Having a dog as a pet can be one of the cornerstones of a happy childhood. The joy and friendship of a dog can positively shape a child’s world, the benefits of which can be carried forward throughout his or her entire life. Teaching the do’s and don’ts regarding animals is one of the most important lessons you can give your child. Animals are everywhere and though many are domesticated, this does not automatically make them safe.
Any dog can bite. Often they bite because kids behave in ways that encourage them to bite, even in play. Most children will not recognize the warning signs a dog will provide and unwittingly can escalate a dog’s anxiety, fear or dominance, which may cause it to bite. In a recent study it was discovered that children frequently misinterpret a snarl for a smile. If the child believes the dog is smiling and is enjoying the child’s company, the child unknowingly puts pressure on the dog. As many dogs do “smile” it is understandable why a child could be confused.
Proper education is key to preventing dog bites. Most bites are preventable through education of the children, parents, and dog owners. Your child is less likely to be bitten if he or she has been taught how to act around dogs and how to play with them, as well as how to be introduced to them and when to leave them alone. They also need to learn the warning signals that all dogs give before they actually reach the point of biting. There are several charts on how to read a dog’s moods available on the internet. It would be good if the adults in the child’s life take the time to study these with the child, so that they too may be more aware of what the dog is trying to convey.
Children should not approach a dog that is not with their owner. When asking for permission to pet the dog, they should make sure that the owner is fully engaged with them and not distracted, otherwise the owner may say a quick “sure” and not really be aware of what is expected of them or their dog. Or they may feel their dog is ok with children, when the dog is actually fearful of them.
Children should learn these important signals that all dogs do.
- The dog turns his head or moves his eyes back and forth at a person’s approach. This means that the dog is uncomfortable with the person being so close. If the person leans over to pet the dog, that is understood by the dog as an act of dominance.
- Turning the body to the person is a stronger version of the dog turning his head.
- Dogs that sniff intently at one spot are usually trying to calm down the approaching person or animal or trying to calm themselves.
- Lip licking is also used to calm the dog down or the person they are with. This can be very slight lip licking or a quick tongue as they greet a friend.
- Yawning is a common calming signal. This can be an expression of insecurity or friendliness.
- Lowering of the ears.
- Turning of the head and lowering of the shoulders.
- Crouching down when confronted.
- Avoidance, even attempting to leave, by either walking, running or crawling away.
If these signs are ignored and the child continues to approach, these early warning signals may escalate to:
- Snarling – lifting of the lips, sometimes to the extent that the teeth show.
- If the dog has a tail, the tail may be held upright and stiff, the tip flicking quickly back and forth.
- The ears will be tense and either lowered or held tightly to the head.
If the child continues to approach or interact with the dog after the dog has given these signals, the chances are very good that the dog will bite them.
They should also behave appropriately around all dogs, regardless if they are the family’s, neighbor’s, friend’s or a dog met outside. They should be taught to respect the dog and never hit the dog or pull ears, hair or tail. Teasing can be a cause of biting, so children should be taught to never tease the dog in any way. Rough housing can encourage the dog to chase and potentially bite. While most family dogs are used to the kid’s rough housing, some can either get caught up in the play or try to guard or protect a favored child. Adult supervision is recommended in these instances, or the dog should be put in another area or stay by the adult. While playing with the dog is always fun for kids, any dominance type games should also be avoided. Tug of war would be one instance as this can cause possessive tendencies in the dog and they may get too involved and accidentally bite the child.
Use caution when allowing children to interact with dogs. Be aware of the dog’s personality and temperament. Some dogs just naturally do well with children, while others prefer not to interact with them. Be especially watchful of the fearful dog, as they are more likely to bite a child out of fear and self-protection. An over rambunctious dog can also be a potential danger, as he may become too wound up in the games and forget that his playmates are not dogs.
Dogs are good for kids. They are good listeners, they know when a child needs companionship, they love unconditionally, they encourage children to share feelings and to participate in active play. Being taught how to care for a pet can foster responsibility in a child. Working with animals helps develop empathy, trust, respect, sensitivity, personal responsibility, community responsibility, self-control, self-worth and self-esteem.
Clarice Rutherford seems to have had all of the above in mind when she wrote A Dog is A Dog, and That’s Why He’s So Special for middle school kids. The book— which is filled with fun illustrations, humorous photos, quizzes and facts—teaches children why dogs behave like dogs, how they communicate, and how to communicate with and train their pooch. A wonderful resource for ten to fourteen-year-old youngsters.