Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | May 20, 2011

I Think My Dog Might Bite My Kids…And I’m Glad

Heads Up!…I’ve moved this blog to my new website:  DogsandBabiesLearning.com.  You can find this post and comments through mid-November here.  If you are subscribing, commenting, linking or sharing, please do so from the new website.

In honor of this year’s National Dog Bite Prevention Week, I’ve got a post for each day!  Dog bites are almost entirely preventable – especially bites to children.  What will YOU do this week to prevent a dog bite?

Am I glad my dog “might” bite my kids?  No, what I’m saying is that I’m glad I am able to think it’s possible. That means I can choose to educate myself about dog body language and understand the situations that may prompt a dog to bite – and thus be more likely to prevent it rather than wring my hands later and wonder why it happened.

I don’t want my children bitten and I don’t want to lose my dog.  With that in mind, I look, really look, at my dog every single day and make my best educated guess as  to how she feels about what’s going on.  I look at her body language and I factor in what kind of day it’s been so far.  I also consider, “If I were a dog, would I be happy about this?”  and I look ahead and consider, “Regardless of how the dog feels about it today, is it safe and appropriate for my children to be rehearsing this particular behavior?”

If you don’t look, you won’t see.

That’s one reason why bites seem to happen out of the blue.

Do You Have a GOAL?

I came across this trucking acronym for “Get Out And Look” several weeks ago reading Letters to the Editor in our local paper.  The letter was in response to an article about rear view cameras in cars and the need to prevent backing up accidents.  The writer emphasized that even experienced truck drivers are reminded to always get out and look and not trust what they think is happening behind them.

This stuck in my mind as also true for interactions with dogs and children (and certainly many other aspects of parenting when you’d rather not get up and just call out, “What’s going on in there?”).  The first step to seeing is looking.

The adults are all "right there," aren't they? But who's actually watching?

Here's another one. Good for the mom to be at least looking at her child, but dog owners need to be present for their dogs to guide all interactions with children (and even adults!).

Here, I’m talking both to parents and to dog owners.  Young children do unpredictable things.  It’s not a sign of bad parenting.  You can’t assume that nice parents + nice kids = guaranteed good encounter for the dog.  If it’s your dog, YOU need to be looking.

Don’t Think it Can Happen to You?

A couple of years ago, I was at our park with our dog chit-chatting with another mom.  Her four year old daughter was standing right there with us.  She has literally grown up with our dog and been around her hundreds of times with nothing but appropriate behavior.  So, was I watching?  No, I was too busy with the chit-chat.  That is, until I heard a gurgly/growly noise from my dog and looked down to see the little girl with my dog in a strangle hold.  I had to physically disentangle her.  As I explained that dogs don’t like hugs, my friend mentioned that her daughter had been spending time visiting another family who let the children hug the dog.  See how kids innocently pick up dangerous behaviors?

What if my dog had snapped at this girl?  Don’t you think being strangled is reasonable cause to object?  But, wow, that would have caused a rift in a dear friendship…or worse.  No matter how you may choose to lay the blame, the fact remains that I was not looking at my dog while a young child was within reach of her.

Now That You are Looking, Do You See?

As part of this year’s Clicker Expo animal training conference, I attended a terrific lecture by Kathy Sdao, world-renowned trainer.  The emphasis was on observation skills for animal trainers and how our expectations color or limit what we actually see when we look.

Specific to dog and child interactions, this is something I come across all the time.  The mere presence of a child, especially a happy, laughing child obscures our view of whether or not the dog is enjoying the encounter.  I recently taught a class at the Bernese Mountain Dog National Specialty about this very topic.  I gathered pictures of Berners with children but cropped out the children.  We discussed body language and all agreed that the dogs appeared distressed.  Then, I switched to the pictures in context and everyone was surprised — it was obviously the same photos but it was so much harder to look past the happy kids.

Check out this video (even if you’ve seen something similar – it’s not the same):

Why We Don’t See What Our Dogs Are Telling Us

  1. We don’t expect it
  2. We don’t know what to look for (See here for information on dog body language and further resources at Doggone Safe)
  3. We are focused on the children, especially if they are laughing
  4. Social Pressure makes us deniers

The video comes from the work of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, described in their fascinating book, The Invisible Gorilla.  They coined the term “inattentional blindness” to refer to situations like in the video where we actually do not see what we are not looking for.  It can be so obvious but pass us right by.  That is, until you literally open your eyes to the possibility.

