The mother was distracted, chatting with a friend, but I’d been watching her dog at the park for a little while. Clearly an insecure adolescent, the leashed, very large dog hovered close to the busy mom. An unfamiliar small boy, maybe 5 years old, was fascinated by the dog. The boy crept up behind the woman and swatted at the dog’s thin tail. The dog’s head turned. The mom chatted on, unaware that her dog was nervous about the contact. Next, the boy bent over, low, peering underneath the dog, too close to the dog’s flank. The dog fidgeted and the mom tightened her leash without looking down. The boy boldly grabbed the dog’s tail, and let go. The dog swiveled her hips away from him. The mother never looked down but continued to hold the dog tightly and laugh with her friend. The boy grabbed the tail again, close to the base and lifted it straight up in the air…
It used to be that dogs lived outside and under the porch. Some dogs roamed freely, and they had control of how close people came. If they didn’t like the attention, they were free to go. But in the past few decades, dogs are not only given more and more access to our homes, they also attend our activities. They come to the park, to sporting events, to festivals and farmer’s markets. They are leashed and they really have no choice in how close people come or whether they want to be there at all.
Before you get upset, please understand that I’m not saying it’s bad to bring dog places! I grew up training guide dog puppies and they went everywhere with me, even to school and to church. But in order for dogs to be successful, we’ve got to take the additional responsibility to understand their body language and their individual needs. We’ve got to train them to enjoy the weird stuff people do and “pay” the dogs for putting up with strange people. Otherwise, we’re simply forcing dogs to tolerate impossible intrusions and they’ve got every right to protect their space.
In the old days, dog were respected as dogs. “Don’t go near his food,” Grandma warned, and there was wisdom there. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” children were told so often it became a catch-phrase. Now, dogs are family and our expectations are different. Children are told, “Oh, look! A pretty dog! You should pet him,” and even if they do ask the owner, they usually do not ask the dog.
Strangers drag their own dogs from behind their legs, out from under the park bench, or hold them in their arms so that the children can touch the dog. The dog sometimes clearly does not want the attention. He’s signaling in every possible way, but he’s trapped. Most dogs are amazing and tolerate the intrusion, but should they have to? Can we do better? I think so.
Unless parents are aware, and unless children are being taught to be respectful and empathic, unless dogs are being trained to enjoy being handled by strangers, there really could be tragedy. Not only for the child, who may be frightened or bitten and perhaps learn a lifetime fear of dogs, but the fearful dog may be judged to be “aggressive” with deadly results. Instead, let’s help the dogs and the kids learn to like being around each other, not just tolerate it. Let’s teach safe behaviors to both species!
Kids will be kids. The curious boy peeking under the big dog’s tail was probably trying to figure out if the dog was a boy or girl. Since the dog was just standing there, why not take a peek? Lucky for this boy, the dog was extremely tolerant. However, without intervention and training, this child’s behavior could result in the death of a dog. What if the dog had whirled around in surprise? What if the dog had scraped the boy with her teeth? What if the next dog has less tolerance? At least as awful, the busy and chatty mother was totally unaware that her dog was distressed and so she not only offered no support to her dog for that interaction but does not realize that the next little boy approaching her dog may not be so fortunate.
Start helping your dog this week! This Thursday, October 8th at 6pm, I’ll be speaking at Willamette Humane Society, where you can learn more about training your dog to enjoy interactions with children of all ages and learn practical skills for helping your dog be successful in your home and on the go. This seminar is the same one I teach online for $50 but you can get the information for whatever donation you can afford. Join us! Can’t make it to the talk? See our youtube playlist here to learn about canine body language and here to help your young children be safer around dogs.
Then, when you want to take your own dog to the park, you’ll be ready to set her up for success and support her good choices around kids of all ages.