Sometimes people think that having a dog to protect their family, and specifically their child, is a good idea. There are draw backs that you should be aware of before pursuing this type of dog or encouraging a dog to take this on this role for the family. Being a companion for a family is a sort of “second career” for dogs compared to what they may have been originally bred to do – herding, hunting, etc. Some breeds have had an easier time switching from working dog to companion animal. Other breeds may look for more work to fill their time!
If you don’t give your dog something to do (long walks, training, ball retrieving, swimming, chew toys) they will often come up with their own job. All they may need is a little encouragement to jump into a role, such as “protector”, but it may be challenging to control how serious they take this new position. The consequences can be detrimental to both the family members and the dog. For instance, if the dog decides that a growl or bark is not effective to remove or control an individual, they may go straight for the bite. Consequences for the owner of the dog can be serious, ranging from medical bills to pay to being sued. For the dog, consequences may be even more serious, as biting incidents can result in a dog being euthanized.
Dogs can naturally come by their “jobs” in the family by chance or when given some intended or unintended direction. An example is when a dog alerts you by barking when someone comes to the door or walks past your house. This is a very innate behavior for most dogs.
Sometimes people start their dog on a new behavior by accident. For example, let’s say you have a new tiny puppy and one day it growls and barks at someone. Everyone giggles and laughs because it looks so cute seeing this adorable puppy acting so tough.
Your unintended response of positive feedback communicates to the puppy that he did a great job. The consequence might be that as the dog matures, he won’t let people come near anyone in the family. It happens! A few examples of this can be when family or friends come to the house for a visit or celebration, such as for a birthday party or holiday, and the dog can not determine whether or not some of these individuals are friend or foe. I’ve known dog owners who could not leave their children with a friendly babysitter in the house without fear of a bite or nip to the sitter from the dog. Of course the dog is just trying to be protective and do their job. Even other children are not exempt from suspicion and can be subject to “corrections” from the dog. Dog owners can become hostage to their own dog and find themselves having to manage their situations by removing the dog to other rooms, crates or kennels, hoping nothing goes wrong when someone visits the home.
Further, if we see a questionable or negative behavior from our dog and don’t disallow it or give guidance, the dog will likely believe it’s an approved behavior. People often hope bad behaviors will just go away, but usually they don’t. In the case of allowing a dog to growl or exhibit some other display of protection towards a stranger who is approaching your child, you may think, “I like this!” However, when given the green light, dogs may have trouble discriminating between good and bad situations.
If you have given them the role to protect your child, whether intended or not, they will have to make decisions on their own. Unfortunately, they may not make good choices. For instance, an old lady with a walker or cane can look as menacing to a dog as an intruder with a weapon. Even after a dog is familiar with specific family or friends, each occasion can be a unique for the dog. For example, Uncle Bob, who the dog knows, comes for a visit with a new baseball bat and glove for his nephew or niece. In this case the dog may see the baseball bat as suspicious, and therefore jumps in to defend the family biting Uncle Bob in the process. Now Uncle Bob doesn’t want to visit unless the dog is contained. You may start to find that other people become reluctant to visit as well. And, now the dog will likely be put in another room or crated every time anyone visits. This will likely make the dog see all visitors as negative, and perpetuate the defensiveness of the dog.
My advice is, don’t go out of your way to encourage your dog to act protectively. If your dog has started this naturally, be sure you do some training with your dog so you can communicate effectively with them to help them understand their role when interacting with people. If you’re unable to provide this leadership with your dog, it’s important that you seek assistance from an experienced trainer who can help you.
Pediatric Safety is a site that is dedicated to helping parents with information to make safe and informed decisions when it comes to their children. I have written several articles and this article was the latest. To see more about this website go to this link.
There are many things to consider before you make a decision to take or not to take a young child to a dog park.A friend called with a surprising story to share. She was at a local dog park with her small terrier, and not far away, there was a family with a lab mix. The family consisted of mom, dad and young daughter who was about 3 years old. A large dog ran by the family, and the young girl, somewhat surprised, grabbed onto her mother’s legs for comfort. Here’s the shocker….. Her mother bent down to look into her child’s eyes and said, “Oh honey, you don’t have to be afraid of any dogs here because this is a dog park and all dogs at dog parks are friendly.” Worst advice ever! That’s because dogs at dog parks are not screened in any way.
