Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | January 11, 2013




Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | November 22, 2011

Dogs and Babies Blog is Moving!

Well, just like moving to a new home, you get to that point where a new website is ready “enough” to just move in and deal with the remaining boxes and picture hanging as you go.

Probably not ready for a fancy dinner party but no sense waiting forever to invite friends over.

That’s where I am with the new website — everything from this blog has been transferred over and re-formatted. There’s lots more I will be adding and plenty of stuff to organize, tweak and fix up.  BUT, it’s as least as good as what’s here and, I think, a lot cuter:

My intended “audience” is expectant parents and families with dogs and young children — the period from Pregnancy to Preschool.  I’m back to work on my book project and will fill in bits and pieces on the new website with excerpts.

So, check it out and if you want to continue to receive updates, please subscribe to the new blog.  Also, you’ll see there’s a new “Reviews” section where you can write your thoughts and highlight anything you think will be pertinent for new readers and a Q&A section where I’ll try to answer at least one question per month in a lot of detail.

The goal is for the website to eventually become a resource for preparing before baby arrives and to make on-going, real life with dog and baby more enjoyable for everyone.  There is so much more to this than sniffing the baby’s blanket!

(Of course, my own children are not going away any time soon, so my time remains limited and I can only work on this a little bit at a time.  AND, we’re getting a new puppy in a few months…)

Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | September 23, 2011

Life With Baby – Just Another Day at the Office?

Heads Up!…I’ve moved this blog to my new website:  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.

Life is Changing – Did Your Dog Get the Memo?

“Whoa, your dog’s in for a big surprise when that baby arrives…”

“Your dog’s going to have to get with the program…”

Really?  Are you just going to hope your dog figures it out on his own?  And if he doesn’t, what then?  The way people talk, it makes you think there’s nothing you can do but hope for the best.

At the very least, you owe it to your dog to honestly evaluate your expectations and see where you can fill in the gaps.  I’ve found that it helps to look at it in a familiar, human way — like a job description.

Your dog’s “job” is to be your companion.  I ask in my classes, “Does anyone think it’s a HARD job to be your dog?”  My husband likes to say if only he could be the dog in our family, he’d have it made!  (Interestingly, the only person who ever said it wasn’t easy to be her dog made that comment because she also has a seven year old daughter who pesters the dog — kind of making my point for me.)

Imagine your boss wants to promote you to a new job.  You take a good look at what’s required and say, “Whoa, that looks pretty hard.  The hours are around the clock and the working conditions!  Just look at what I’ll have to deal with — there’s yelling, crying, screaming, things being thrown…I’m not sure I can do this job.”

Wouldn’t you feel better if your boss took the approach of being a true leader?  “You are the one I want in this job.  I will help you be successful.  I will provide the training you need.  I will watch over you and keep you safe.  You can come to me when you need help.  I will make accommodations as needed to make this work.  You can count on me.  We will be in this together.”

Too often, what dogs get is sink or swim.

What’s on YOUR Dog’s Job Description?

It might help to actually write out a job description for what you expect from your dog.  What does your dog have to do to be successful as your companion now? What will you expect differently after baby?  How can you help your dog be successful in his or her changing role?

Here’s an example, written from the (hopefully exaggerated) perspective of how things sometimes turn out, often to the surprise of people’s good intentions.  That’s why you should write it out ahead of time — so you have reasonable expectations and save yourself from being angry over the same old things that were perfectly fine for your dog to do all along:

