By Madeline Gabriel, Certified Professional Dog Trainer
Have you ever beamed with pride seeing your dog do so well with children? Great! This one is for you and your wonderful dog. Historical bite statistics project that over 50% of our children will be bitten by dogs before age twelve, most often by a dog they know. Despite the fact that dog bites rarely cause serious injury, families are distraught and dogs often lose their homes, or even their lives.
What’s that you say? “Sure, that’s because of all those ‘bad dogs.’ Lucky for me, I have a GOOD dog and don’t have to worry about that.”
Most of the cases I see involve a dog no one expected to bite. When was the last time you heard a parent say, “Oh yeah, I totally knew my dog was dangerous and I just let the kids play with him anyway”? Instead, the calls usually start with, “The bite came out of the blue! He was always so good with the baby,” followed by a list of all the various things the dog has put up with without apparent complaint. This is a clear case of The Curse of a Good Dog.
Most dogs known to be uncomfortable with small children are treated with caution and, thus, protected. It’s the “good dogs” that are generally left to fend for themselves. We all know how this happens. A small child does something with the dog and the dog does not object. Parents think, “What a good dog!” and are lulled into a false sense of security and a resultant lack of vigilance in guiding dog and child interactions. What we forget is that all dogs, even good dogs, have limits to their tolerance. Every action by a child that surprises, frightens, annoys, hurts, or otherwise bothers a dog is, essentially, a withdrawal from that “bank account” of goodwill. At some point, this balance dips low, maybe on a bad day or maybe after an on-going history of incursions. Bam! That’s when you see the growl, or snap, or bite, didn’t come out of the blue at all.
Never forget that the Curse of a Good Dog has serious implications for the child, as well. The child is acquiring unsafe habits of behavior around all dogs, not just this particular dog. Most dogs actively dislike hugs, kisses, kids pushing them, pulling their fur, or disturbing them while they’re sleeping — even if your own good dog has yet to object. What your child does with your dog she will do with other dogs. Instead of expecting more and more of our good dogs, let’s honor their forbearance with our guidance and protection.
Keep your good dog good:
Actively seek out opportunities to turn withdrawals into deposits. Sure, all kids do some things that are annoying to dogs. Your job is to make it worth your dog’s while. Look at your dog, praise him, and give him a treat, every time. This increases your dog’s store of tolerance and prompts him to look to you when disturbed or startled. It should never be your dog’s job to “correct” your child. Show your dog that you will make it OK for him.
Learn the body language of a worried dog and contrast with how your dog looks when happy or relaxed. Unless you’ve got a suggestion box where your dog can write you a note and stamp it with a paw print, body language is all your dog has. Luckily, once you know what to look for, you can’t miss what your dog is telling you.
Teach your children true respect and empathy for animals by clearly supporting the animal’s likes and dislikes. If your child truly loves your dog, she’s got to show that love in a way the animal truly appreciates. Dogs love children they can feel safe being around. Save the hugs and kisses for Grandma.
Oddly enough, we get to have our happily ever after with our dogs and kids when we stop assuming a “good dog” is the most important part of the equation.