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Dogs And Children – What Should We Be Teaching And How?

By Sally Bosson

ISCP member Sally Bosson offers some guidelines on how to create a happy, positive relationship between dogs and children.

Child playing with puppy

I can remember being called by a family to help deal with a dog who had bitten a child. Immediately, I began to formulate a series of questions to understand what had happened and a preliminary action plan that I could tailor to the family’s needs.

When I arrived at the house, I found a playful little Cocker Spaniel puppy. The bite? He’d got a little excited during a game of tug and nipped the daughter’s finger instead of the rope.

Very different from the Rottweiler who had one day ‘snapped’ and bitten a four-year-old who had been trying to cuddle him. According to the parents, their dog was ‘used to it’.

Children under the age of ten are the most likely to be admitted to hospital following a dog bite. It could be argued that a parent of a bitten child would be more likely to seek medical attention than an adult who had been bitten, but it still stands that a large number of dog bites happen to children.

Of course, nobody wants to blame a child for something so distressing but often they are not aware of the subtle warning signs that a dog displays before resorting to a bite.

The Warning Signs

  • Turning Away – whether the head or the whole body, a dog turning away is saying ‘enough’.

  • Licking Lips – A classic stress signal, the dog is trying to communicate that the interaction is too much for them to handle.

  • Yawning – This dog probably isn’t tired, he’s trying to tell you that your action is a little offensive and he’d like you to calm down and move away.

  • Cowering – A dog who is cowering is afraid, and fear can often result in a bite as the dog tries to get the frightening thing to stop.

  • Whale Eye – This is usually accompanied by the head turn, but the dog is watching you from the corner of their eyes.

  • Ears flat and back – An obvious stress indicator, the dog is probably quite fearful at this point.

  • Stiff posture – also known as a ‘freeze’, the next movement of the dog could very likely be a bite at this stage.

  • Growling – The dog is telling you to back away at this point, and should not be punished.

Punishment at this stage will encourage him to skip growling next time and potentially move straight to a bite.

The benefits of being able to identify and recognise these signs are that you can stop a situation from escalating whilst also gaining your dog’s trust. If you are an adult in this position and aren’t comfortable to do this yourself, enlist the help of a local behaviourist who really can work with the whole family (dog included!) on this area. Sometimes it is not only the children who are not aware of the dog’s body language. Sadly, many adults believe that a dog will just bite ‘out of the blue’, but in fact, this is very rare and it is more likely that the dog has been exhibiting signs of stress before the event.

It is also important to teach children (and some adults!) how to appropriately greet a dog. Most people want to approach a dog face to face and reach over its face to pat the head. This is incredibly confrontational to a dog. Instead, look at how dogs greet each other; they often turn side on and rarely make full eye contact.

Greeting a Dog

  • Turn your body side on and wait for the dog to approach you. You can kneel or crouch down if you wish.

  • If the dog is willing for you to approach, stroke them gently on the chest or the side of their body. Don’t go for the face or paws.

  • Avoid direct eye contact, or reaching over the dog’s head.

  • Don’t make loud noises or erratic, jumpy movements.

Just like humans, sometimes dogs would like to be left alone! If they are eating, sleeping or chewing on a bone or toy, then they probably want you to respect their space and leave them be.

Remember, our dogs cannot speak to us to tell us they are uncomfortable, so they rely on us being able to read their body language.
Just learning some of these fundamentals goes a long way to creating a happy, positive relationship between our dogs and children.


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