The first thing I note as I contemplate the relationship between children and dogs is how wonderful that relationship can be. My 13 year old daughter walked down the stairs this morning to be greeted by 5 happy faces and 5 lovely, waggy tails. There are literally millions of positive interactions like this between children and dogs every day.
But dogs bite. Or they could do. They could easily crush our hands with their sharp teeth but day after day, all over the world, they choose not to. They have developed a clear system of communication to let us know how they feel in order not to bite us. And yet also day after day, many dog owners ignore those signals and people and children end up getting bitten. We’ve all seen the “cutesy” photos on social media of a toddler climbing all over their family pet. And yet often, if you look a little closer, you can see those signals that the dog is uncomfortable. The whites of their eyes, ears back, stiff body language – all of these are signals that humans can heed or ignore. I do one to one consultations in people’s homes to resolve dog behaviour problems and many times I have seen dogs giving off signals to children that the parents haven’t even spotted. I remember clearly a crawling infant approaching a growling dog and a mother, who was busy chatting to me, who hadn’t even noticed. I very rapidly asked to move her child but she then proceeded to let the same thing happen again!
We’ve all read the awful, tragic stories in the media of children being seriously injured, or even killed, and then parents who say “he’s never done anything like that before, it just came out of the blue!”. I always wonder how many signals that dog had been giving off in the weeks or months leading up to that incident? Or I read incredulously about the scenarios that parents put their children into, unsupervised with unfamiliar, or even familiar, dogs.
Dogs use something known in the dog behaviour world as the “Ladder of Aggression” (developed by Dr Kendal Shepherd, a leading clinical behaviourist). Our human behaviour can inadvertently push them up the ladder into biting. At the lower rungs of the ladder are what we call appeasement gestures or calming signals. These are behaviours such as ears back, freezing, averting their eyes, head turning, lip licking, crouching, yawning and nose crinkling. These are the signs we need to understand and ensure that our children understand. They are signs that the dog is under stress and is uncomfortable about the situation they are in. If ignored or confronted, the behaviour will escalate into growling, snarling, snapping and biting.
You can never guarantee that a dog won’t bite. All dogs, including those without histories of biting, are at risk, just as all people are at risk of, for instance, losing their temper and being rude to someone in the bank or in traffic!
When dogs growl, snarl, snap and bite without damage, this, in dog society at least, is not over the line. The line is crossed when a dog inflicts an injurious bite. It is not just aggression that is a problem too. Playfulness, over-boisterousness, clumsiness – all can be dangerous to a small child. Children are at greatly increased risk because they are often not adequately covered in the early socialisation of puppies. It is critical that parents address any problems with their children immediately and, even better, prepare so well that the situations never arise in the first place.
It goes without saying that dogs should NEVER be left unsupervised with your child, even for a moment. Although you want to socialise your dog or puppy with your child, you can’t take any risks and you should utilise all aids possible to keep your child safe. Plan in advance. Whether you are bringing a puppy or dog into a house with children already and or whether you are bringing a baby into a home with a dog, you should think carefully about how you will handle the situation. Make sure your puppy or dog gets a good education with a qualified, force-free trainer using reward based methods. They are some trainers out there still using outdated and aversive methods that can make aggression issues worse, so choose carefully. Look for membership of The Pet Professional Guild which promotes forcefree, reward based training. Ensure that your child gains a good understanding of how to interact successfully with dogs, whether it is your dog at home or a dog out in public. The Kennel Club have an excellent scheme called “Safe and Sound”, http://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/training/safe-and-sound/. It provides great resources for parents and also teachers, who can promote safe interaction between children and dogs as part of the curriculum.
The relationship between children and dogs can be lovely to see but it must be treated carefully and responsibly. Handled well, both child and dog can enjoy years of fun together!