Dog Attacks and Children

By Matt Lalande in Dog Attacks on April 15, 2022

Dog Attacks and Children

Dog bite injuries in Canada are a significant public health problem and unfortunately, many are sustained by children. Dog attack injuries can be complex, both physically and psychologically, and in some cases, even fatal.

There are roughly 800,000 reported cases of dog attacks on people every year in North America, and about half of these cases are instances of dogs attacking children, including dog attacks involving a family’s own pet dog, as well as dog attacks from unknown dogs. Other predominant factors concerning dog attacks are whether dogs are unrestrained; children’s unsupervised access to areas with restrained or unrestrained dogs; owned, known dogs; and residential location.

Our Hamilton, Ontario dog bite lawyers can say that after practicing dog attack law for narly 20 years that one thing is for sure: any dog can bite – big or small, male or female, young or old. Even the cuddliest, fuzziest, sweetest pet can bite or attack a child if provoked – which can result in terrible physical and psychological damage to kids who are involved in these tragedies, not to mention the impact it has on their families. 

Are kids attacked by dogs more than adults?

The first question to ask is – are kids attacked by dogs more than adults? The answer, based on our research and experience as dog bit lawyers is maybe – due to their smaller size and stature. The American Veterinary Medical Association tells us that children are the most common victims of dog bites and are far more likely to be severely injured and, unfortunately, when dogs are competitive, territorial, or exhibit self-defense aggression, children are typically not handled more delicately or given more leniency by dogs. Some experts say that dogs don’t see “harmlessness” in children that are equal to or larger than them in size.

Why do dogs attack – and why do dogs attack kids?

Territorial Aggression : Like other animals, dogs are naturally territorial animals who feel the need to protect. They may seek out a physical area – a front yard, a section of the park, a corner of a street – and consider it as their own space, or territory which needs to be guarded. A dog’s territory can also extend to its property, which is particularly relevant in the case of pets who may have been provided with a dog house, chew toys, or bowls for food and water. 

Just as we would feel defensive if a stranger walked into our homes unannounced and uninvited, dogs can become agitated, anxious or angry if it detects a challenge to their territory, which can come in  Dogs may attack kids who they feel are entering their territory or taking their possessions without being granted permission. A new friend visiting the home may be bitten or attacked by a dog who isn’t familiar with the child’s scent and is nervous because of the presence of a new human in his territory (the home). Even kids within the household can be attacked by their own pet dog if the kids reach for the dog’s food while it is feeding, and the dog interprets it as someone trying to steal the food, or take the dog’s property. This type of territorial aggression is known as known possession aggression or  “resource guarding”

In most cases, territorial aggressive displays by dogs can range from growling and barking to lunging, chasing, snapping and biting. 

Unrestrained Dogs: Experts say that often times, dog attacks are unprovoked, frequently occur with a dog that is familiar to the child, and also with dogs that are unrestrained. Unrestrained means off leash or harness, either on or off property. Unrestrained and wandering dogs can be unpredictable – even if the dog is known to the child.

In Hamilton, under the Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw the only places a dog can be off-leash are in someone’s backyard or private property such as a farm. It is an offence to let a dog roam without a leash, which can cost a dog owner a very hefty fine.

Shocks and surprises: Just as a human would physically move or respond verbally when surprised, a dog can be provoked into attack when it is feeling anxious or surprised, for any number of reasons: 

  • Playing a prank on a dog 
  • Loud thunderstorms and frightening sounding weather (hail, hurricanes, etc)
  • Fireworks, blaring music
  • Household accidents (dropping a plate or objects crashing to the floor)
  • Sudden noise and movement (from children)

These kinds of surprising situations can make a dog nervous and anxious, which can lead to an attack on a child who is the source of the shock or one who happens to be in the area. Attacks as a result of shocks and surprises may have nothing to do with the kid and may be simply a result of the dog feeling threatened or nervous. 

Loneliness and separation: There’s a lot of support, both from academic research and from pet owners’ testimony, that seems to support the concept that dogs do form emotional attachments to their owners. Over time, there are clear signs that dogs express recognition and can express emotions like happiness, sadness and excitement. 

As a result of this emotional formation, dogs who become “lonely” after being separated from their owners for extended periods of time can express their sadness and frustration by becoming more aggressive. Kids of the family can be attacked by a dog who is overly relieved to be reunited with the family, and stranger children can be attacked by a confused dog who is upset at being separated from its owners. 

Physical contact: Dogs can be trained very early on by their owners to understand what is considered safe physical contact, such as a pet on the head or rub on the side. Without this understanding and training, however, a dog can react negatively to the anticipation of being touched or when being touched. This is called “touch sensitivity”. When this happens, a dog may growl, snarl, flinch or show other defensive behaviors.

