Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Animal Safety

I'm full swing for education this time of year. April and May are when all of the scouts want to schedule tours, when schools hold their "High Interest Day" or "Try It Day", and when teachers ask me to come in and do presentations for their students.

One of the presentations I do annually for the first graders of Lake Country Elementary School in Hartland is an animal safety program. This is actually a timely program to do at the end of the school year -- Waukesha County Humane Officers tell me that the incidence of dog bites goes up when summer vacation first begins. Dogs are used to the peace and quiet they get most days when the kids are in school, and the tend to be less tolerant when the kids are home more (the parents tell me they feel the same way!)

When I first took the job of Humane Educator 5 years ago I did research and did my presentations based on the animal safety material that is out there. The trend seems to be based on two things -- "May I Please Pet Your Dog" in which children are instructed to ask before they pet someone else's dog, and "Be a Tree" -- which instructs children to stay still, look away from the dog, and be quiet in case they encounter a stray dog.

I do use "May I Please Pet Your Dog". Kids are many times not aware that some dogs will be less than thrilled by their love, and it's another way of instilling polite behavior.

However, over a period of years I started to question the "Be a Tree" portion of the program. According to the website Dog Bite Law run by attorney Kenneth Phillips who is widely recognized as the nation's leading authority on dog bite law, "the vast majority of biting dogs (77%) belong to the victim's family or a friend."

Additionally, I started to notice when talking to kids who had been bitten by a dog that none of them had ever been bitten by a stray dog. The dog was almost always their own dog, or a dog that belonged to someone they knew.

As an educator I know that there is only a small amount of information that will be retained after I'm gone. I decided to focus on the information that was more relevant to keeping kids safe with dogs that they know.

My current presentation includes information about signals that animals give when they want to be left alone, times when children should leave animals alone (when eating, sleeping, chewing on a toy, etc.), and having respect for an animal who is running away from you - animals like their space too!

I also emphasize that dogs DO NOT like to be hugged. This is something that most adults don't know, and something that is very natural for children to do when they are feeling affectionate. Many children get bit in the fact when they go to hug a dog who really doesn't understand it's a friendly gesture. (For more information about this and other canine emotions read Patricia McConnell's book "For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend".) When one dog places his paw over the back of another dog it's actually a status seeking behavior -- and so some dogs may not appreciate a child seeking higher status. Many dogs also do not like to be restrained -- and that's what's going on during a hug!

Mystic an I had fun the last two days at Lake Country Elementary School. The teachers were amazed at how well behaved and calm he was in the school -- especially in the hallway as most of the children were on their way to lunch. And the kids just loved him -- as you can see by the photos.

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