Why Do We Think Our Dogs Would “Never” Bite?

I think it’s a combination of missing more subtle signs of discomfort and the drift towards denial that comes from social pressure.  After all, who wants to think their dog might bite someone?

This is a situation I never want to be in:

“Okay…I’m having a real hard time here. We have had this dog for almost 2 years now. People think he looks intimidating but he is just a big ole baby. Our dd jumps on his back all the time, tugs on his tail, collar, whatever and it NEVER even phases him one bit. He has been a pretty good dog minus the annoying crap that happens sometimes such as chewing things up. Anyway, yesterday he nipped our friends daughter in the face. At that point in time I said okay this is ENOUGH, he has to go, I cannot have him doing that especially with a baby on the way. I still can’t even understand why he did it. She just barely had her arm around him and was kinda in his face talking to him, but still! He has been around tons of kids who are all over him. She had a puncture on both sides of her lip that was bleeding.”

From Gavin de Becker’s Protecting the Gift – Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane):

“Just as intuition protects us from danger, denial protects us from something too:  unwanted information.  Denial serves to eliminate the discomfort of accepting realities we’d rather not acknowledge.  There are times this protection is valuable for emotional survival, but it is rarely useful for physical survival — and it’s downright destructive for the safety of children.”

He identifies 5 Signals of Denial in his discussion of dangers to children from human predators and abusers.  (By the way, all parents should read this book!)  While he is not writing at all about dog bites, it’s a similar pattern:

  1. Rationalization ["I think the dog was just tired."]
  2. Justification ["My son should have known better than to go near the food bowl."]
  3. Minimization ["It was only a snap."]
  4. Excuse-making ["He hasn't been around a lot of kids."]
  5. Refusal ["It was a one-time thing."]

Reality says, “Dogs can bite…even that really cute one you love so much.”

Fantasy says, “Oh, my dog would NEVER bite!  He’s so good with kids.”

You get to choose.  Will you live in reality or fantasy?  Reality is where you will find the tools of prevention.  Look and see.

Next…Do the Math!


Responses

  1. I just found your blog today and I am very relieved someone is offering these types of classes regularly.

    I am currently pregnant and have two dogs that I have carefully and thoughtfully trained to be respectful, easy to live with, and have set good limits in and out of my home. This being planned because we knew one day that children would be added to our home. (I participate in Obedience, Rally, Conformation, and Agility with my own dogs. They are not perfect but they are indeed very good dogs. But never for one moment do I forget they are dogs that could bite, growl, or snap given an unfortunate circumstance.)

    I also do not believe my responsibility stops in just training my dogs. Baby gates, x-pens, crates, and play yards are also good management tools to keep my baby and dogs safe. I am making certain that I manage any and all interactions between myself, husband, baby and animals living in my home.
    I want to insure that the odds are good that everyone will feel safe and space is respected.

    I too feel like a “killjoy” when it comes to explaining these “concepts” to my friends who come and visit with their own children. I am glad there is someone out there teaching classes on how to safely execute these ideas. I find the problem will always be with those who have trouble with any sort of limits in their homes. i.e allowing children or dogs too much freedom and not sticking to any firm rules. These are the same folks who refuse to crate, or train their own dogs but resign themselves to live with issues.

    No one is perfect and of course I will strive for as much balance in my own household but I have found the only way to safely have these types of people over is to put my dogs away in their crates and out of sight. There have been managed public interactions with my dogs but these are carefully executed and limited and always with my permission being asked in advance. I do not appreciate parents nor allow interactions to those who do not ask because this allows them into believing all dogs are safe.

    • Wow, good for you! I love when people protect their good dogs! I think you’ll like my next post because it’s all about still loving your dogs after having a baby. It sounds like you have a wonderful foundation and will be in good shape. I’d love to talk more so I can include more “good” examples for my book. I’ll e-mail you when things settle down around here or feel free to contact me again. Thanks for commenting.

