She was three. Two straight, black pigtails in ribbons jutting out from the sides of her head, button nose, huge dark eyes. Immaculately dressed; angora cardigan, Mary Janes, and a pinafore. Dimples, rosy cheeks.
It was this cherub who threatened my dog’s life the very moment they met.
You’d be hard pressed in today’s information-heavy landscape to go even just a few days without seeing a picture or video of a dog and a child. While the flavor of public images involving dogs on the Internet used to be dominated (misleadingly) by pit bulls and maulings, the majority of today’s content has shifted to fluffy Instagram characters, and feel-good moments captured between dogs and their little people.
As quickly as these images appear you can expect a flood of opinions and judgments to follow, sparsely peppered by the intended response: “aw, that’s so cute.”
But what’s all the hubbub about? What could possibly be upsetting about a toddler sitting peacefully under the chin of her Great Dane or a Blue Heeler waiting patiently for a bite of his 3-year-old’s ice-cream? And the hugs, the love, the affection. These huggy kids and calm-faced dogs clearly love one another.
Who ARE these negative ninnies grumping about it?
As humans are primates and dogs are canines, a quick foundation in basic species-specific social behavior is helpful here.
Every animal capable of simple thought craves security. In human (primate) babies that begins with touch. Specifically ventral to ventral (chest to chest) touch. It’s why a hug can soothe a worried toddler or protect a terrified child. It is the reason we feel warm and happy when we hug those we love. It is undeniably healing and comforting, a hug.
Dogs are not ventral animals; in my almost twenty years of working with dogs I can honestly say I’ve never seen a dog willingly greet another with an actual hug and (save the rare spooning event) they certainly don’t throw their arms around one another and press their chests together to feel secure or make a connection. That’s not to say they don’t have their own set of behaviors that bond individuals, soothe, and connect. They do. They just aren’t hugs and the reasons for this are really quite legitimate (having to do with survival).
There are many other comparable differences in communication and predispositions between our two species but for our purposes here well keep to only a few.
And so here we have two groups of animals; huggy, long-armed, grabby, primates and stiff-legged, chest-to-the-ground type canines. If they are to build a mutually-beneficial loving-type connection by using the behavior repertoires they were born with, they are doomed.
Humans and dogs are both social animal groups; each has evolved to use a set of socially acceptable skills with which to coexist with their own kind. The survival of their species depends on it. The vast majority of these skills are species-specific.
Let’s look at greetings for example. When humans meet one another they often square their shoulders and shake hands. Dogs, in contrast, greet noses first (first name), then sniff butts (last name), and may even take a pit stop at underbellies (middle names). In the unfamiliar greeting, then, dogs would never shake hands with one another just as humans are unlikely to ever adopt the nose, butt, groin sniff routine.
But now let’s let’s criss-cross the scenario to duplicate what we so often see in human/dog interactions. Let’s say that a human greeting an unfamiliar dog squares up, grabs his paw and shakes vigorously. The dog shoves his face into the human’s, then quickly detours to his groin or rear for a deep and often forceful sniff. These are both perfectly acceptable inner species greetings. But clearly the situation gets strange fast if we attempt an inter-species leap. It’s reasonable to think that many involved in these awkward exchanges are going to protest.
And so now let’s consider disagreements or discord within a species. When a human is upset with another human, he generally speaks his grievance. He may do so softly, firmly, yell, or even use profanity. He may employ gestures or facial expressions.
But in the vast majority of cases it’s likely he will never resort to actual violence to resolve a problem as the intended recipient is designed to receive and appropriately respond to this warning signs. Potential conflicts are resolved quickly and without serious harm.
In contrast, however, dogs do not use vocalizations as a first line of communication with one another; they use bodies and eyes. They send visual signals and read them from others and they do so with mind-blowing efficiency and speed. To muck things up further, their disagreement (protest) gestures are significantly offensive to human sensibility; snarls, snaps, and bites. The aversion to these things is rooted an ancient human biology and evolution.
And so what we end up with are people communicating with their voices and ears acting on a species (canine) that’s designed to communicate with bodies and eyes. And dogs are left only to react against the humans they coexist among. People are speaking and listening, dogs are showing and watching. The absurdity of it would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
And it is this foundational dissimilarity of communication that makes those keen to dog behavior cringe when we see images of dogs and children together, further complicated by the very real risk of bodily harm to the children involved or death to the dog attempting to show his discomfort.
In the opening scenario, the cherub-faced three-year-old greeted my dog by rushing up to him, grabbing hold of his excess skin, and twisting. He turned on her and snapped at her face in what I consider to be a great display of restraint. Her parents immediately accused my little dog of being dangerous and while I will refrain from details here, a letter followed and, though he’d never bitten, my dog was at risk of being euthanized.
But behavior experts are not without fault here, either. We can be poor observers prone to assumption and worst-case scenarios. Only a small minority (roughly 10%) of us who are highly trained have human children of our own so an innate species bias is undeniable. We can be quick to judge parents and caregivers, even children themselves, when simply trying to spare our beloved dogs the unfair and unjust punishments dolled out so easily by the very people entrusted with their well-being and safety.
And lost in all this mess is the honor with which we really need to hold the human/canine bond. The benefits of each species to the other, and the incredible fulfillment and healing that can come from this wildly lucky pairing; dog and child. With a little preparation and skill development, that relationship can be fully realized for the awe-inspiring thing it is.
Next month look for the second part of this topic; tools and skills to best facilitate a respectful, safe, life-long relationship between dogs and children.
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.