Friday, September 7, 2012

Parents: Is Your Child Really Safe Around Your Dog?

In this article you will learn some dog bite prevention information that you probably
have never heard of before. Did you know that dogs often yawn, not because they are bored or tired, but because they are tolerating a situation that they consider to be unpleasant? Here you will learn how to assess the emotional state of a dog and decide whether the dog is likely to be receptive or annoyed by the attentions of a child. This is important, since in most dog bite instances the biter is a family pet or a dog belonging to a friend, neighbor or babysitter. Normally the children of the family would consider it to be safe to go up and pet the dog while he is sitting looking out the window at a cat on the fence. They would not be breaking any of the safety rules children are generally taught to follow, however, in this case it is not safe to approach the dog. The dog is focussed on the cat and in this state of arousal is not interested in being petted by children. A dog in this frame of mind may snap if approached. In order to prevent these types of bites, children and parents need to learn how to assess the emotional state of the dog and determine whether the dog is safe for a child to approach.

Happy Dogs are Safer

Dogs cannot talk to us with words, but they are highly skilled in the use of body language. Some signals that dogs send are very obvious in their meaning. For example a dog showing his teeth with raised hackles is clearly indicating that he will not tolerate the attentions of a child. A dog that turns his head away or gets up and walks away is asking to be left alone. Other signals are subtler, or are quite obvious, but most people do not know how to interpret them. Happy and calm dogs are safer for children to interact with than dogs that are anxious, scared or angry. Happy and calm dogs will present one or more of the following signals: panting with happy expression, ears and forehead relaxed, tail wagging enthusiastically or lying with one paw tucked under. A dog presenting this way is safe for a child to approach. Note that we are talking about your own dog here. Children should never approach someone else's dog. If the demeanor changes and the dog stiffens, stops panting and wagging or raises his tail high upon the approach of the child then the child should not approach. This applies even to the family pet. An anxious or fearful dog may wag his tail low or even between his legs, he may back away when approached or raise a front paw slightly. A common sign that the dog is unhappy with the situation is the pleading look that happens when a child is mauling the dog. This look involves the dog showing part of the white of the eye in a half-moon shape. Parents seeing this half-moon eye should intervene, since the dog is anxious and may not tolerate the child for much longer. Another danger sign which parents must take very seriously is the raised tail. If a dog raises his tail to a child when the child approaches the dog or when the dog comes near the child, this dog is saying, “Don’t mess with me”. This dog is likely to bite the child if the child continues to antagonize the dog. Parents who see this behavior in the dog should seek the advice of a canine behavior consultant.

Here is a slideshow that gives interpretations to many common dog body language signals:

Approaching a Dog?

In general it is best to teach children to wait for a dog to come to them, rather than going to the dog. This applies even to your own dog (although we know that most people will not agree with this advice). If a dog does not come to the child for attention, then the dog does not want attention at this moment. It is always safer for a child to interact with a dog who wants to interact than with a dog who doesn't. Under no circumstances should a child approach a strange dog or someone else's dog.

My Dog Will Let the Kids Do Anything to Him

Some dogs are more tolerant than others. If you ever hear yourself saying something like: "My dog loves kids, they can do anything to him", then you are allowing risky situations to occur and you are expecting way too much from your dog. Many people think that their dog is good with children and will tolerate any sort of poking, prodding and cuddling. To find out what the dog really thinks, watch the dog for signs of displacement behavior that may occur while the dog is being “tolerant”. If there is conflict in the dog’s mind and he wants to take one action (say, biting or getting up and walking away), but instead he takes another less preferable action (staying put while a child hugs him), he will often displace the desired action with some out-of-context behavior. Common out-of-context, or displacement behaviors include yawning and or stretching when not tired, licking chops when there is no food, sudden scratching, sudden biting or licking of paws or other body parts and wet dog shake when not wet or dirty. The dog may also lick the child repeatedly. This is often mistake for affection when in reality it is the dog attempting to create distance from the child. If you observe displacement behavior during dog-child interactions this is the time to intervene, since the dog is signaling that he may not tolerate much more attention from the child.

Even if you do have the sort of dog that will endlessly tolerate things he doesn't really like from the kids, is it fair to the dog to allow this to continue? Why should your good dog be expected to put up with this? Read about the curse of the good dog and how you can avoid this curse for your good dog.

Interact Only with Happy Dogs

Some breeds of dog always look worried, or alert or carry their tails high or have so much fur that it is difficult to tell which end is which. Children should avoid interactions with dogs if they are unsure about how the dog is feeling. The simplest rule for young children to follow is that happy, panting, wagging dogs are safe and dogs with their mouths closed and intent expressions are not safe. Be on the look out for key signs that the bite risk is increasing. These include, tail raised to the child, half-moon eye, dog intently focussed on something other than the child (cat, food, leash etc) or displacement behavior (yawing and licking of chops are the most common). Dogs displaying these signs are not in a suitable emotional state for interaction with a child and a bite could follow if you do not intervene.

Recommended Parent Resources for Teaching Kids

Family Paws Parent Education
Body Language Flashcard Kit
Dog Detective eBook
Good Dog! Kids Teach Kids About Dog Behavior and Training ebook - by Evelyn Pang and Hilary Louie
Doggone Crazy! Board game (20% off until Sept 30 2012 - use the code FALLGAME in the Doggone Safe store

1 comment:

  1. Children should be taught to always call the do to them, rather than approaching the dog. Telling children it's okay to approach a dog sets them up for a bite! 99% of bites could be prevented if people always call the dog to them. This gives the dog the choice of whether they are ready to interact or not. They may not trust the person who is calling, or they may be in uncomfortable circumstances, as in having visitors in the home so they prefer not to interact at that time. Otherwise, really nice article.