Dr. Nichol’s Blog – Children & When the Dog Bites

Kindness – on everybody’s part – is a key ingredient.

In my work I see life lessons on the power of kindness every day. A few months ago a little girl and her big scared dog were students and they were teachers. The story of Buster the boxer, and the little girl who loves him, will have meaning for anyone who cherishes dogs and values kindness.

Long before the arrival of their daughter, Shelly and Bill adopted Buster as a puppy right after they moved-in together. Buster went everywhere with his pet parents. They were an excellent family of 3.

Then little Amber came along. When Amber was just one year old she got mobile and just thrilled in her mission of hugging Buster. Buster, frightened and wary of this rampaging little giggler, had no idea what he should do. Mostly, he tried to escape. One sad day Amber cornered him and he bit this little angel – on the face.

Her panicked parents called urgent care and jumped in the car. When they arrived the doctor was called out immediately. Looking carefully at Amber’s sweet and smiling face he asked, “So, where’s the wound?” There wasn’t a mark anywhere on the child.

Bill and Shelly’s next move was to schedule an appointment with me. They were really shaken up when I met them.

I could feel the tension between them. They really loved their dog – but- they had a real live human child now. Shelly was almost resolute that Buster may not be able to stay. Bill’s ambivalence was intense and painful. He was badly torn.

I’m a parent too. The urge to protect our children is intense. My folks felt that way when their young son, the future veterinarian, took one in the face at about the same age.

As I gathered the details in the consultation room I kept my eye on Buster and Amber. That delightful little girl just wanted to play with her canine sibling. Buster wagged his tail every time he looked at her. But if Amber crawled too close his ears went back, he nervously licked his lips, and he looked away. The two young parents would tense-up and pull on Buster’s leash. Amber and I were the only relaxed creatures in the room.

It was just a week before when Buster was dozing on the living room floor and his number 1 fan, Amber, crawled right for him. When she rammed into Buster he was startled. He needed distance but he was trapped against the couch, in a corner of the room. As he fidgeted and scanned for an escape route little Amber just flopped all over him. She was so delighted that she squealed while she pounded Buster’s torso with her little fists, and then jumped on his tummy.

With nowhere to go, and this unpredictable pint-sized scary creature whomping on him, Buster freaked-out

He jumped up, growled, and poked that child’s face with his nose. Then he hopped over her and ran for his crate.

I explained to Amber’s nervous parents how wigged-out Buster was when their daughter flaunted the rules of canine social engagement. Buster never meant to hurt Amber. He just needed to get free. But fear isn’t always harmless. Panic can go very bad. That little girl’s safety was the number one priority for all of us.

Going forward Buster needed reliability and he needed kindness. He’d made a mistake. Until Amber becomes a predictable human, the family dog should be on a leash, tethered to an adult anytime that wild child was on the loose. Whenever the two of them couldn’t be supervised Buster would hang out on the other side of a baby gate.

Amber could approach to interact with her pal. Buster might choose to be right with her or he could retreat, gulp some air, and relax.

The big lesson for these folks was that everybody has the right to safety. Amber’s parents never realized that Buster could be so easily frightened. He can freak out, even with a little girl; someone he loves but doesn’t fully understand.

When Amber gets bigger she can invite Buster to interact-always with Mom or Dad right there. Her first words can be, “Buster, Come!” As she rewards her subordinate with a snack Buster will learn that Amber isn’t a scary monster at all, but a purveyor of food. They can learn kindness from each other.

The health of Shelly and Bill’s relationship also mattered. Their tension dissipated as they saw the value of the new structure. They’re relaxed now and can show their daughter how to be kind to others who are different. Good Buster is now fitting in well.

Kindness sounds like a benign virtue but it’s powerful. It can lay the foundation for the more difficult task of forgiveness. Kindness toward those who are close to us enables healing and growth. This matters because well-loved but badly behaved pets put a stress on everyone in the home. If the human feelings can shift from blame to kindness, good things happen for everybody.

This family is better, their dog has improved, and my faith in the power of kindness got another growth spurt.

Kindness is versatile; you can enjoy anywhere. In fact, you don’t even need a dog to practice it.

I hope you’ve found this information on dogs helpful. And I invite you to share it with your pet loving friends. If their dogs react badly to surprises or freak-out and snap, they’ll be glad to learn from this story.


Each week I make a short video or podcast or write a blog to help bring out the best in dogs and cats. Sign up at no charge on my website, drjeffnichol.com, and I’ll also send you my At-Home Emergency First Aid and CPR guide for pets. Thanks for listening. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.