May, 2011

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Of kids and dogs

Sadly, the number of dog bites reported in the United States is growing at a fast pace.  Most of these bites occur occur in children ages 3 to 5 and many of the bites are given to the dog’s owner.  There are  a variety of contributing factors to this disturbing trend: busier schedules and less supervision of kids and dogs; misconceptions of dogs; lack of understanding of dog behavior and dog language; a trend in our social norms to not respect human or dog personal space and privacy; less places for people to walk and exercise their dogs that are not crowded. While it is important to understand the underlying factors of the increasing bite rates, there are some important and practical  things we can do to educate both children and adults about how to approach and interact with dogs safely.

When kids and dogs are together, supervision is absolutely essential! And I am not just talking about the dog! Kids are active. They are often running chaotically and not always aware of their surroundings and space.  They are loud. They have unpredictable movements and actions.  None of this works well for dogs. Dogs like calm, predictable movements and events. Just like people, dogs appreciate being invited into another person or dog’s space with politeness rather than having a stranger run up to them and grab their ears or head. Honestly, how many of us would put up with a total stranger doing that to us or to our children?  Dogs also need the opportunity to say “no thank  you” and have that respected.

A great pattern to teach kids with any dog, is to ask the DOG.  Yup, I said, ask the DOG.  Here is how it works.  A child first stops a least 6 feet (a leash length) away from a dog and owner. The child asks the owner, “May I ask your DOG if I can pet it?”  If the owner says yes, the child backs ups, puts their hands down on their knees and invites the dog to come to them.  If a dog refuses, everyone MUST respect that. Owners should not push their dogs to accept this invitation and children need to accept the dog’s answer. This is different from just asking the owner “May I pet your dog?’, the owner says yes and the child rushes into the dog’s face.  In the later scenario, no one asked the dog.

Children need to also be taught to be calm around dogs.  The analogy of red light/yellow light/green light is a good one to use here. When a child is running, it will often trigger a dog’s chase instinct.  We teach children that green light is running, and a dog will chase them. We don’t want this.  Yellow light is walking calmly. Yellow light is what should be used around dogs. Red light works to stop a child before they run into a dog or stop a child at a safe distance before asking the DOG if they may pet him/her.

“Be a Tree” is also a great exercise to teach children when they are approached by a dog they do not know…or a dog that seems a little too rambunctious, or even threatening. Running will only likely make the dog chase and get the dog aroused.  Instead, experts recommend to teach children to “be a tree”, standing very still with arms folded  (“bring your branches in”) and looking at their feet (“watch your roots grow”) when an unknown dog or overly excited dog comes up to them.

Infants and toddlers MUST be supervised at all times with dogs period! Even the family dog. Often a dog will have been part of a family long before children were born. They were used to a different pace of life and probably received more attention and exercise before the kids arrived.  So in this scenario we are dealing with a huge change in lifestyle for a dog, which is probably confusing, and again, no one asked the dog.

This is a good time for adults to learn and understand dog body language. It is crucial to recognize the signs and cues dogs are giving to say if they are afraid, feeling trapped and crowded, anxious, nervous, frustrated, etc. Teaching children to recognize when a dog is saying “I am scared”, “I am anxious”, “I feel trapped” is also incredibly valuable. We need to teach children to recognize and respect the signals dogs are giving.  Bites rarely come “out of the blue”.  In most cases, the dogs have been trying to communicate their fear and anxiety for quite a while and the bite is only the last resort.

When a dog leaves a situation, let them. Give dogs an escape route. Give them a quiet secluded place to go to get away from toddlers. Be ready to intervene when a dog shows the slightest indication of anxiety or fear.

Also be aware that pain from injury or arthritis can change a way a dog behaves.  The old gentle family dog may react to the pain of a child unintentionally jumping on his/her arthritic hips. The dog may react from pain and snap or bite at a child. Again, supervision is the key.

When a dog growls, do not punish him/her. Growling is a clear sign that the dog wants some space. Growls need to be respected.  Punishing a growl or suppressing it will not change the emotions that caused a dog to growl. The dog will still feel afraid, trapped, threatened. But if they are taught to suppress one of their main forms of communication, then they will just go straight to bite. Remember, the emotions are still there. Suppressing growls does not suppress the emotions behind them. When a dog growls, children should leave the dog alone and parents should intervene and get toddlers and children out of the way. If necessary, consulting a qualified dog trainer or behavior consultant to figure out why the dog is growling might be a good idea.

I strongly suggest using a training program based on non-force and positive reinforcement. Studies are showing that training methods based on confrontation (such as dominance theory/alpha role) and inflicting pain (such as shock or choke collars) actually increase the likelihood of a dog bite. Dominance models have been shown to be based upon flawed interpretations of flawed observations, rather than good behavioral science. Unfortunately these dominance based ideas have become popular myth promoted by TV shows that say “don’t try this with your dog at home”.  Hmmmm, why not? Because you could get bit that’s why!

The dominance myth also has serious implications when it comes to kids and dogs. Teaching a child to confront a dog is dangerous.  Some training methods actually teach children to go up to a strange dog, growl and bite them to show them who is “alpha”. As a certified professional dog trainer I cannot express sufficiently how deeply disturbing and dangerous I find this!

Kids and dogs CAN go together with good supervision and education. Dogs enrich the lives of children and are often truly a child’s best friend. We are seeing also the benefit of dogs as therapy dogs both for children with illness and children struggling to read. Together, with supervision and education, we can make the world a better and safer place for kids and dogs.