related to dog bites, and among children, the greatest incidence is in school age children, aged 5 to 9, but the most severe injuries are among infants and young children, presumably because they are less mobile, and lower to the ground, with their heads and faces closer to the dogs.

Dr. Robert McLoughlin, a general surgery resident at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, was the first author on a 2020 study of hospitalizations for pediatric dog bite injuries in the United States. He said that his research grew out of an interest in pediatric surgery and pediatric injury prevention. “I had seen a lot of cases of toddlers with head and neck injuries,” he said.

The study showed that younger children, ages 1 to 4 and 5 to 10, were much more likely to need hospitalization than those over 11. In the youngest children, most injuries are to the head and neck, and beyond the age of 6, extremity wounds (arms, legs, hands) become increasingly prevalent and predominate after the age of 11, Dr. McLoughlin said.

The bites that require hospitalization and surgical repair are the most serious injuries, such as toddlers bitten in the face and neck, where many critical structures can be damaged, including eyes and ears, and there can be devastating cosmetic damage done as well. But hand injuries can also have a very lasting impact and need expert repair.

For dog bite prevention, Dr. Dixon said, “the No. 1 strategy remains supervision.” Children should learn to leave dogs alone when they are eating, when they are sleeping with a favorite toy, when they are caring for their puppies. They should not reach out to unfamiliar dogs. And dog owners should keep their dogs healthy and should socialize and train them from an early age.

“It’s important we take responsibility for our animals,” said Ms. Goff, who has a dog named Daisy that she brings with her to the office. “Most dogs don’t bite to attack, they bite because they’re scared or provoked.”

Ms. Goff also emphasized that from the point of view of liability, anyone who owns a dog should have insurance coverage. In her state, Connecticut, a strict liability state, “I don’t have to prove anybody was at fault,” she said, and the dog owner is responsible for the damages. “If you can afford the dog, you can afford the insurance,” she said.

She said that it’s important as well that dog bites be reported because of the need to track dogs who bite multiple times, but reassured those who were worried that a dog might be destroyed that, at least in Connecticut, unless there is a catastrophic or fatal injury, “our forgiveness about animals extends quite heavily.”

When dogs do show aggressive behavior, Dr. Dixon said, owners should seek expert help from a veterinarian or “a behavioral expert in canine aggression — ideally before something bad happens.”

Dr. Judy Schaechter, a professor of pediatrics and public health at the University of Miami, said that given the increase in puppy buying during the Covid epidemic, “We’re now a year into this; puppies may be big, strong dogs at this point.” And with many parents juggling work from home with their children’s school issues, it can be difficult for them to supervise all the children (and pets) all the time.

Bites often occur, Dr. Schaechter said, “around playing and feeding behaviors.” Small children are particularly at risk, in part because they may be close to the dog’s food dish, or on the ground when food falls, and the dog may see the child as competition. “Any dog can bite, any breed can bite, and that can be horrific,” she said, but a medium or large dog, or a dog with a very strong jaw, “can quickly do a lot more damage.”

When Dr. Dixon saw children who had been bitten in the emergency room, “the most common story I would hear over and over,” she said, involved “resource guarding,” in which the child seemed to be encroaching on something that belonged to the dog. “The child was next to the dog’s food or had gone next to a dog’s toy or was playing with the dog and the dog jumped up and grabbed the arm instead of the bone,” she said.

Dr. McLoughlin sees opportunities for programs to address dog bite prevention, perhaps drawing lessons from programs that discuss “stranger danger.” It’s important to teach children not to approach strange dogs, he said, but also to help them interpret dogs’ behavior, “to identify when a dog is saying leave me alone, give me some space.” He is interested in the possibility of taking dogs into schools in order to educate children about dogs they may encounter outside their homes, but emphasized that parents should be teaching even very young children about how to approach a dog — including that they should always ask the owner first.

Dr. Schaechter pointed to research on the benefits of having a dog in the family, from the joys of companionship and the lessons children learn from caring for a pet to the medical evidence that children may be at lower risk of allergy and asthma if they are exposed early to animals. The bond between children and their pets is the substance of so many books and movies, Dr. Schaechter said. “It’s real — but don’t let that be so romantic that a child ends up being hurt or scarred.”

[Get the C.D.C.’s advice on dogs, the A.A.P.’s advice on dog bite prevention, and more tips from the American Veterinary Medical Association]

The People Who Got Puppies Were in Over Their Heads

Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

The People Who Got Puppies Were in Over Their Heads

Now professional dog trainers are all booked up. While you wait, they have some advice to share.

Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

  • Feb. 19, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Ann Becnel, a dog trainer in New Orleans, is busier than ever these days.

“I am getting so many requests for training that I can barely keep up,” said Ms. Becnel, who got into the business 35 years ago. “It’s overwhelming.”

April Chillari, the owner of Core Canine in Northern Virginia, is in a similar position. “Prior to the pandemic I would book up three to five weeks in advance,” she said. “Now I have a 10-week waiting list.”

Dog trainers are in high demand, thanks to a boom in adoptions from shelters and sales from breeders, spurred last spring by widespread work-from-home policies and profound social isolation. Approximately 12.6 million households took in pets between March and December, according to the American Pet Products Association.

In just the first month of the pandemic, Petfinder.com saw more than twice as many adoption inquiries as in the previous four weeks, and anyone who tried to foster a dog in the spring or summer knows how competitive it was.

Many new dog owners and foster caretakers have found that the pets complement their homebound lifestyles. Before the pandemic, they would have needed to hire daytime walkers or find pet-friendly workplaces. Under current circumstances, they are getting time to bond, and the dogs are helping to ensure that their humans get outside at least a few times a day.

