During our visit to the breeder, my daughter (8) was lightly bitten in the face by the mother dog (a certified Golden Retriever). It happened very unexpectedly; the dog had previously shown herself to be very friendly. The lip bled a bit, and there were long, superficial scratches on the nose. My daughter is brave, but the parents are somewhat frightened and unsettled by the injury to their child before their eyes and the experience of losing control.

What is the correct responsible behavior for the parents? The daughter is very keen on having a dog, but the parents have learned that dogs can be unpredictable. Is this part of the "residual risk" that comes with having a dog?

  • Good question! Just curious, though, is this the only experience you've had with dogs, or the only bad one? (And it's a very bad one, so your caution is warranted.) Does some prior experience of dogs inform your opinion as well? E.g. did you have a dog as a child/have relatives with dogs/other? Does that matter? Commented Jul 8 at 15:34
  • @akron it is worth checking on pets.SE for similar questions too - approach it from another viewpoint.
    – Criggie
    Commented Jul 10 at 1:01

5 Answers 5


What is the correct responsible behavior for the parents?

The correct responsible behavior for the parents is to protect the child, as is always the case with young children. People do get dogs with their children in mind, but the parents themselves need to want a dog as well, because they are the people who will be ultimately responsible for everything dog-related. So first, wait. If, in time, you as parents want a dog, then look for a puppy.

Doctors approach some problems with what they call "tincture of time", i.e. wait a while before doing anything. There's no rush in getting a puppy. It sounds like the parents need more time and reassurance than the daughter, which is reasonable. Take all the time you need; your child should not be in the position of making the decision to get a dog.

My second thought on reading this question is please consider going to another breeder. As a retired ER doc who treated many dog bites, and a former responsible dog breeder (of Border Collies, not well known for being affectionate; they'd rather be working!), I advise having high expectations when it comes to the temperament of the parent dogs. Short of backing it into a corner and making threatening movements towards it, there's no reason a Golden Retriever should bite a child without warning and provocation.1

If the dog has a good temperament, it moves away from a threat (like an unfamiliar kid might present). A dog with a good temperament and who/which is socialized properly should not be protective of it's puppies by biting, either.2 This is the reason a buyer should meet both parents (the mother/dam and the father/sire, both) and assess for any - any - aggression. If either dog shows aggressive behavior, walk away from the deal. Aggression can be due to poor socialization, but it is also often passed down genetically. An aggressive parent is a risk factor for an aggressive puppy.

Once the decision to get a dog has been made, meet with some dogs who are known from experience to be good with small children. Do you have friends who are parents and who have good dogs? Ask for a bit of their time as guests. Ask questions. The more different dogs you meet as a family who are good to her, the better you will know dog ownership is for you as a family, and the more familiar with the responsibilities you will be.

1. A common joke is that when a burglar breaks into a house with a Golden Retriever, the first thing the dog will do is present the burglar with a toy to throw for it, they are that friendly and people oriented. In reality, the vast majority will just bark. But they really are very people oriented.

<2. A well socialized dam with a good temperament should not be protective of her puppies [edited to add: ...being handled. If a puppy objects to being handled normally by a child, don't choose that puppy. If the puppy is not objecting, and the mother bites, there's something wrong with the mother.] If children are rough with her puppies, she may put herself between the child and the puppies, and look to her owner for clues on how to behave. If the children continue to be rough with the puppies, growling a warning is to be expected. A warning is just that, warning of the next step: a bite. A bite without any kind of precursor is a giant red flag.

