Teaching your kid to be dog-safe: A How-To Guide
Amos was tied up outside at my father’s place, because people were present who were scared of dogs. Our policy then is to put him on a long rope and spend a lot of time with him so he gets plenty of interaction. This way he gets to roam around and sniff my dad’s fascinating garden, but people who are scared of dogs have a clearly delineated dog-free space. Everyone wins.
Two of the kids had met Amos before, when he was hot and tired and therefore quite well behaved, so they were comfortable with him. This was a win. The problem was that the next morning, he was full of vim and vigour and wanted to play. The kids made a game of running past him and getting out of reach before he caught them. Now, Amos did quite well by all reports. He bounced a bit, but he didn’t jump. He bounced a bit more, but didn’t chase. The kids ran past laughing, obviously playing. He play-bowed and barked. And eventually he just cracked, caught up with the four year old, and jumped up and put his gigantic lion paws on her shoulders.
Cue wailing and crying from an understandably overwhelmed child, who had to have it explained to her that dog paws are rough, and no, he didn’t bite you.
Meanwhile I was also thinking (while being embarrassed for my dog), Who doesn’t teach their kid not to run around dogs? Really?
I mentioned this out loud around a friend who, while fond of my dogs, is not a dog person herself, and she gave me a quizzical look and said that she herself had not had any idea about that.
Fair play, I thought. So here’s a list for kid-dog behaviour, and of course this goes for adults as well.
- Don’t run around dogs unless you want to be chased.
Maybe you want to run away from the dog because you’re scared? Don’t. Running activates prey drive. This is very deep instinctive behaviour for them – try to avoid switching it on.
If you know the dog and you can trust it’s all a good fun game and they won’t lose their minds, feel free to run. I like to run and jog with my dogs. They get excited, and it’s a good engagement exercise because they know just how excited they’re allowed to get. Bouncing and running after me, when I’m encouraging them, is great! Jumping up on me is bad. Mouthing is super dooper bad (Abby did this once or twice, was corrected, and has not done it again since. It is a risk when dogs get really excited and have not been trained out of the behaviour. It’s just play, but really can’t be allowed). But running is fine. Now, returning to the anecdote above: the problem with the kids running is that they were laughing and squealing and generally having a fantastic time – which, to a dog who is a bit oversocialised (like Amos), is pretty much an invitation to play. He felt he was getting invited to play, and even though I think he suspected he shouldn’t be jumping (due to lifelong training in DO NOT JUMP!), he caved.
Kids may need to be reminded that, if they decide they want to play chasey with a safe dog, they should not complain about getting caught. The caveat here is that Amos is perfectly safe when it comes to biting, aggression, etc. etc. That’s not a concern. Him bowling over a kid in excitement? That’s a concern. He’s 40 kgs. I would just prefer kids not run around him unless I am there to reinforce good behaviour.
- Do not lean over a dog.
Most people are taller than most dogs, but I would even tell a kid not to do this. It’s an instinctive human behaviour so we do have to think about it. When we want to pat a dog, we bend forward over them. As far as the dog is concerned, we are looming. I’ve had people who are experienced dog owners make this mistake with Abby, and since she can be a bit anxious, that’s very confronting for her. She shrinks away. If you want to pat a dog and you’re just too tall, kneel. Sit down next to them. It’s harder on the knees, but it’s easier on the dog.
(I should mention that I can lean over my dogs if I have to – they know me well and I am completely unthreatening to them – but don’t lean over a dog you don’t know well).
- While we’re on the subject – don’t reach for the head.
This is a big no-no. I’ve been guilty of it with my own dogs if I’m not thinking. Do not reach forward and down to pat a dog on the head. To understand why, imagine someone twice your height is doing that to you – reaching forward and down, their gigantic hand outstretched and casting a shadow over your eyes – kind of intimidating? Maybe a bit threatening? Yeah. Don’t do that. In fact, don’t pat dogs on the head at all.
A pat is basically a tap or a little slap – doing it on the head is just weird. Stroking the head is fine. Maybe around behind the ears or under the jaw – Amos loves being scratched under the jaw, and often he does like being scratched on the top of his head, but when I want to do this I bring my hand up under the jaw and over his ears, or pass it forward from back over his neck. I don’t reach down in front of his face. If I do that, he often shies his head away and just gives me a look as if to say, “Wtf are you doing?”
- A wagging tail does not always mean a dog is friendly.
A wagging tail just means a dog is interested in interaction. There’s good interaction and bad interaction and the act of wagging the tail does not state which one it is going to be. Take that as you will.
- Don’t give a dog commands if you don’t know the dog.