  2. As a dog owner who has a cute little white dog with “issues”, I make it my job to educate children we meet on how to read at least my dogs signals. At the dog park, a child threw a ball for my dog. When the dog returned, the child started to reach for the ball to throw it again, even though it was between my dog’s legs. Knowing my dog has guarding issues, I immediately stopped him and told him how to tell that my dog, “didn’t want to share” and might even bite him. I demonstrated how when, even I, the owner, reached for the ball, my dog would freeze and only relax when my hand withdrew. I have worked hard with my rescued dog to accept that toys should be shared. However, even after two years, if he gets a hold of something dangerous to him, instead of challenging him and trying to grab it away, I throw a treat to distract him and then pick it up. I have been bitten by him myself. This little boy had a dog of his own but his parents had never taught him how to approach another dog. I hope my lessons help the kids we meet to at least pay attention to the behavior of dogs they meet in the future.

  3. A great article that speaks a lot of sense.
    Madeline, I’d like your comments on the following clip…

    Many seem to think that this behaviour is acceptable and even ‘cute’. Though when you apply your sensible tactic of ignoring the child and focusing on the dog, then you see the signs that the dog is not having all the fun the child’s laughing would suggest. Would you agree?
    I’m glad I’ve found your articles.

    • Hello Ian – thanks for joining in! I didn’t realize videos could be added to comments. Nice feature!

      The video you reference here is one I had several “discussions” about with other trainers last year in a different forum. I think this dog is perhaps playing. Hard to say for sure without knowing how the dog is normally. Even so, do you want your dog initiating play in a dog-style with your baby? What about visiting babies?

      My main issue with this video is the behavior of the baby. He is learning that it is fun to crawl towards and sort of lunge at the dog to make him “go.” This is really fun for the baby, as you can tell by his excited shrieking and laughing. I think it’s the combination of that laughter (intoxicating to humans!) and the dog seeming like he’s participating in a playful way that snaps people into fantasy land where you think, “Finally! Some joy between a dog and a baby! This is the way it should be.”

      The thing is, babies have zero good judgement. Even if this video seems maybe, sort-of OK to some people, you can’t get away from the fact that this baby is now more likely to behave in that way in the future (because it was fun) and the behavior will not be limited to when the dog feels like playing and it will not be limited to this dog. The baby is also only going to get more mobile, too. Plus, if the dog doesn’t want to play, it’s only natural that the baby is going to try MORE of what worked before to get the dog to move so then you have an even more invasive baby pursuing a dog that wants to be left alone. This is just what babies do and how they experiment with the world. If you choose to allow your dog to be a science project for your baby, you are putting your baby at risk. Again, a big consideration is other people’s dogs. Good luck with the “No, no, honey, that dog doesn’t want to play” when you’ve got an 18 month old on the loose. A bite can happen in a flash and whose fault will that be?

      Here is a similar video I discussed in an older blog post (hope it posts here!):

      I used this one instead of the laughing baby one because the behavior of the baby is similar and you can see how it looks apart from being blinded by the happy laughter and in the context of a dog that’s trying to avoid the baby. Here’s the post: http://dogsandbabies.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/does-your-baby-love-dogs/

      So, there it is. I don’t think there’s anything good about a baby having fun interacting with a dog (even if the dog seems OK with it). That makes me a big killjoy in some circles, but I believe you have to really think through the implications before allowing a baby to be “magnetized” to the dog. Thanks for your question!

  4. Thanks for the idea, Denise! I’m trying very hard to work on getting my book put together before the end of the year so I at least have a draft. There are so many good outlets for this information but I want to wait until I have something to offer for more info. Hopefully, that will be soon enough!

  5. Madeline, have you ever considered becoming a Huffington Post blogger? The more people read your blogs, the better.

  6. As a humane educator who teaches dog bite prevention classes, I have really enjoyed this series, and have found things to incorporate in my current programs. Very well thought out and practical advice.

    On another note, it has occurred to me that the process of not allowing babies to become magnetized to dogs is much the same as the process I go through with my dogs as pups to help them coexist with the many other animals in our house and in my programming including cats, kittens, ferrets, snakes and more. The ideas and techniques are very similar.


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