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    I appreciate the check mark, but I think there are better answers here than mine. I posted mostly from the point of view of a breeder with advice about picking a dog. Commented Jul 8 at 16:17
  • Good answer. Do you happen to have one or more quality references for "An aggressive parent is a risk factor for an aggressive puppy."? Commented Jul 10 at 11:00
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    @EndAntisemiticHate - Tons, tons. I don't ref. for-profit sites as sources, even good certified canine behaviorists', but they shouldn't be ignored. This paper presented at a vetmed conference, under Puppy Selection states: "While solid parent temperament is not a guarantee of the pup’s eventual personality, problem behaviors in the parents should be red flags to potential new puppy owners." This is not news, but not breeding a problem parent is potential money lost to unethical breeders. So, problem traits persist. Commented Jul 10 at 14:25
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    OT: Ideally the only reason(s) to breed dogs is because the parent(s) is exceptional, breeder loves the breed, and they want to improve it by adding more dogs of high quality to the population. This isn't "just [my] opinion". Ask a good vet. If breeders only select for color, conformation, or profit, they're not "good" breeders, no matter their price. Doing so is why so many dogs have serious genetic problems shortening their lives. In a breed kind of known for seizures, I had to return a puppy w/ a SD. The breeder kept the dog (good) and bred it as an adult. (!!!) Commented Jul 10 at 20:00
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    Yes, some breeders clearly put profits over ethics, which is so sad. The animals suffer. The people suffer. The breed suffers. Thank you for the reference. What is the source of the quote in the second comment you wrote to me? I would like to read the entire paper, and likely some of the papers in its bibliography. Commented Jul 10 at 22:28

It sounds like you don't want the dog, and that's a perfectly reasonable thing. While I've no clue about dog ownership from a parent's perspective, when I was a kid, my parents gave every possible reason not to and critically - its a responsibility. I'm no expert but generally its uncommon for a dog to bite someone in the face 'slightly'. Its just as likely she (the dog) got overexcited, tried to face lick, and well, missed.

I feel like its worth considering if you're ready for a dog - and if you're willing to put in the patience, learning and effort into adopting what's essentially a new family member.

I got bitten on the foot by my late dog when he was a pup, and I took it as well, he's a puppy. I've got bitten at least twice saving him from fights by other dogs, till I taught him to run away on command. And don't forget, your dog will pass one day, and that'll hurt more than any bite.

This is very much part of dog ownership. Its a puppy, you need to socialise it, teach it boundaries, and well love it.

Pet ownership is responsibility - for your actions and that of your dog. How did the breeder react to what happen? How did the dog act? These are important things.

From the perspective of the parents

the parents are somewhat frightened and unsettled by the injury to their child before their eyes and the experience of losing control.

This is reasonable. Its also worth considering the good things, the memories and experiences, the opportunities for your child to learn, and well have a best friend who does not judge.

So really I'd wonder if the parents are willing to have a dog, or if they're trying to let down the child softly and find reasons to.

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    I agree that generally its uncommon for a dog to bite someone in the face 'slightly'. But there's a world of difference between a dog that's overexcited and licking/accidentally wounding a child, and a dog that actually bit a child without provocation. Almost any observer should be able to tell the difference. The former is replete with body wiggling, licking, and often little squeals of excitement; the latter is not. In my (somewhat limited) experience, a bite is usually preceded by a series of warnings, like a stiff body, a look, a curl of the lip, a growl. Overall, though, great answer! Commented Jul 8 at 15:08
  • Yeah, there's insufficient context here - but I get the impression the parents are unfamiliar with dogs. The daughter sounds oddly chill about the whole thing and we don't know her perspective of it. Commented Jul 8 at 15:36
  • This is such a good answer that I hesitated to leave a comment; I really don't want to detract from it. More context would definitely be helpful. Commented Jul 8 at 15:38
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    I have seen a dog give a slight (it broke the skin in two places and resulted in bruising) but 100% unmistakably aggressive bite so it seems possible to me. Also possible the dog was aiming for a more severe bite but missed. I wouldn’t write off the bite without strong evidence that a bite was not intended.
    – bob
    Commented Jul 9 at 19:34
  • Also dogs are pretty smart and are social creatures so if it intended to give a face bite, that has extremely serious implications for the temperament of the dog in question unless there’s way more to the story than was included in the question. A face bite can obviously cause massive damage and I can’t imagine a dog wouldn’t understand that on some level if even as something instinctual it learned from its litter mates as it learned bite inhibition.
    – bob
    Commented Jul 9 at 20:39

There are many breeders, and many Golden Retrievers, and there is no reason to buy the puppies of a dog who bit your daughter. That may be unfair to these puppies, but that’s tough luck.