Of course, the relationship is not always so symbiotic. Training a dog takes work — more work than most people expect. Which is why many of them are calling in the professionals for help.

Jesus San Miguel training Magglio, an English Mini Goldendoodle, at Canine Perspective, Inc., in Chicago.
Jesus San Miguel training Magglio, an English Mini Goldendoodle, at Canine Perspective, Inc., in Chicago.Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

Puppy Problems

Danene Brown and Darryl Powell thought adding a third dog to their home in Richmond, Va., would be easy; the first two were a cinch to train. But when the couple picked up Hopper, a French bulldog puppy, last February, that assumption was almost immediately challenged.

“The pandemic made it nearly impossible to socialize him,” said Ms. Brown, a physical therapist, and Hopper developed a “Napoleon complex.” “Any time that we would try to introduce him to another dog on a walk, he was aggressive and protective of us and didn’t know how to play well with others,” she said.

Ms. Brown and Mr. Powell met with Melanie Benware, a local trainer and the president of the International Association of Canine Professionals. “People are going out less,” Ms. Benware said, “therefore their dogs are not being exposed to as many people, dogs, sights and sounds.” She taught the couple how to train Hopper to respond calmly to other dogs. “He’s gotten better, but he’s still a work in progress,” Ms. Brown said.

The issue of limited social interaction is pervasive right now. “I find that my clients are struggling to find socialization opportunities for their puppies,” said Kim Roche, a dog trainer and behavioral consultant in Austin, Texas. “The length of a standard leash is exactly six feet, and this discourages Covid-cautious people from allowing their puppies to greet strangers in public places.” Ms. Benware recommends buying a 20-foot leash for this very purpose.

Other puppy-specific problems have emerged. “It’s difficult to pay attention to a Zoom meeting when there is a puppy trying to climb into one’s lap,” Ms. Roche said. She teaches puppies to retreat to a designated place on command — say, an exercise pen, a mat or a bed — where they can settle down with a toy.

Crate training is key, too, said Jesus San Miguel, the owner of Canine Perspective, Inc., in Chicago. “Owners are not utilizing a kennel, thinking since they’re home all the time it’s not needed, but it is critical to both the potty training process and for the puppy to have a safe space when left unattended,” he said.

Finally, it’s important to make sure puppies get enough sleep: 18 to 20 hours, according to Ms. Chillari. “Puppies get grumpier when they’re tired, just like children, and I think people assume the training isn’t working because the puppies really just need to sleep,” she said.

Socialization has been a particular pain point for new puppy parents.Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times
Trainers offer an environment where dogs can play together off-leash.Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

The Downside of All That Bonding Time

It’s not just puppies, though. Pets of all ages have become far more aware of their owners’ presence — and absence — these days. Mark Forrest Patrick, a dog trainer in Rochester, N.Y., said he’s seen a number of dogs who joined homes at the beginning of the pandemic and have since developed separation anxiety. They have become so attached to their owners that they show distress and anxiety when left alone.

“Because people are at home more, they’re not leaving their dogs alone, and dogs aren’t learning how to be independent,” Ms. Chillari said. “That’s a problem, because the reality is when life gets back to normal, you’re going to be spending time away from your dog, and your dog needs to learn that you aren’t going to be there all the time.”

There are steps that owners can take to address and even prevent separation anxiety. Ms. Roche, a trainer who specializes in separation anxiety, recommends gradual exposure therapy. “You don’t want to start off by leaving your puppy alone for two hours,” she said. “You could start with leaving your dog alone for 30 seconds, and then increase the interval based on how well your dog is doing.”

Monitoring the dog’s behavior during these times is crucial, Ms. Roche said, especially if one has already observed signs of separation anxiety. She suggests setting up a camera that feeds video to a smartphone app, the way modern baby monitors do.

“Owners are not utilizing a kennel, thinking since they’re home all the time it’s not needed, but it is critical,” Mr. San Miguel said.Credit…Evan Jenkins for The New York Times

Virtual Training

“My business has changed drastically,” Ms. Roche said. “I used to do a lot of group classes, and now I’ve discontinued those completely.”

Being able to train dogs over Zoom has enabled some trainers to expand their business. “It’s amazing that I now have clients in California, Florida and Kansas City, who just found me online,” said Mr. Patrick, who is also the board chair for the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.

Virtual training sessions often cost less than in-person training. For example, Mr. Patrick charges $85 for a one-hour virtual training session and $105 for a one-hour in-home training session. “Some of my clients are two hours away, so the price difference covers my commute time and gas expenses,” Mr. Patrick said.

Ms. Chillari also charges less for virtual training, but she said she prefers doing in-person sessions. “When I meet with dog owners, I teach them how to make adjustments to their behavior, and that’s harder to do over Zoom,” she said.

Many dog trainers have resumed in-person sessions but have modified their routines. Some offer no-contact training, where they give the dog owners instructions while wearing masks and staying six feet apart — allowing owners to take a more hands-on role in training their pet.

That’s how Melissa and Drew Herman trained Nash, their 4-year-old, 70-pound Aussimo (an Australian cattle dog and American Eskimo mix), when the couple met last April with Mr. San Miguel in Chicago. “Nash had broken my husband’s shoulder when he yanked hard on his leash while on a walk,” said Ms. Herman, an executive assistant at a management consulting firm in Chicago.

In a six-week obedience training course with Mr. San Miguel, Nash learned how to walk calmly on a leash and follow basic commands. “It’s changed our lives,” Ms. Herman said. “We can even let Nash off his leash when we’re at the dog park, and other owners have complimented us on how well trained he is.”