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Keeping your child safe and your dog happy

1 in 6 people admitted to hospital for a day or more, as a result of a dog bite, is a child under the age of 10. In 2012, over half of these children needed plastic surgery, and over a quarter needed speciality facial/oral surgery. At least three times as many people are bitten by dogs they know than by strange dogs. Many children love dogs and play with them the way they play with a Teddy bear. However, children can be quite frightening for dogs. They are often not good at reading dogs’ body language, not sympathetic to how the dog might be feeling, and prone to making sudden, jerky movements, and high pitched noises - things that can make a dog uneasy. Not to mention the grabbing, poking and pulling that they’re likely to do! People often tell me how great their dogs are with children. 9 times out of 10 they follow it with a description of the things they let their child/children do to their dog; ‘he lets them pull on his ears and tail, and climb all over him’. Even if nothing ever goes wrong, it saddens me that a dog should be subjected to that. ‘Oh he doesn’t mind’, dog owners often say. This makes me wonder how they would expect the dog to let them know if he did mind. Most people know very little about canine body language. Warning signals such as ‘whale eyes’ (see below) don’t set alarm bells ringing for people. Lip-licking doesn’t set off alarm bells. Yawning doesn’t set off alarm bells. The dog looking away or even walking away doesn’t set off alarm bells. For most dogs, in most households, the only parts of their repertoire of communication that humans recognise are growling, snapping and biting. These signals are usually punished. So, your average dog is in a situation where his more subtle signals are ignored, and the stronger ones are punished. What choice have most dogs but to put up with the children swinging on them? What hope have they got of someone intervening on their behalf, when as far as most humans are concerned, everything is fine until ‘out of the blue’ the dog growls, snaps or bites? So…what can you do to make sure that your dog/child doesn’t form part of these frightening bite-injury statistics? Let’s take a look at some practical tips to ensure that interactions between dogs and children are enjoyable for both parties. 1. The number one rule where dogs and children are concerned is that the two should never, ever be left alone. This is so that you can protect both parties from inappropriate interactions. Even if your dog is immaculately trained and has always been ‘fine’ with children, this might be the day he has an earache, a toothache or terrible back pain, and having said ear pulled, tooth poked, or back climbed upon, might be the final straw. 2. The people who are supervising the interaction should learn to read basic canine body language. There is little point in supervising child and dog if you’re not in a position to understand when the dog is beginning to feel uncomfortable and to intervene before things go wrong. Look out for the following signs:

  • Whale eyes – this is when you can see the whites of the dog’s eyes, a sign of fear;

  • Lip-licking – dogs often lick their lips when they’re feeling nervous, unsure or uncomfortable;

  • Lowered ears;

  • Yawning – yawning is another signal dogs use to diffuse tense situations, and another indicator that they’re not entirely comfortable;

  • Looking away;

  • Moving or attempting to move away;

  • Backward moving body language – weight transferring to the back part of the body and away from whatever the dog would like to get away from.

If you’d like to read more about canine body language, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas is a very good place to start. There is also a brilliant ‘ladder of aggression’ available at The Blue Dog website. Bear in mind that if the dog has been used to having his more subtle cues ignored, there is a good chance that he will have given up using them, and that when it all gets too much for him, he will leap straight to growling, snapping or biting - the only thing that seems to get a response. You can help by imitating these calming signals (yawning, lip-licking, slow blinking) yourself. The dog will most likely respond, and you can then react accordingly, teaching the dog that you can actually understand the more subtle cues. 3. Educate the children who are in the dog’s life. There are some great resources available to help teach children how to interact with dogs in an appropriate way. You can use these to educate the child in a non-confrontational way (especially useful if the children aren’t yours!). Sophia Yin made some really good information sheets, which I distribute to any of my clients who have children, grandchildren, or regular visitors who are children. These sheets are available here. 4. Lead by example. Unfortunately, we live in a world where animals are often not afforded the respect they deserve. If we lead by example and treat animals as the sentient, intelligent beings that they are, and show respect for their feelings, children will follow suit. 5. Avoid punishing your dog. Dogs that have been grabbed, shook or hit, are much more likely to be wary of being approached by children, who often approach with outstretched arms. If your dog is confident and had a life of positive experiences, he is much more likely to react well to the occasional upset. 6. If you are getting a puppy, try to ensure he has lots of positive experiences with children early on in life. I emphasise positive, as a lot of people have missed this crucial aspect of socialisation. They think that socialising involves throwing the dog head-first into a myriad of situations with a myriad of people so that he gets used to it. What’s actually required is ensuring the puppy experiences different situations and people at a level he is comfortable with and in a way that is enjoyable and pleasant for him. Having small children gently stroke and talk to a puppy while offering tasty morsels, to a degree that the puppy is comfortable with, is socialisation. Letting them pounce on him and squeal and pass him around is setting him up to associate children with scary experiences. 7. Always make sure the dog has somewhere to go to escape from the children, and any noise they’re making. This might be a bed behind the couch or in a quiet room that children aren’t allowed into but that the dog can always access. 8. Remember that dogs are slow to show pain, and there’s a good chance your dog won’t let you know if he’s suffering. One of my dogs had root abscesses on both of his lower canines, and never let on. Even the most patient dog in the world, who has tolerated having his ears pulled by children for years, might one day be suffering from an earache. What would you do if you were suffering from an earache and somebody grabbed your ear? Your dog can’t politely inform you that his ear is somewhat painful and he’d rather it wasn’t pulled, and may feel that the only way he can create space between himself and the little person pulling his ear is to snap or bite. 9. Be aware of how your dog might be feeling - a dog that is tired or stressed or feeling unwell is likely to be less patient, just like ourselves. 10. Never tell a dog off for growling. A growling dog is doing you a great service by warning you that he doesn’t like whatever is happening. If you tell him off for growling enough, he’ll learn that growling doesn’t work, and try the next rung on the ladder - snapping or biting. Having said all that, dogs and children can be great friends (with the appropriate education and supervision!). But remember, your dog is relying on you to be his advocate. Listen to your dog. And always bear in mind - past performance is no guarantee of future results! Don’t let your dog’s good track record with children allow him to end up in situations in which he might be scared or uncomfortable. Steph is a PDTE Associate Member and works as a dog trainer and behaviourist in London.

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