How to Stay Safe Around Each Other
It is important to keep children and dogs safe around each other
The image of a child with their faithful dog running through grassy meadows together holds a special place in our hearts but how can we make sure we keep our precious children and dogs safe around each other?
As parents, we teach our children to always ask the owner before stroking their dog, but Health and Social Care statistics show that more children are actually bitten by a dog they know. Young children are also more commonly bitten around the facial area as they often use their faces to explore the objects around them especially moving ones. Research has also showed that young children may also believe that a dog showing its teeth is smiling. Since we encourage our children to hug as a sign of affection, it comes as no surprise that they are going to want to hug the family dog.
But do dogs enjoy being hugged and squeezed tightly?
Some might and will let you know by coming back for more. Their body language will remain relaxed with a sweeping wagging tail and a wiggly body. Their faces will be loose and smiley with a lollopy tongue. But some dogs may not. All you have to do is take a closer look at the many videos and photographs found on social media sites of small children climbing over, sitting on, hugging and being close to dogs’ faces to realise that most of these images are not depicting a relaxed and happy dog. Instead most of these images are depicting a very tolerant but often unhappy one.
How can we tell if a dog is unhappy?
Well we can take a look at the dog’s body language. Let’s start with the face.
This dog is showing ‘whale’ eye (ie the whites of his eyes are visible), indicating that he is unhappy with the situation
- Does the mouth look closed and tight?
- Does it look as if it is frowning?
- Is it yawning when it isn’t tired?
- Is it licking its lips?
- Is it showing its teeth?
- Is it trying to move its head away or trying to escape?
- Are the ears flattened tightly to the head?
- Can you see any white parts of the eyes known as ‘whale’ or ‘half moon’ eye?
- Listen carefully – can you hear any deep grumbling, whining or growling sounds?
- Where is the tail being held? Is it tucked up under the body; a sign it is feeling uncomfortable and even threatened?
- Has the dog’s whole body become stiffened, is one paw raised and does it freeze or shake itself and disappear out of the door as soon as the children come back from school?
If you notice any of these tell-tale signs then your dog is probably not enjoying the experience as much as you would think. Some people would say that dogs should be able to tolerate such attention from young children and if it isn’t you should re-home it or even worse. But should you? If you knew your dog was feeling uncomfortable, nervous or in pain would you think differently?
A dog showing its teeth is communicating that he/she is unhappy
As a certificated clinical animal behaviourist I am often called out to dogs that that have apparently bitten ‘out of the blue’. Yet after observing and carefully assessing the situation, it often becomes clear that they have been trying to tell their owners all along that they are uncomfortable and feeling threatened but unfortunately no one was listening. It is sometimes when the dog is pushed beyond its limits that it might snap with heartbreaking consequences for all concerned. However, most dogs don’t snap and are amazingly tolerant of the inconsistent treatment we humans often bestow upon them.
So what can we do instead?
Well we can keep that lovely image of a child running through meadows with their faithful dog by doing just that and by listening to what our dog is trying to tell us.
- Play with them in ways they do enjoy such as ball games, trick training using scrummy treats, hide and seek and going for lovely walks
- We can also allow our dogs a place to go when they need some quiet time such a lovely den, room or basket where no children are allowed
- We can teach our puppies to tolerate all this extra attention by associating the hugs with rewards from an early age
- We could breed more tolerant puppies, which means making sure the mum and dad are also tolerant dogs
- We can teach our children to respect their dog’s wishes and if their dog does not enjoy being hugged to stop hugging them and do something the dog enjoys instead
- We can learn to understand what our dog is trying to tell us and teach this to our children as we do stranger-danger, lighting matches and why we don’t eat berries or mushrooms we are not sure of
I know we all love to hug things, but not all things love to be hugged! When I want to give my little rescue Pekinese cross a huge hug – which is every day – I get the clicker out instead and play training games, which she loves more than anything. Her whole mouth becomes loose and smiley and her tail spins round and round like a helicopter! Of course I still kiss her, as I am only human, but I know she can cope with a kiss as I can read how she is feeling.
We need to teach our children to respect that their dog may not want to be hugged
So take a look at what your dog is trying to tell you. You might be pleasantly surprised and relieved at how lovely and tolerable most dogs are.