• Dogs do not have to be safe with children to go to a dog park. • Dogs do not have to be human or dog friendly, and some may in fact be bullies and jerks! • Dogs are not required to have vaccinations to go to a dog park. • Dogs that may be friendly, may still have terrible manners meaning that they could jump on anybody and anything, or use their mouth to grab, hold and pull… all with the intent to play.Often times, going to a dog park is a dog’s only physical outlet to “let loose”. Rough play or rude behavior (towards dogs or humans) can be common. Couple that with an owner who is looking more at their phone or chatting with other dog owners, and things can go wrong in a nano second. Some owners are in denial about their dog’s inappropriate “play” and there’s not a lot you can do about that, other than recognizing potentially dangerous situations and leaving the park. Educate yourself about dog body language and good dog park etiquette to help be proactive and avoid bad situations. Looking back on this dog park example, the child was shy, but another child may think it’s great fun to chase after dogs. Some dogs may be ok with this, but others may not. In fact, if they are running away and are nervous about being pursued by a child, they may turn and stop the child with a bite. So if you want to give your child exposure to dogs, great, but find friends that have dogs that like children and are comfortable in their presence. See my blog on “When Things Are Going Well”, to understand body language that supports this. In closing, always supervise your child and dog. By all means, if you see a child pursuing a dog that’s trying to get away, step in to intervene. Sometimes young children don’t know any better, and it’s our job to help keep both child and dog safe.
What an ideal scene! The kids walking the dogs. There are several things to consider first!
First, how important is a walk for dogs…very!
One of the most normal activities for canines to do is walk with the pack. In nature, dogs would walk daily together with the pack, most likely looking for food. But, in the case of the modern day dog living with a family, searching for food isn’t usually the reason for the walk. (Although the way dogs try to scarf up anything they find along the way, you can see this may be hard wired in their brains.)
Walking does a number of important things for a dog.
No. 1 – drains energy
No. 2 – relieves boredom
No. 3 – builds a bond with you
No. 4 – exposes them to other dogs/people/things
So, yes, in my book walking is a great thing to do with your dog!
Now, back to the kids as the dog walkers…here are a few tips to help make it a dream.
The first thing to do is be sure your dog has leash manners with you before handing the leash over to your child. My neighbors, seen in the photo, were both 9 years old when they first asked to walk my dogs Hunter and Ruby. As calm they look in the photo, originally they were both horrible “pullers” on leash! In fact, Hunter, the retriever, had a history of pulling down his previous owner’s daughter and mother-in-law! At 5 years old he came to live with me and I began training him over the coming weeks and months. By the time the neighbor girls asked, Hunter was trained to walk politely.
You also need to learn if your dog reacts unpredictably to certain things so that a child won’t get caught in a bad situation. Some dogs get excited if they see another dog, others may bolt out if they see a cat or other animal. Sometimes an unexpected sound like a large vehicle may cause a dog to react. Depending on the dog, it could be as simple as a plastic bag blowing across the street. Know your dog! Back to the photo, the vizsla Ruby was afraid of at least 20 things when she was first re-homed to me (crunching leaves, plastic bags, feathers, crossing bridges, etc.). I spent time making her comfortable with these things before handing the leash to a child.
Third, consider using a double leash. In this case, both you and your child have separate leashes which are attached to your dog. You can be the “safety net” if something goes wrong during the walk.
If any of this makes you uncomfortable, just hire a good dog trainer or take a class. As a trainer, I love working with children and families. Be sure to find a good trainer or facility that will be happy to work with your entire family and your dog to create a positive bond between all family members. Just like any other profession, dog trainers are not all the same. Hunter’s previous owners told me other trainers had given up on him. Fortunately, I took no heed to this. Be sure to find a trainer that will work with you to help you succeed!
For a quiet activity for kids to do with the dog – try reading!
There are many beneficial reasons why dog therapy groups have been created for children to read to dogs. These organizations, like Paws for Reading and Paws for Healing, go into schools, libraries and hospitals just to provide a dog so a child can sit quietly and read a book. Children are usually less shy to read to a dog because they realize that dogs don’t mind if they misread a word. Although therapy dogs are chosen for a calm temperament and go through training to be prepared for visits, your dog can do this at home with your child and it will benefit both.
It is easy to get a dog excited and wound up, but it is more important to teach a dog how to stay calm. This is because most incidences of bites or scratches happen when dogs are in an excited state. Because they are pack animals dogs like to be with us no matter what activity we are doing.
Try this activity of having your child read to the family dog. This is something that is not only good for your child, but the dog will benefit from the close proximity and the calm state of mind from the child. You may have to start with the dog on a leash and sitting quietly next to your child as he/she reads a book. It is good to have times that the child and dog are close together but the direct focus is not on the dog. Soon they will both understand what is to be done during this activity and no leash will be needed.
