A good relationship between our kids and the family dog makes for playful days on the lawn and contented evenings in the family room. Have you studied your dog’s body language as he interacts with your children? What about your child’s friends? You don’t need to be a dog behaviorist with lots of letters after your name to see that the puppy in this picture is alarmed at this sudden invasion of his space. Ears back, eyes wide, and if the picture wasn’t cropped so tight, you would see the puppy’s feet braced and posture leaning back.
This picture shows what is wrong with our perception of the child-dog dynamic. Mutual respect needs to be at the forefront of this relationship. Many parents will oooh and aahh at the sight of children hugging the dog, picking it up, lying on the dog in front of the TV, and other images that have dog trainers and pediatricians cringing. As I try to explain to parents and their children, dogs communicate with body language, and if we fail to heed their signs, they must use their mouths to get the message through.
Remember when we were tykes, we all had that elder aunt or grandmother that would grab us by the head with uncannily strong hands, pull us toward their perfumed and powdered faces, and then pucker up and kiss us, leaving a wet mark complete with lots of caked lipstick? (Mine was Aunt Ruth, and no family dinner was complete without this awful ritual.) Had I been a dog, I surely would have growled and snapped at sweet Aunt Ruth, having failed to discourage her with stiff and backwards-leaning body language. As a biped human, I settled for locking my hands and elbows, keeping her at a distance that prevented suffocation, and bracing myself for the onslaught of wet lipstick on my cheek. As a child, I knew that the leaders in my family pack, my parents, would have approved of nothing less than submission to this greeting. The same is true of your dog. He is trying to do what is expected of him, but parents must be respectful of his space and his dignity. If your dog does not perceive you as leaders, and the children are crossing a line with him, your dog will act, and most probably, do so with a growl and snap. This is precisely the reason that most dog bite victims are children between the ages of 5 and 9.
Parents, I know I sound like a real killjoy when you just love seeing your kids hug the dog. I realize it’s cute, but look at your dog’s face and body language when they do it. Anytime kids lean over the top of a dog and encircle him with hands or arms, they are putting the dog in a position of no escape, and leaving him with two options: hope that a leader will intervene and stop the child, or take action himself. Show your kids how to pet the dog with one hand behind their backs. The dog’s favorite places to be petted are: the neck, under the chin, the shoulder, and, if he rolls over, the chest and upper tummy. Check my next post for activities kids and dogs can do together, safely.
Parents and kids are not at fault for thinking that the dog likes hugs and other invasive human habits. Just look at advertising using dogs and children. Your new awareness will make you look at these advertising images differently. Now, have another look and tell me, what’s wrong with this picture?