Whatever breed you want, at least read up in the internet. Some have much more energy and need much more time from you than others. Some large ones will cause no problems, others must know who is the boss and that it is you, or you will have problems forever. Some can handle small children, some can’t. Some are more robust and can cope with a slightly rough child, others can’t.

Before getting a dog, you must be sure that your daughter understands that a dog is not a toy, and that a dog is a big responsibility. A puppy is there for the next 10-15 years.

PS A Golden Retriever is usually 27-35 kg, so a reasonably strong dog, big enough to handle any child. Good with children, and very friendly. Except some are not, and that seems genetic, so you don’t want this dog’s puppies.


A dog is a wonderful experience and a great "bonder" in the family, but it's also a lot of work and requires serious commitment. Proper training and very consistent behavior from ALL family members from day 1 is super important. The best thing you can do is to create a plan and stick with it. Dogs need (and love) consistency, even more so than children :-)

If none of you has previous experiences with living with a dog (either as an owner or as family member or room mate of an owner), you will need to learn a lot yourself and you should be prepared to do so. There is plenty of good learning material and I suggest reading or watching some of it. You can also "ease in" to ownership. Take a friend's dog for the weekend, go to your local dog pound and offer dog walking services (which they often desperately need). Relate what you have learned to the actual behavior you observe until you think you have the hang out of it.

my daughter (8) was lightly bitten in the face by the mother dog

That's very unusual especially for a retriever. It depends a bit on how your daughter felt about it. If she is still excited to get a dog that's really a good sign. This event is an example why training (the dog and yourself) is so important. Almost all dogs will let you know that they are unhappy with something before they become aggressive and a lot has to go wrong before they actually bite. It's quite likely that the dog told you to back off and you and/or your daughter just didn't understand it. Maybe you got too close to a puppy without the mother's permission or the dog just wanted to play. It may be useful to get the breeder's feedback of the incident.

the parents have learned that dogs can be unpredictable.

Wrong lesson: Most dogs are very predictable IF YOU KNOW HOW TO READ THEM. Which, I guess, in this case, you didn't.

(a certified Golden Retriever).

Certification has nothing to do with whether a dog is a good fit for your family or not. It's all in the personality of the specific dog.

That's another benefit of walking dogs from a shelter for a while. You can interact with a bunch of different dogs and see what you like and what not. Maybe you click with a dog and you meet your perfect pooch there (we did).

Is this part of the "residual risk" that comes with having a dog?

There is a residual risk in everything you do. Driving a car, going to swim lesson, riding a bike, etc. The same goes for dogs. Dogs biting a family member is really quite rare, but there are other things that often go wrong with dogs : they might get into a fight with other dogs and accidentally bite you if you try to break up the fight, they run across the street, they will chew and scratch up your stuff, make the occasional mess, etc.

The daughter is very keen on having a dog,

If that's the only reason then this may not be enough. If you and your partner aren't genuinely excited (at least a little) about having a dog in the house, this could quickly turn into resentment and frustration. A dog IS a lot of work and a lot of the work (and money) will come from you despite your daughter's best efforts.

We got our first dog (who has a wonderful dog for us) from a dog pound. A family had gotten her as a puppy since the "kids wanted a dog". However, they quickly found out they were in over their heads and than dumped her at the shelter (where we found her). Don't be that family. Make sure you are fully prepared and committed to doing this.

There is no perfect answer here. A dog is a fairly high risk/reward proposition: it will make you and your daughter very happy but sometimes it will make you also stressed, frustrated, and sad.