If you are reading the book and your child is looking at pictures and listening to the story this is just as good. This is also a good time to teach your child how to calmly pet the dog as they both relax and listen to the story. Many people including adults pet a dog with fast hand movements. This will again, get at dog more excited. Try having your child slowly count as they pet the dog’s entire back. It might be fun to make a game out of counting slowly. Try this: “one good dog, two good dogs, three good dogs…” and so on. I bet they can get to “five good dogs”! See my next blog for more active games for children to play with dogs.
Great activity for a child to do with their dog.
The best advice I can give to you is to teach your children to take a moment to identify how the dog is feeling by looking at the entire dog’s body language. My previous blog reviewed signs of a dog that is uncomfortable, or not happy. This blog will review body language that indicates a dog is comfortable and happy.
This is an example of a relaxed happy dog.
Here are some of the things you want to look for to indicate that things are going well:
1. Relaxed, loose body language – Overall the dog seems to be enjoying interacting with children and looks relaxed and happy. If lying down, he may have his head over his paw or have his paws crossed. The whole body may be wiggling with the tail. He may also be sitting in a relaxed manner with a happy expression on his face. Don’t confuse an excited dog with a happy dog. An overly-excited dog may jump up, or grab the child with their mouth in an attempt to play as they would with another dog.
2. Mouth may be open and you can see their tongue and it can look like they are smiling – Not a tightly closed mouth, snarling or growling. Also the tongue should not be hanging out, extended, as though they are hot, tired or stressed.
3. Eyes look soft, happy, relaxed, and peaceful or even can be squinted.
4. Ears are relaxed – Not tightly pinned down or very erect and rigid. They may be turned to the side, lowered, but relaxed.
5. Tail may be wagging softly, but also look at the base of the tail – It most likely will be level with the back or hanging in a relaxed way, If it is wagging, it will be wagging loosely and in a relaxed manner. The tail should not be erect from the base up over the body, or tucked between the back legs. As I’ve mentioned in my “Stop, Look and Paws” child/dog safety learning activity, a wagging tail itself is not always a sign that a dog is happy. It can mean they are excited and want to interact, but the interaction may not always be positive. You need to look at the whole body for overall body language.
Finally, remember not to focus only on the breed of the dog. All breeds are capable of being safe or not safe to pet. Also, don’t just look at the face or tail of dog. Help the children in your life to observe the entire body language of a dog to help them determine if it may be safe or not safe to pet!
Often dog bites occur because no one noticed and acted on the early warning signs given by the dog. My clients usually say, “He didn’t give us any warning…he just bit.”
What is more likely is that the signals that the dog was giving were not recognized. To help with this, I’ve put a list of body language cues and behavior to be aware of that can indicate the dog may be preparing to bite.
1. Observe the dogs face for “early” signs of stress and stop child/dog interactions if you see them.
- yawning -when they are not tired
- flicking tongue – when they haven’t eaten
- darting eyes – as though looking for an exit
- panting – when it’s not hot
2. If a dog actively moves away from the child or situation, do not let the child pursue them. It’s likely the dog is making a choice to feel safer or more comfortable. If the child continues to pursue him, the dog could feel forced take the next step and say, “Leave me alone!” with a bite.
3. Listen for growling. It may be soft, with no teeth showing, but it should be interpreted as the dog communicating that he wants the attention from the child to stop.
4. Look for “later” signs of stress, which often occur just prior to a bite:
- an impression that the dog does not seem to be enjoying the attention
- stiff body – with a frozen stance or hunched back
- hard staring eyes, or half moon eyes – whites of the eyes are showing
- tightly closed mouth
Sometimes it’s the child’s behavior that needs to be addressed. Just because a dog seems to tolerate a child laying on it, hugging it, pulling ears, legs, or tail, doesn’t mean the dog should tolerate this behavior. If the dog turns to leave or hides under an object, like a table, don’t allow the child to grab for them or reach under the object for the dog. Look at the dog for signals, and if they are not enjoying the attention, redirect the child. In my Stop, Look and Paws sticker activity, I address these issues in a way that engages children to make safer choices before a real life scenario occurs.
Now that you have read this blog, look at the photo of the girl hugging the dog at the top of this post. Do you see any signals the dog is giving that concern you? …. The answer should be, yes! The dog is exhibiting a tightly closed mouth, half moon eyes, and an overall impression of not really enjoying the hug.
I hope this information is helpful to keep child/dog interactions safe in your family. In my next blog, I’ll share body language cues that indicate your dog is enjoying interacting with your child.