Physical discomfort: Dogs who are not comfortable are more likely to attack both kids and adults alike. This can include dogs who are sick and have internal discomfort, dogs who are sleepy, or dogs who are hungry and thirsty. Interacting or being around a dog when it is not comfortable can result in the dog lashing out and attacking someone if something happens to trigger a reaction from the dog. 

Fear Aggression: Many, if not most dogs, bite out of fear aggression. Fear Aggression is when either puppies or adult dogs react aggressively to frightening events. Fear aggression is often caused by poor socialization and dogs who may not have had appropriate or adequate exposure to kids or other dogs and to common experiences in their environment such as loud noise, different kinds of people (including kids), and other simple things like car rides – and unfortunately may become fearful in these types of situations. 

Fear aggression is a problem that can get worse over time. Owners may not fully recognize the early warning signs of fear aggression, and because of this, their dog’s behavior can intensify if the “scary thing” or experience is still around. Punishing your dog with harsh physical or verbal reprimands in most cases will not work – and could actually make the behavior worse. If dogs are punished for expressing more subtle signs, such as growling, the growling may stop – but in turn, escalate to a more serious behavior such as biting.

What dogs are the biggest threat, and who is at the most risk?

Studies throughout North America have shown year after year that statistically, pitbulls and rottweilers (who are mostly family dogs) have been noted to be the biggest threat to both adults and children.

One reported study has shown that from 2005 to 2019, family dogs inflicted 54% of all fatal attacks. 65% were inflicted by pit bulls. Of the 346 fatal pit bull attacks during the period, over half, 53%, involved killing a family member.

In another 15 year long study, it was reported that pit bulls killed 380 Americans, a rate over 7 times higher than the next closest breed, rottweilers, with 51 deaths.

In 2020, it was reported that 79% of adults killed by dogs involved pit bulls (22 of 28). Of adult male deaths (≥ 25 years old), 92% were killed by pit bulls.

In another study, entitled “Dog-Bite Injuries to the Craniofacial Region: An Epidemiologic and Pattern-of-Injury Review at a Level 1 Trauma Center” reported 182 patients over a 10-year period from a Level 1 trauma center in the Southeast found that pit bulls inflicted more complex wounds compared with other dog breeds. The authors found that the probability of a bite resulting in a complex wound was over 4.4 times higher for pit bulls compared with the other top-biting breeds … and the odds of an off-property attack by a pit bull was 2.7 times greater – than any other breed.

In terms of who is at the most risk – and what age – younger children (under the age of 6) are usually victims of dog attacks . This can include aggressively petting the dog, taking the dog’s toys or food, or attempting to climb on a dog that isn’t familiar with this action before. Older children were more likely attacked by unfamiliar dogs that they encountered outside the home; researchers suspect that these attacks and usually a case of the dog feeling that they were invading the dog’s territory. 

According to the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Ga., there are approximately 800,000 dog attacks each year that require medical attention. Broken down, this translates to 2,400 dog attacks every day, 100 each hour or one dog attack every 36 seconds across the USA. Even more terrifying is that more than 50 percent of all dog bite victims are children, with 70 percent of the children being under the age of 5 years.

Dog Attack Injuries

In our experience as dog attack lawyers in Hamilton, children attacked by dogs are mainly inflicted through biting, although smaller children can also experience other physical injuries. In one pubmed study entitled “Dog bite injuries in children” it was reported that the head and neck was involved in greater than 67% of all dog attacks. It was also noted that pit bulls caused 25% of bite injuries, require 66% of these victims to require operative intervention. In total, the study reported 44 procedures involving the head and neck, 21 involving extremities, and 6 involving other areas of the body. More importantly, all children 5 years of age and under had suffered sehead and neck injuries.

Puncture Wounds, Lacerations and Cuts: The “bite and rip” motion of a dog bite is extremely common during dog attacks. Puncture and lacerations can bleed profusely, Since many dog attacks on kids will result in injury around the face, cuts to the eyes can occur as well, which can cause eye injuries and issues with visions in the future. Puncture wounds and bites to the hand and forearm are extremely common in pediatric dog attacks because of children trying to defend themselves. Although bites are usually minor, aggressive dogs or larger may cause extensive bites on smaller kids which could result in extremely serious injuries including lacerations of the skin, muscle, and tendons as well as fractures, arterial and nerve injuries, and traumatic amputations of fingers.

