In last month’s post, I introduced the controversial topic of dogs and children, specifically, how each is misunderstood by the other and the risks posed to both by that misunderstanding.
Because of the tidal wave of information brought to us daily through our various devices we, as consumers, parents, and pet owners, are made to aimlessly surf that wave of seemingly-cute images, actually-cute images, and those which may really pose a threat to our loved ones, both two and four-legged, not really knowing what is safe and what isn’t.
Let’s tackle that now by first understanding a handful of straight-forward dog basics.
- Most dogs don’t like to be touched unless they ask for it, and even then, usually only by someone they know. The type of touch preferred depends on the dog. Some don’t like to be touched at all! It is surprising. I know. But not so different from us, eh? This is NORMAL and common.
- Dogs do not like conflict. As part of the process of 30,000+ years of domestication, dogs have a hefty number of behavioral inhibitions built into them to avoid even defending themselves when threatened. Despite what the well-funded but ill-motivated dog-bite websites and proposed-legislations would like people to believe, dogs bite with shocking infrequency. In other words, it takes a great deal of provocation, despite claims of the “dog who bites without warning,” for a dog to bite.
- Dogs’ have gobs of subtle “go away” signs that are obvious to other dogs but almost invisible to people unless highly intuitive or taught. Pros call them protracted warning signs. These include appeasement-type gestures (lip licking, blinking, soft hunkering, etc.), stillness, whisker protraction or retraction, avoidance, retreat, side-glance, hard eye, freeze, snarl, growl, and so on up the escalation scale until they lead to a bite. Interestingly, the first protracted warning sign is any change in behavior.
- Every dog is an individual regardless of his breed or appearance. Two of the five most aggressive dogs I’ve ever worked with were a Golden Retriever and a yellow Lab. The genetic pool that currently exists in the US is mind-blowingly varied and the scientific community believes only about 2% of a dog’s DNA today can account for his physical appearance. Given this, we are acting irresponsibly, recklessly in fact, when we approach a dog with assumptions about his level of acceptance or resistance to touch based on anything other than a wild guess.
With those basic guidelines, we have a pretty good idea of who the dog is that we’re approaching; he’s you, or your prickly neighbor, or your friendly sister, or your terrified friend. We know he probably doesn’t like to be touched by strangers under any circumstance. He probably only likes to be touched by his owner or family in certain circumstances and in certain ways.
And, he really, really, doesn’t want to have to hurt people and will tell anyone trying to touch him in a number of ways that he doesn’t like it. He may never escalate to a bite, or he may, depending on his temperament, how he feels, where he is, how they touch, etc.
And so, let’s consider some hard rules we can follow to make sure touch between dogs and people is safe, particularly when it comes to children.
- Before ever touching a dog, become educated in basic dog language, specifically in protracted warning signs. While there are numerous publications through which this can be done, as well as hiring a private, qualified, R+ trainer, I recommend Googling Lili Chin’s animated drawings as a place to start. They are brilliant one-page infographics with easy-to-read images and brief explanations.
- Watch, heed, and respond appropriately. Once we know what a dog’s warning signs are, we need to watch for them. Once identified, we need to take them seriously and respond by giving space. It is never acceptable to continue to touch or crowd a dog indicating he is uncomfortable. To do so is to directly provoke a bite.
- Ask permission and accept the response. As a culture and species, we tend to forget that dogs are their own sentient beings, and it’s actually silly to think we’d be allowed permission to touch without regard or relationship. We extend this offensive presumption to an animal we revere a great deal in many other ways. Let’s extend that respect to his body and space just as we would anyone else with whom we’d want to have a relationship. We would never assume the right to touch another stranger without permission, either child or adult. Why a dog?
- It is a parent’s responsibility to teach his or her child how to appropriately interact with a dog from a very young age. As a mother of three children I can attest to this being reasonable as young as 18-months. Here’s how:
- Modeling: Parents and caregivers need to respect a dog as a full-card-carrying member of the family. He is not a piece of furniture, a toy, or a possession. He has feelings and moods and needs to be cared for just like each family member. That includes giving him the space and the regard required by any other member. By showing a child how to do this, he will learn it is normal to do so.
- Practice: As a child nears 18-months of age and his verbal skills begin to emerge, parents can guide interactions by engaging with him in an exchange of understanding dog behavior, “Look, puppy is away in his bed, just now. We’ll leave him alone, then,” for example, and “If puppy drops his ball at your feet he’ll be happy if we throw it,” etc.
- Consequences: Both children and dogs will benefit from this bit. Toddlers are ready to learn that if they don’t follow the basic rules of interacting with a dog, they simply won’t be allowed to. Parents must be consistent! Dogs, too, can learn appropriate, gentle, greetings such as “say hi” (in my book), and how to “check out” to a kid-free zone when they are feeling stressed. The latter and other dog-related techniques are usually easily achieved with help from a qualified R+ trainer.
- Parents be present!: This is, by far, the most important rule and ‘present’ in this way isn’t limited to being physically present. Parents must be engaged and actively working to facilitate a safe, trusting relationship between kids and dogs at all times. If this cannot happen, I am firm in this statement: do not put dogs and kids together. Period.
And, lastly, two things to help embolden you in some of the messier public touch situations:
- No one ever has to touch your dog. No one. Ever (spare the vet). Not even that cute toddler atU-Village whose parents insist on it.
- You are your dog’s only advocate. He wants you to be. Firmly instruct those who approach for touch without asking, “do not touch my dog, please.” He cannot speak for himself and desperately needs you to speak for him. To do so is to strengthen your relationship with him. While it may feel unfriendly, it is only in the face of a fleeting stranger interaction, which holds nothing to the value of your bond with your dog.
With awareness, education, and a proactive approach, we can dispel the mystery and hype around those “cute” or “dangerous” dog images bombarding our social media and information sources. We can keep our children safe, and we can do it at the same time as fostering a deep, mutual, cooperative relationship between them and our dogs. To shirk that duty is to rob both dogs and children of the immensely deep, rewarding, life-long benefits of the human/canine relationship awaiting them.
Cristine Dahl is the founder the Northwest School for Canine Studies and author of the acclaimed book, Good Dog 101 She holds a CTC from the San Francisco SPCA Academy as a distinguished graduate, has worked professionally with dogs for almost 20 years, and has a BS in Biological Science from with a focus on the mammalian mind and brain.
Cristine has been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) for her work helping doctors better understand the circumstances affecting dog bites to children and she is an active participant in animal welfare efforts in the state of Washington.