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    "...a lot has to go wrong before they actually bite." Oh, how I wish... While most dogs are "good" dogs, some dogs are only good with their family, and one should never trust a dog to give you a clear warning before it bites. The best approach is to look for signs of tension before getting within range of a dog and keep looking as you interact with it. While they usually do warn, it's far from rare that a dog bites a stranger, especially a small one with a face at eye level, without sufficient warning. Commented Jul 8 at 15:54
  • @anongoodnurse Badly trained/socialized dogs bite. That being said, I have met very few dog owners who train/socialize their dogs properly. So I agree with you that you should always be wary of dogs you don't know. It isn't hard to tell that is badly trained if you are around dogs a lot. But most people aren't. As a side note, Chihuahua owners are the worst in this regard, with most chihuahuas being so badly trained/socialized that they would be dangerous if they weren't puntable.
    – Questor
    Commented Jul 8 at 17:40
  • @Questor - Badly trained/socialized dogs bite, agreed. That many dogs are poorly socialized, agreed there as well. But those aren't the only factors at play; generations of people who didn't know how to train dogs have had "good dogs" (my farmer grandfather had great shepherd dogs - great with us little kids and with cows - and I doubt he "socialized" them the way we think of now.) Just as with the nature vs. nurture debate in humans (it's both), the same is true of dogs. Socialization might, but doesn't always, trump bad genetics. Ask a canine behaviorist. Commented Jul 8 at 18:10
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    I’ve seen a dog go from friendly, enjoying a belly rub, to biting (for no clear reason) and then only after biting did it growl or show any negative body language (I’ve been dog owner most of my adult life so I’m reasonably well versed in dog body language). So yes normally a dog won’t bite without warning but it does happen.
    – bob
    Commented Jul 9 at 19:37
  • For example, a chow chow is problematic. It will never, ever hurt is family. But if you have a chow chow that you didn’t have from puppy age, it’s very likely he doesn’t accept you and your children as family.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jul 10 at 11:00

It is always a good idea to contact a trainer prior to purchase of a dog if you are not a dog expert yourself for several reasons:

  • A trainer can come with you to the breeder and have a look at the parents of the puppy and the puppy itself to check if this specific dog is a good fit for you
  • You can learn how to structure your day and home in preparation of a puppy to have the best start together
  • You already know who to contact for help regarding training

Especially the first point is something I would suggest to you personally. Biting is not typical behaviour of the Golden Retriever breed. A trainer can help you assess the situation you had and find out if your daughter might have shown behaviour the mother dog found inappropriate (in that case the trainer can help understand the behaviour to prevent it in the future), or if maybe the mother dog is unusually aggressive for her breed (in that case the trainer might advise against puppies of this mother altogether). When you are uncertain how to handle the situation, get professional help to guide you in your decision. And please be aware that dogs have teeth and some are more prone to using them when they feel uncomfortable than others, which might especially happen with kids who don't know how to behave politely (from a dogs perspective) around dogs.

Statistics about dog-bites

  • The Humane Society estimates 51% of dog bite victims are children.
  • Children between the ages of 5 and 9 are most likely to be bitten by a dog.
  • [...]
  • In cases where the circumstance surrounding the bite are documented, more than 50% of child dog bite cases involved the animal being provoked.
  • The majority of dog attacks (61%) happen at home or in a familiar place.


  • get your potential puppy checked by a professional trainer if it is a good fit for you,
  • learn yourself and educate your child in how to behave around dogs and how to read dog body language (e.g. by watching video courses and video analyses of dog behaviour or by a course from your trainer)
  • and as long as you cannot trust your child to be respectful around the dog never leave them alone together.
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    I disagree with the need for a trainer to help pick a dog. If someone is so clueless as to need a trainer to begin with, they haven't done enough homework to even begin looking for any dog. Once they have the puppy, by all means, get a trainer or enroll the dog in puppy classes ASAP. Commented Jul 8 at 15:13
  • Well yes, there are people that are good in judging dogs who don't need to bring a trainer. However getting in a situation where your child is bitten indicates op might be better off with some professionell objective second opinion. From my own experience in training a assistant dog from a breeder, I would take a trainer with me for any other second dog I would seriously think about adopting as there are just some things most people don't see when in a puppy haze.
    – Lehue
    Commented Jul 8 at 16:18
  • Your point with assistance dogs is very well taken. Of all the pups I've known about, only one has been accepted to continue training by professional organizations, and a top trainer (better yet, a behaviorist) would be very valuable in picking those puppies. But an "everyday" family pet doesn't need to master what an assistance dog does, and trainers cost $$$. Amen to adopting!!! Puppies are basically irresistible creatures, and regret often follows impulsive actions. Commented Jul 8 at 18:21

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