Puncture wounds to the face, head and neck are also extremely common. In one very recent 2018 study in the Craniomaxillofacial Trauma Reconstruction Journal entitled “Dog Bite Injuries in the Head and Neck Region: A 20-Year Review” it was noted that out of all the dog bite victims studied from 1998 to 2018, most victims who sustained dog bite injuries in the head and neck region seem to be children, specifically toddlers. They noted that due to their height, it is possible they are more prone to dog bite injuries in the head and neck region. The most common areas of serious injury were to the upper lip, lower lip, nose, cheek, chin, eyelids, forehead, scalp, neck, ear, and occipital regions.

Nerve damage: The cutting action of a dog bite can result in traumatic nerve damage around the area of the attack, particularly in the face, arms and leg areas. Nerves can typically be damaged by being crushed, stretched or severed.  Traumatic nerve damage can cause a dog bite victim of child to experience pain, feelings of burning sensation, paresthesia, tingling or in some cases, the total loss of sensation in the part of the body affected by the damaged nerve.

Internal injuries: A dog’s bite can cause serious internal injuries as it rips through a child’s body. Punctured lungs, torn internal organs, and internal bleeding can result from a dog’s attack and can require serious medical attention. 

  • Broken bones: Although the dog’s sharp teeth and claws are worth paying close attention to, it cannot be understated how powerful a dog’s bite can be. Depending on the species, a dog’s bite can fracture or break a bone, particularly in the case of kids, whose bones may not have fully formed and hardened. 
  • Infection: Rabies vaccinations are required for pet owners but it’s still important to ensure that your child hasn’t been infected with rabies in the case of a dog attack. Rabies can cause fever, headaches, pain and can develop into much more serious symptoms, including having hallucinations. Even if the majority of dogs in Canada are presumed to be vaccinated against rabies, it’s very difficult to recover from rabies once symptoms begin to show. 

Psychological and mental health effects of dog attacks

A victim of a dog attack can be left shaken and scarred for life, both literally and figuratively. The extreme physical pain, connected with the vision of an animal rushing to attack the child can result in a number of psychological effects that can arise as a result:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Violent dog attacks or being exposed to a dog mauling can no doubt be associated with risk of posttraumatic stress disorder, which is a stressful mental condition that causes them to repeatedly remember the incident in their minds. Having PTSD can mean that they’re unable to focus, can affect their sleep and have an impact on their social relationships. 

Symptoms of pediatric PTSD after a dog attack can manifest themselves into issues as excessive anxiety, irritability, decreased school performance, sleep disturbance, reduced creativity, withdrawal, altered appetite, depression, physical complaints, pronounced startle responses, and behavior problems.

Kids may also become fearful when around other dogs, or even when seeing other dogs from a distance or on television. They may also become nervous when leaving the house, experience separation anxiety or depressive symptoms – all of which are forseeable reactions to having been attacked, bitten or have witnessed a dog attack.

Situational anxiety or phobia: Kids might feel anxious or be unwilling to go to the area where the attack happened. They may express nervousness or even develop a phobia about being in areas where there are dogs or animals in general. This has the potential to even extend to experiencing anxiety about even seeing an image or impression of dogs. 

Best practices to teach kids about dog attacks

  1. Ask for permission before petting a dog: Not only is this polite and good to practice in general, but a dog’s owner is the best judge of the dog’s current behaviour and condition and should know whether the dog is safe for an unknown child to pet. 
  2. Teach kids to be careful around pets: For younger children, this can be as simple as advising them to avoid animals outside the house in general. For children who are older and have a natural fascination with animals, teaching them to recognize the signs of an aggressive or disturbed dog can help them understand when a dog might be safe to pet or play with, and what sort of dog to avoid. 
  3. Teach kids defensive tactics: In the event that they are involved in a dog attack, teach kids what they should know to do, such as to move slowly, stay calm, don’t attack the dog, find defensive tools to use (like a bag or stick to protect yourself) and protect your face and head.

Dog Attack Laws in Ontario

Our Hamilton, Ontario dog bite and dog attack lawyers are extremely familiar with Ontario’s dog attack laws and how they apply to dog owners and injured dog attack victims. In Ontario, under a law called the Dog Owners’ Liability Act, dog owners are strictly liable for any damages result from bite or attack by the dog. The law was introduced to protect victims of dog bites and dog attacks in Ontario.

Prior to the Dog Owners’ Liability Act, dog owners who had incidents of dog bites and attacks were charged and convicted of criminal negligence and criminal negligence causing bodily harm.

The Dog Owners’ Liability Act makes an owner, whether in physical possession or control of a dog, strictly liable. In other words, the injured person does not need to prove the owner was negligent or had knowledge of the dog’s propensity to bite.

