Earlier this year, one of my nurses handed me a chart for a shih-tzu whom I’ll call “Lucky”. Lucky was a long-time patient with a spotless medical history, and was in for a wellness check-up. As I greeted Lucky and began my exam, I couldn’t help but notice that his owner was unsuccessfully fighting tears. Lucky needed a check-up before being surrendered to a no-kill rescue organization. The group had promised that as long as he was healthy, they would “work on his issues and find him a more suitable home.” This was the first I had heard of any “issues”, and when I expressed my surprise, the owner broke down. Lucky had bitten her two-year-old son in the face.
“Please understand, Doctor,” she sobbed, “I’m not one of those mothers who expects the dog to be a baby-sitter. I don’t throw them together so I can talk on the phone, or play around on Facebook in peace. I always watch them. I always supervise. I was standing right there. They were playing the same way they always do. Suddenly he just lunged at Jacob’s face. No warning, no provocation, nothing. I did everything right.”
Indeed she did. So why did this encounter go so terribly wrong?
Animal care professionals, myself included, are forever spouting child safety advice. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard them all: supervise dogs and children, don’t leave children and dogs unattended, teach your kids how to treat the dog nicely. It’s good advice. Yet each year, nearly 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs, and over half of them are children between the ages of five and nine. If our advice is so sound, why doesn’t it seem to be working?
When my wife and I were newly married, she would sometimes ask me to help with dinner by taking out the chicken when it was “done”. Stir the concoction in the skillet until it’s “done”. She quickly figured out that without a clear definition of “done”, there was a good chance we would be having salmonella for dinner! I believe we do parents the same disservice when we tell them to “watch” their children with dogs. Watch them for what, exactly? What are the warning signs? Are we giving parents and caregivers a clear definition of “done”?
While volumes have been written on the subject of canine body language, here are a few things to keep in mind when supervising children and dogs.
“Loose and wiggly? That’s okay! Stiff as a statue? Stay away!”
This is the mantra we teach to children when we teach bite avoidance in schools. It’s fun to say and easy for both children and adults to remember. Safe canine body language is loose, relaxed and wiggly, like a piece of spaghetti. The body should have curves. Freezing and stiffening (like a statue) are signs of trouble. The same holds true for dogs who suddenly stop panting or begin staring. These dogs may be frightened, stressed, hyper-focused, or agitated. None of these states of mind are appropriate for interacting with children.
Your dog will tell you if he is stressed.
If your dog yawns when he should not be tired, or licks his lips when there is no food present, he is feeling anxious, and should not interact with your child. Another sign of stress is sometimes called “whale eyes”. This is when the whites at the sides of your dog’s eyes are visible. The presence of any of these signs should always signal the end of playtime.
Your dog would rather just walk away.
Avoidance behaviors, such as walking away, looking away, or hiding, are your dog’s preferred alternatives to biting or snapping. He is choosing to remove himself from the situation rather than allow it to escalate. Please reward this decision by allowing your dog to have his space. Children who insist on pursuing these dogs, are often the victims of bites.
Never ignore growling.
As I finished examining little Lucky, I asked the owner if he had ever shown any signs of aggression toward her son in the past. “Well, naturally he growls at Jacob,” she replied. “He growls at him all the time. But I never imagined that he would actually bite!”
Growling means that a bite is coming. Period. It is not playful, it is not a joke. It is a warning, and a Def-con 4 warning at that. It is very important, however, that a dog never be punished for growling! While it seems counterintuitive, dogs are very cause-and-effect thinkers. A dog that is hit, yelled at, or banished to the garage for growling quickly learns that growling is bad, and results in an unpleasant consequence. The next time the dog is agitated, it will simply skip the growl and proceed to biting, leaving parents with too little time to intervene. If your dog growls at your child, calmly separate the two and call a Certified Professional Dog Trainer immediately. Your veterinarian can help you choose the right behaviorist for your dog.
In honor of Dog Bite Prevention Week, I’ll leave you with one final tidbit: most dog bite injuries to children occur in the summer months. Hence the expression “dog days of summer”! As school terms end and temperatures climb, it’s important to remember these simple safety tips. Just an ounce of prevention can go a long way towards protecting the children in our community.