This is National Train Your Dog Month and we’re sharing resources so you can help your family’s dog be the best she can be. As a professional behavior consultant for a couple of decades, I have found that my most common requests for help involve canine aggression in some form— with aggression toward children being particularly urgent and frightening. For example, “How do I prevent a dog bite at home?”
The good answer is that the vast majority of dog bites to kids are entirely preventable. It will only take a few minutes for you to browse these resources, but doing so may prevent your child (or dog) from becoming the next statistic.
All dogs can bite and will bite, given the right set of circumstances. Aggression is not a personality trait; it’s a functional behavior that serves a purpose, and that purpose, often where children are concerned, is most often a request for space.
A Look at Positive & Negative Interactions
First, let’s look at what makes up a positive interaction between children and a dog. Take the photo on the left for example. This is a happy, relaxed, everyone is good-to-go dog-kid interaction. This is the sort of interaction everyone wants to see. Even though the child is hugging, which I don’t usually recommend, the pup is comfortable and content.
Note the dog’s open and relaxed mouth, squinty eyes, and how she’s leaning into the boy. This sort of body language can show us that this is a positive interaction between pet and human. Paying attention to your dog’s body language as he or she is interacting with another human can offer a lot of insight into the dog’s next move.
Note the dog’s clenched mouth and the fact his weight is shifted away from the child—essentially trapped against the wall. You can also see his ears are back and his woeful expression. At this moment, the dog is very uncomfortable with the toddler.
Resources for Preventing Dog Bites
Reading dog body language quickly and correctly is essential to keeping kids (and dogs) safe. On our WHS YouTube Channel, we’ve gathered some great resources for you to watch and learn.
I recommend starting with the dog body language playlist. Once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to gather the children around and share some videos more geared to the whole family. Our canine safety with children playlist is a great next step.
You can also find plenty of resources for preventing dog bites in the form of websites, blogs, and handouts. These resources have been fantastic to share as I encounter families with children. The authors have impacted how and what I teach; the concepts are simple, easy to remember, and very powerful. Here are some of my favorite reads:
- Dogs and Babies Learning: Here’s a great concept and a terrifically talented writer who compares dogs to ceiling fans and sharp knives. You wouldn’t ask your infant to pet those, so why would you point out every dog in a tantalizing fashion? Madeline Gabriel, author of that lovely blog, also taught me to teach: “Ask the owner; ask the dog.”First ask the owner’s permission, then invite the dog into your space by calling it and patting your leg. If the dog wants the attention, she’ll break her space bubble to join you. If she doesn’t approach, it’s a good indication you are better off leaving her alone.
- Be a Tree: A hugely important concept for the more mobile and active youngsters who may be approached or chased by loose dogs. Stop moving. Plant your roots. Fold your branches (arms) and watch your roots grow (look down). I taught this one week to a busy boy in one of my puppy classes and his grandmother emailed me a few weeks later to tell me it saved him from a certain attack by a couple of loose dogs who were on the chase. It’s important and it works. Share it!
- Liam J. Perk Foundation: If you are excited about sharing this kind of information and joining with others to prevent dog bites to children, check out the Liam J. Perk Foundation for ideas and materials.
Putting It All Together
Most dogs prefer a peaceful resolution to problem-solving, rather than using aggression to get what they need. As I said before, most dog bites are preventable. I’ve learned that if you give the dog plenty of space, plenty of time and plenty of treats, you can win them over bit by bit.
Our Behavior and Training team is happy to show you how to use these concepts. Just contact us through firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
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