When a lawsuit against a dog owner is commenced, the dog owner’s home insurance, if acquired, will normally respond to any dog bite claims made by an injured party.

Liability of Ontario Dog Owners

Liability, set out in s.2 of the Dog Owners’ Liability Act, states that the owner of a dog is liable for damage which results from a bite or an attack by the dog on another person or domestic animal. Where there is more than one dog owner of a dog, the owners will be held liable jointly and severally liable.

According to the Dog Owners’ Liability Act, an owner includes a person who possesses or harbours the dog. If the owner is a minor, then the person responsible for the custody of the minor is also deemed an owner.

A dog owner is not necessarily defined as the person who literally owns the dog. The Ontario Court of Appeal discussed the definition of possession in Wilk v. Arbour,  and held that the term “owner” includes someone who is in physical possession on control of the dog immediately preceding an attack or bite.

If you have any questions about the liability of a dog attack your child was involved in, call our Ontario dog bit lawyers for more information. We are based in Hamilton, but we serve dog attack victims and their families all throughour Southern Ontario.

Duties of Ontario dog owners

The owner of a dog has a duty to exercise reasonable precautions to prevent the dog from biting or attacking a person or a domestic animal. The owner also has a duty to ensure the dog does not behave in a manner that would pose the animal as a menace to the safety of a person or other domestic animal (Dog Owners’ Liability Act, s. 5.1)

What is the “pitbull” law in Ontario?

All pit bulls (including breeds that look like them) have been banned in Ontario since 2005. No one is allowed to own or breed a pitbull, import or train a pitbull.

The Dog Owners’ Liability Act does not call out or distinguish between different breeds of dogs, except for pit bulls. In fact, the courts apply stricter rules against pit bulls. A pit bull is defined in the Dog Owners’ Liability Act as:

  • a pit bull terrier;
  • a Staffordshire bull terrier;
  • an American Staffordshire terrier;
  • an American pit bull terrier; and
  • a dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar to those of dogs referred to in any of the clauses above.

In fact, when it is alleged that a pit bull is involved in a case, the onus of proving that the dog was not a pit bull lies on the owner of the dog (Dog Owners’ Liability Act, s. 4(10)). The reason why the courts are stricter with cases involving pit bulls is because pit bulls are banned in accordance with the Dog Owners’ Liability Act.

Compensation in Dog Attack Cases

If you or a loved one has been attacked or bitten by a dog in Ontario, it is important that you speak to our personal injury lawyers to learn your rights and what compensation you may be entitled to. The type of compensation in a dog attack case will vary from case to case, depending on the nature and extent of the injuries suffered by the victim.

Generally, however, like many other personal injury claims, a dog bite/attack victim can seek compensation for pain and suffering, the loss of ability to enjoy standard life amenities, and for the personal inconvenience.

You can also claim special damages, like medical costs or a subrogated Ontario Health Insurance Plan (“OHIP”) claim (if you are hurt in Ontario and pursue a claim, you need to pay OHIP back for your medical care – this is part of your claim – for reimbursement) and out of pocket expenses such as medication. However, the amount awarded can drastically vary based on the facts of the case.

The range of a compensation for a dog bite or attack will depend on the severity of the injury. For example, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, in a case called Moretto v. Nicolini-Femia, awarded the plaintiff $45,000 USD in general damages ($5,000 USD of which was for psychological injuries). The plaintiff had suffered a bite to her cheek requiring sutures, tetanus shot, and 2 years of steroid injection. She was also left with noticeable scarring on her face resulting in self-esteem issues.

A victim parent can also claim past wage losses if he or she missed work as a direct result of the injuries to his or her child – as well as a range of out-of-pocket and other economic and non-economic compensation.

Have you or your loved one suffered injuries in a dog attack?

Unfortunately, dog attacks on children continue to be an extremely common event, despite the many rules and regulations established in Ontario to protect them.

In our experience, dog bites to Ontario children still remain common, and often serious or even lethal. Learning how to live in a community alongside dogs safely is the first step towards avoiding this sort of injury, but dog owners have the ultimate responsibility of managing their dogs and ensuring that they do not attack people. If your child has been attacked and injured by a dog, contact Matt Lalande immediately to learn how to receive the financial compensation both your child and you deserve.

Our dog bite lawyers have been representing dog attack victims since 2003, and are passionate about protecting people, particularly children from vicious animal attacks. Call us today no matter where you are in Ontario at 1-844-LALANDE or local in the Burlington/ Hamilton / Niagara areas at 905-333-8888 today. Alternatively, you can send us a private email through our website. We would be more than happy to help evaluate your case – for free – and answer ANY questions you may have.

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