Friday, May 22, 2009

Dog Safety

It's National Dog Bite Prevention Week, and so I thought I'd post an article that I wrote some time ago about keeping kids and dog's safe.

“I have the greatest dog in the world; my 2 year old son can lie on top of her, pull her tail or grab her lips and she’s just fine!”

As a dog trainer and Humane Educator, I shudder when I hear stories like this. While a dog like that is amazing and good for a family of small children, I find a number of problems with these stories.

First of all – most likely the dog isn’t fine with it all of the time. She may be giving off subtle communication missed by Mom such as lip licking, whale eye (where the whites of the dog’s eye show), yawning, or even freezing. These are examples of signals given off when dogs are uncomfortable or stressed. Someday she may stop giving off these subtle signals and simply bite the child out of self-defense.

Just because the dog puts up with it doesn’t mean that she should have to. This mother would most likely not allow the child to behave this way with another human. (Substitute the word “grandma” for “dog” in the first sentence of this article!) So why should the dog have to put up with harassment?

What is this child learning about interacting with dogs? Children assume that because they can behave in a particular way with one dog, it means they can behave the same with another. And this child will eventually meet a different dog who may be less tolerant of his actions.

I give dog safety programs to children of all ages, but it is not enough. Children need to hear the message many times before they really start to change their behavior. Parents are in the best position to educate their children about interacting with dogs.

A lot of what I teach children in my presentation is respect. If you don’t like something, then most likely your dog won’t either. Below is a summary of some of the things I discuss when educating children:

While people hug out of friendship, a dog walking up to another dog and throwing his paw over the back of the second dog is far from friendly. That is a status seeking gesture which can result in a dog fight!

Our dogs put up with our hugs because we have a relationship with them. And although I hug my dogs regularly, it would be rude on my part to do that to a dog that wasn’t mine, and it would also be dangerous. If the dog didn’t like it I could get bit in the face.

Unfortunately this is a very difficult message to teach children. Many times I’ll no sooner tell the children not to hug my dog, when they come up and do exactly that. Hugging is a natural behavior for humans, and especially for children. This is something that a parent will repeatedly need to remind their children not to do with dogs.

Some dogs will guard their food bowls, chew toys, or even random items from humans by growling, snapping or even biting. Children should leave dogs alone when they are eating or chewing, and call an adult if the dog has something in his mouth he shouldn’t.

Sometimes dogs don’t want interaction with children. Children should allow the dog to initiate interactions. If the dog doesn’t come out, children should respect him and not chase after him.

Many times kids think that only large, scary looking dogs will bite. But ANY dog will bite – even small and cute dogs, if he is afraid or is guarding something.

Dogs are predators, and children who are running and screaming can cause a dog to kick into predator mode. Some dogs can become over-excited and rambunctious and some can become dangerous. If in doubt, put the dog away from the kids when they are running and screaming.

And here are some things that parents should know about their responsibilities when it comes to dogs and children:
Small children need to be constantly supervised. If you aren’t in the room, then the dog and child should not be together – no matter how wonderful your dog is.

Just because the dog is safe around your kids doesn’t mean he’s safe with all kids. Dogs come to learn the behavior of kids living in their home and know what to expect. Visiting children may behave in a different way, or the dog may be less tolerant of behavior by strangers. Make sure visiting children and your dog are always supervised. If you can’t supervise, put the dog someplace away from the children.

There’s a reason reality TV shows with professional dog trainers have disclaimers. These methods may not be safe for someone without a training background. If you are having problems with child-canine interactions, don’t attempt to solve this yourself. You’ll have a better and safer outcome if you seek out a professional who can come up with a training program specifically tailored for you and your family.

For more information about children and dog interactions, I highly recommend the book “Living with Kids and Dogs…Without Losing Your Mind” by Colleen Pelar, CPDT.

Final note…Having your kids grow up with a family dog is priceless. There is so much to learn about love, responsibility, and respect when living with the canine variety. The way you interact and treat your dog is absorbed like a sponge by your children, just like anything else you do in front of them. Observing signs of canine frustration and learning when fido needs a break from the action will undoubtedly help ensure everyone stays BFF. (If you don’t know what that means…ask your kids.)

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