Unless a child has had a bad experience with a dog, many kids feel drawn to them because they look like cuddly and responsive teddy-bears. However, there have been too many cases of dogs attacking children, all because the owner of the dog or the parent of the child did not educate the child before their introduction.
The very sad part about all this is that too often the dog is euthanized for attacking the child, when – in fact – the dog gave countless warnings, but no one bothered to listen.
In an earlier article Talking with Dogs, we discussed the calming signals that alone or together are any dog’s way of talking and conveying how they feel. These calming signals are so important, and every dog owner needs to be able to read them.
Often a child will approach a dog with enthusiasm. The dog, seeing the child approach, will display calming signals that either aim to calm themselves or the child approaching. They may use one or two of these signals, but when they’re all used one after the other it’s advisable to ask the child to step back ‘just in case’.
The owner of the dog may not be reading their dog correctly. They may say, “He’s just checking you out,” – “he’s just aloof, don’t worry,” – “he’s just wary of strangers, it’s okay.” Or, worse still, to save themselves the embarrassment, the owner may say to the dog, “Oi, where are your manners, be nice!”
When a dog starts to display numerous calming signals, especially freezing, this is your call to back away, because that’s what he’s asking you to do nicely. Note in the picture below, this dog is displaying two calming signals (likely three as he may be in a freeze pose). He’s licking his nose and averting his glance – looking away.
A dog that likes children will usually approach the child first and want to play or be cuddled. They’ve perhaps learned that little people like to play and cuddle, and they’ve remember that – and so they think all little people are the same… they offer rewards!
Dogs bite because it’s how they tell other dogs that they do not like them being too close, or they do not want them taking their things. Dogs don’t mind this. It’s kind of like a child getting a time-out for something naughty they did – there’re no hard feelings and the dog that was nipped probably won’t do it again.
Dogs cannot be expected to learn an entirely new language, English. They can’t become cartoon characters with speech-bubbles above their heads saying, ‘Please, step away – I’m uncomfortable’. It’s up to us to learn their language, because dogs don’t hesitate to talk the language they do know.
There are various reasons why a dog may not want a child too close. They could range from:
1. Resource Guarding
The child is too close to something the dog is protecting, be it their food or a toy, their puppies or even the affection of their owner. Here’s an example:
The old-lady next door has a beautiful little doggie, and your daughter wants to pet him all the time. But, as soon as your daughter gets close, the doggie yaps and growls and may even attempt to nip. The scenario here is that the little doggie is coddled and very much loved by the old-lady. When the little girl enters the room, the old-lady averts her attention to the little girl and ignores the doggie. The doggie, seeing the old-lady’s affection and attention as an important resource, believes the little girl is attempting to take this attention and affection away from him. And so, the little doggie snaps at the girl saying, “The old-lady’s mine – back off!”
The same goes for their toys, food, puppies and anything else resource-guarding dogs may find valuable.
2. An Unseen Pain or Injury
The child approaches the dog and the dog allows it. The dog then ‘suddenly turns on the child’ when she begins to cuddle him, and no one knows why.
In most cases this happens because the dog has some injury or pain in their body. They may have issues like digestive disturbances, a tender ‘hotspot’, earache or toothache, with toothache actually being a most-common injury left unresolved, as dogs cannot tell us they have a cavity.
So, the fussing and playing begins and the dog ‘turns bad’. They are not ‘turning bad’ – they are merely feeling pain and don’t like it. The more the child fusses on the painful area, the more upset the dog becomes. This is tricky, though, because some injuries are internal and the owner can see no physical cause for discomfort.
3. Not Habituated to Little People
Older dogs who have lived with elder owners only may not have spent much time with Jimmy-cricket, Telly-tubby-type energy before. The child comes across as too busy, too noisy and perhaps even a threat (who knows – the dog sure doesn’t – all he sees is this jack-in-the-box that won’t sit still). Just like a mother (dam) would growl, nip, or pin her puppy down, so a dog might attempt to do the same to the child. It is not aggression in an ugly sense; indeed it is natural – it is the way they interact with their young when the young get too rowdy.
4. Approaching the Dog Wrong
Most dogs are sensitive about being restricted. One way they feel restricted is if something grasps the top of their head. You would feel this way, too. A mistake that just about all kids and even grown-ups make is to approach the dog with their hand out, then grasp or rub the top of the dog’s head.
Notice how this dog in the above picture is clearly showing a calming signal by licking the tip of his nose. It’s as though he’s saying, “Okay, I’m cool with that but just be careful, alright?”
The correct way to approach any approachable dog is by reaching for the chest or under the mouth. This is non-threatening and the dog knows that a hand to the chest won’t be restricting in any way – because it’s so close to his mouth; if you got nasty he could just take your hand off!
It is always important to remember that there’s no such thing as a bad dog – only a bad owner. The onus is always on the owner, unless the dog is a rehabilitation case that has come from a traumatized background. In this case the owner must take all precautionary measures to ensure the rehabilitation was indeed successful before introducing them to children or others.
Never let children coddle and fuss too much over dogs they do not know. Never let them tug or pull, bite or kick – even in play – as even a beloved family dog may one day act out due to the fact they have an underlying medical issue that the family simply does not see.
Teach your children well and learn to read calming signals in dogs, so that you can protect your child from dog-owners who do not.
Dogs can be man’s (or children’s) best friend, but best friends always take time to understand and be sure of how the other is feeling, before expecting them to do something they do not want to.
Remember – if you’re going to home a dog that has not been habituated to children, it’s highly recommended (if not imperative) that you have a behaviorist nearby to help you with the introductions.