Monday, March 9, 2009

Kids and dogs, safety first.

I have been reading quite a few posts lately about kids and dogs, and seeing photos of kids and dogs, and videos of kids and dogs that are being shown as proof of how scary watching kids and dogs together can be. Whew, that was even hard to type!

It is interesting how many opinions there are on what is considered "safe" when it comes to the pairing of kids and dogs. There are a few things to consider when viewing kids and dogs together in photos or even in video. The problem with snapshots is that they only show one moment in time. Reading body language is contextual and can change in an instant with dogs or in between the frames of a few photos. Is the dogs ear really back as body language or did they flick a fly off the ear in the moment before the photo was taken? In video do we know the normal body language of the dog in question? What is normal for that particular dog? Does the dog already know the kid they are being videoed with? Is there audio in the video or are background sounds masking a potential problem? A low warning growl from a dog may not be audible enough for us to hear or may be unrecognised as a warning signal by an owner as such.

I think as dog trainers we are programed to sometimes see all the potential dangers and pitfalls of kids and dogs together because of what we do and the things we see. Not all interactions of kids and dogs have happy endings after all. We would hope that a parent would never do anything that would intentionally hurt their child, but there are so many dog owners who simply misread their dogs cues. Being a parent, or even a dog owner, doesn't automatically give you the skills needed to keep everyone safe. Just like owning a car doesn't give me the skills needed to fix it when it breaks down. Having something and knowing what makes it tick are two separate things.

There are just a few rules that can help keep everyone safe when it comes to children and dogs.

1) Teach your children to always ask to pet a dog they do not live with and wait for permission to do so. Not all dogs are good with people and some are even afraid of children if they haven't been exposed to them in a positive way.

2) Teach children to never bother a dog that is eating or chewing a bone. Possessive aggression is very common in dogs and can result in a bite if the child does not see/hear and heed the dogs warning. Many adults miss the cues to resource guarding so we can't expect a child to recognise them. Teach them a growl from a dog means "Go Away!

3) Teach children to never bother a dog that is asleep. Startling a dog awake is another thing that can result in a bite. Desensitize your dogs to being startled awake if that may be a potential problem in a busy household.

4) Teach children to never bother a dog in a crate (sticking fingers in or poking) or approach any dog that is tied or chained out. Some dogs are territorial or can become overstimulated if left out on a tether. Many dogs tied out don't get alot of attention so they become a little wild if given an opportunity for some.

5) Train your dogs to greet people politely. Sometimes children get hurt by over exuberant dogs trying to say hello. When in doubt of your dogs skills simply say no to the greeting and walk away. Protect your dog! Some dogs need to be counter conditioned to the presence of children. Not all dogs grow up with kids after all. (or may have had negative experiences with kids in the past) And some children may not be appropriate with your dog either. If the child looks hard to control avoid the interaction.

6) Teach children how to pat a dog appropriately. Pounding them on the head isn't most dogs favorite. Nice gentle strokes along the back is the best spot to teach kids to touch them.

7) Supervise all interactions with kids and dogs. Unfortunately this will not prevent all bites if you are unaware of warning signals. If a dog stiffens it's body when a child comes near or growls that means " I am uncomfortable" or "Go away". Remove the dog from the situation and contact a trainer that can help you remedy the situation. Do NOT teach the dog not to growl. If you do this you are only taking away the warning communication and can end up with a dog that bites without warning in the future.

Bites can happen in an instant. For some dogs that bite results in its death. I don't think it is fair to put a dog down if no one witnessed the incident. Sometimes kids do things to dogs that provokes a bite in self defense and if it is the kids word against a dog with no other witness the dog may lose. Kids will lie if they think they are going to get into trouble. Thinking a dog needs to tolerate all things from all people just isn't fair nor realistic.

My favorite tool in a home with dogs and really young children is baby gates. They help give both the dog and the kids a safe zone when close supervision isn't possible. I also highly recommend parents to be find out how to acclimate their dog to the coming arrival. Check out this post with some tips by my trainer friend Nancy on ways to begin doing that:

Moment of truth: Some of the online photos and videos of kids with dogs do make my heart leap into my throat sometimes. It is the downside to dealing with some of the fallout of my job as a trainer. I want to prevent ALL bites to children. Aside from the physical damage a bite can cause, it can also cause long term psychological damage as well. Ask most people that don't like dogs why that is and most will tell you it was because they were either bitten as a child, or scared by a dog as a child. I prefer to live in a dog friendly world. Keeping kids safe is just one of the ways we can ALL make that possible.


just in luv said...

Great post, Marie!

Did you see the new "It's Me Or The Dog" on Saturday night? Victoria dealt with people/child aggression in a female Weimaraner. It was a good episode and I was reminded of it when I read this post!

I was shocked when the owners (who seemed very intelligent) asked, "Now, can we leave the baby and Bella alone together at all?"

I thought that was a big commonsense NO, even if your dog is a saint, but especially with this dog (who had a bite history).

In a perfect world, people would never, ever leave their children alone with their dogs. It seems like most of the dog bites I hear about have only two witnesses: the child and the dog. It shouldn't be like that. It's not fair to either party to leave them alone together.

Marie said...

No I haven't seen that one yet. I usually tape it but missed that one somehow. Luckily they play the repeats so I'll be sure to catch it the next time around.

Some people are a tad more clueless than others.

Marie said...

P.S. The photo was taken by unknown. It was in an e-mail I got that is making the rounds. (funny enough with a warning not to leave your mmin-bull alone with children VBG) I wonder how long it took for the marker to wear off?

Marie said...

I can't spell today, that's mini-bull terrier.

just in luv said...

Yeah, the photo is mind-boggling. No dog should be expected to sit for that. It's not cute.

The worst case of a dog being wrongly euthanized for a bite (in my opinion) was a story I read a few years ago about an American bulldog that had always been the perfect family dog but "just snapped one day" and bit the young boy in the family while he was alone in the livingroom with the dog, coloring.

Dad was mad, the kid swore he hadn't done anything to provoke the bite, and the bulldog was hauled into the vet and euthanized.

And then, when the techs were disposing of the body, they noticed that there was a colored pencil shoved down the dog's ear canal.

Gosh, it's been ages since I heard that story and it still gets me upset just to think about it. That poor dog. :[

Marie said...

I remember hearing that story too. Very sad.

I think the photo is kinda cute and I like to think (in my mind) the dog was ok with it. If he (or she) didn't I would think they would have gotten up and walked away. Or gave a warning or maybe there could have been a bite. In which case there would be no photo.

I would also never expect a dog to sit for that against their will. (and it obviously took awhile, that is alot of artwork represented!)

I would never let my child do that to any dog either. That's what they make coloring books for after all. It also doesn't help us teach kids respect for animals if we allow them to color them at their whim.

But that photo is a good example of what some people do let kids do to dogs and why it can get them into trouble. Some people think all dogs SHOULD tolerate that and others, like myself, think we need to be realistic about dog behavior and not put them into situations that can be a potential problem.

But taking dog scary dog behavior out of the equation, the photo definatly tickles my funny bone just abit. It would be even funnier if it were a dog entered an a show the next day. But perhaps what I find funny isn't the norm. :-)