Different dogs will respond to different tones of voice, depending on how they have been trained. Here’s an anecdote (I do love them): when my brother and I were kids, another family brought a rottie bitch around so that Max, our in-his-prime-at-the-time male rottie, could play stud (which as a side note resulted in a surreal situation where a bunch of people were standing around watching with avid interest as two dogs humped in the carport). Meg, our own rottie bitch, was locked up in the garage so she couldn’t attempt to defend her territory from that woman (she was not pleased about the interloper). While our parents were discussing the plans (and prior to any humping between dogs), brother and I decided to play with the New Dog. She was very well behaved. When we said “sit”, she sat. Then we said “drop”, and she barked at us. Brother and I jumped backwards about six feet and tried again. Then she barked at us again. Eek!
It turns out that the tone of voice we used to say “drop” to our dogs was the same tone that the visiting dog’s owners used to say “speak.” We thought she was just getting cross!
I wonder if people who natively speak tonal languages have a better time with this. I’ve had people try to get Amos to sit in ways that are honestly ridiculous, ranging from a long drawn out “Siiiiiiiiiiiiit” that goes up in an ascending scale like an operatic aria, to “sitsitsitsitsit!” to holding out a hand and raising a single index finger (maybe the signal they use with their dog?). Amos just looks at them, panting happily, a big doggy grin on his face. He has no idea what they are saying to him. As near as he can tell: “The new friendly people are making noises at me! This is fantastic! I like new friendly people!”
This is why I’m always happy to tell friends and kids how to command my dog and which nonverbal signals to use to reinforce the command if dog is a bit confused (nonverbal is easier for dogs).
Dogs don’t speak English. It might be best not to even think of commands as words, but simply significant noises (signifiers, for the semioticians among you), meaning that every aspect of the noise is important, because dogs don’t know otherwise.I’ve had people try to give him commands that I’ve never taught him (as an embarrassing aside, to get Amos to essentially get out of your face, a disgruntled “Amos, bugger off!” in a long-suffering tone of voice with particular Australian emphasis will usually work. That… wasn’t on purpose). The closest universal is that most dogs, at least to varying extents, have been taught “No” or “Leave.”
- Don’t jump or pick up interesting things – like kids, or pets.
I didn’t know this one from the dogs I grew up with; I learned this one by picking up the cats around Amos. After consulting with trainers: yes, this is very common and instinctive behaviour. If your kid is freaking out a bit about an excitable dog, if at all possible or practical, remove kid from the situation with their feet firmly on the ground (obviously not practical with pre-walkers), as understandably tempting as it may be to sweep them up safely into your arms. The minute you pick up the kidlet, the dog will jump (or rather, he’ll feel the strong urge to jump).
I’ve had Amos do this and it’s so frustrating; up until that point he was doing so well and I was just about to tell him how good he was being and get him to come with me so I could give him a treat and then he jumps up and licks the dangling feet of the small child and now I can’t reward him because that behaviour is not cool. Poor Amos, poor worried parent, poor confused kidlet, and poor frustrated dog owner. Our neighbour picked up her kelpie pup when he felt overwhelmed by Amos – instant jumping. Picking up the cat – instant jumping. Regarding the cat, there has now mostly been enough repetition (after two years!) for Amos to not jump if I pick up a cat in front of him (Abby still goes nutballs).
Most dogs will do this. It’s a thing.
- Most important of all: if you want to pat a strange dog, always always ask the owner for permission first!
Most adults are pretty good about this, and many do teach their kids this, but sometimes excitement gets the better of them. Back when Amos was about nine months old, a very drunk man stumbled out of a local pub out into a formerly deserted country road and proceeded to get in Amos’s face with his hands and give him big pats on the head and pull his ears (thinking he was being a super dog guy), all before I could pick up my jaw and say “Uh, please don’t touch my dog…” (I just couldn’t believe it was happening). Amos is very laid back and will put up with wrangling of this kind even if his body language is saying he hates it (I may have taught him that sometimes I have to wrangle him, and sometimes the vet has to wrangle him, and if he puts up with it he gets treats), but if this happened with a fear defensive dog, it could have been really ugly. This would have been completely unfair to a fear defensive dog (this is through no fault of their own that they are like this) and their owner who might have been trying to walk their dog safely on a deserted country road.
A lot of the examples here refer to my own dogs, and will highlight my own shortcomings as a dog trainer, and that’s something I have to wear; but I also do think it’s important that more parents, particularly if they’re not dog people themselves, get the chance to teach their kids how to be safe around dogs (it also helps us train our dogs in good behaviour if we set them up to “win”). My friend was absolutely right; there’s no reason to just assume people will know these things if they haven’t grown up with dogs themselves. It’s not common sense. There is no such thing.
It’s dog sense, which is a different thing entirely.
P.S. As a guide to dog sense, I really feel I need to recommend “The Other End of the Leash” by Patricia McConnell. It is an excellent book and is absolutely worth a read, full of fantastic doggy anecdotes and information about dog body language.