My Job as YOUR Companion…

Before Baby

After Baby

Essential Job Duties/Responsibilities:  Be cute!  Run to the door and jump and lick when I get home so I can enjoy your nice welcome and feel loved.  Keep me company in all that I do.  Stay out of the way.  Be able to amuse yourself in a non-annoying way.
Other Job Duties  Bark and growl at the door so I feel safe.  Always be up for walks and outings.  Sit in my lap when I watch TV. Snuggle in bed with me.  Allow the baby to do X number of uncomfortable things to you.  Indulge their friends, too.  Be calm with deliveries and visitors — even the ones that get you all riled up. Understand that I don’t want you with me all the time.
Minimum Qualifications/Skills:  Wagging tail.  Cute face.  Stay out of the way.  Do not object to anything my baby might do.
Preferred Qualifications/Skills:  I guess I’d like a little more focus but I don’t mind repeating myself or yelling until you get it right.  Walk nicely with the stroller (even if you’ve spent your whole life pulling on the leash even without the stroller).  Be with me when I want you to.  Protect the baby from danger (but not Uncle Joe when he throws the baby in the air…).
Education Requirements:  Flexible.  I’m willing to live with a fairly unskilled dog.  Maybe a couple of tricks and a 50/50 response to the things I ask is enough to get you by.  I need a dog that responds right away, every time.  How do you not know how to do this?  There is no time for continuing education.  Either you coming into this job knowing it or it’s not going to work.
Experience Requirements:  All you have to know is me!  You don’t need experience with anything out of the usual routine.  I’ll work around you.  You should understand that babies mean no harm when they pull on your fur and be relaxed when toddlers run and scream.  This should all be old hat for you.
Working Conditions:  Pretty casual.  You get the run of the house, space on the bed, etc.  It’s pretty quiet around here.  We are up at all hours.  No one has time for you so you have to work on your own.  There’s a lot of crying and frustration (and not just from the baby!).  Food and toys are all around but you may not touch them.  There is no space where you can rest undisturbed.  I will be annoyed and yell at you for behaviors I used to indulge.  You may need to move outside.
Salary and Benefits:  Lavish attention and praise for any little thing you do!  Frequent walks and trips to the park for enrichment. A share in the food I eat plus lots of food of your own!  And, did I mention the toys?  Pretty much anything interesting on the ground you can assume is yours to chew on.  You also have full access to my lap for snuggling.  You will get fed.  It may not be at the same times, but we’ll feed you still.  You might get a walk now and then, but there’s no time for the park.  I’m busy with the baby so don’t expect me to spend all day talking to you and petting you.  And the lap time? Don’t even ask!

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way!

Lots of people successfully integrate their babies into a happy life with the dogs they love.  The secret is to identify the gaps between what your dog can do now and what you’d like him or her to do to remain a valued companion as you move into becoming a parent.  Then, make a plan:

Don’t leave it to your dog to somehow figure out what you need.  Even “good dogs” need your support and guidance.  Be objective in evaluating your dog’s current skills, have your future expectations clear in your own mind and look to modern, reinforcement-based training to build a path from what your dog can do NOW to what you want him to be able to do LATER in order for you to still love him and enjoy his companionship.

Reinforcement training finds each dog’s current point of success and builds from there.  This means that ALL DOGS can learn new behaviors.  It’s never too late to expand your dog’s repertoire!

Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | September 18, 2011

Why Your 4 Year Old Can’t “Visit” My Sick Dog

Heads Up!…I’ve moved this blog to my new website:  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.

This is kind of an “in the moment” post because it illustrates how we tend to “push” kids on dogs when both the kid and the dog are quite happy in their own space.

Here’s how it played out:

Main Characters:

  • My 14.5 year old dog a week out from surgery to remove a (thankfully benign) tumor
  • Nice, well-mannered four year old boy who I love dearly and is a frequent visitor to our home
  • Boy’s grandmother who I also love dearly
  • And me, of course

I'm hiding in the bathroom because I want to be alone!


  • Dog is off by herself in a back bathroom trying to sleep with her inflatable cone around her neck
  • Boy comes to visit with his grandmother
  • Our new little dog (Grandpa’s dog) comes to the door as I let them in.  Betty remains in the bathroom.

Boy“Where’s Betty?”

Me“She’s not feeling well so she’s resting in another room.”

Boy“Oh.”  (Looks around for something else to do.)

Grandmother to Boy “Why don’t you go see where Betty is and say ‘hi’ to her?”

Boy takes a couple of steps down the hall.

Me“I think she’d rather be by herself today.  She’s not feeling well and needs to rest. “

Boy stops and goes back to doing something else.

Grandmother“OK, then just go look in on her and say a quick ‘hello.'”

Me to Boy“When a dog is staying by herself, she just needs her own space.  If she comes out, we can say ‘hello,” but it has to be the dog’s idea to come over.”

Grandmother seems a little hurt.  Boy says, “OK!” and finds something else to do.

Me trying to explain to Grandmother: “I don’t want him learning it’s OK to go in search of dogs in other people’s homes.  That’s a habit that can lead to trouble down the road.  He may get bitten by a dog that wants to be left alone.”

Grandmother“He’s just so good and full of compassion when I am sick and I wanted him to see how Betty looks so he will understand.”

Me“It is particularly important that young children not be encouraged to approach sick dogs.  He’s only four years old and will likely come up with his own variations if this is encouraged.  I don’t want him practicing this and being praised for it and having it turn into him wanting to do MORE with a dog that doesn’t feel well, like giving a dog a hug…This is not safe for him.”

I’m afraid I hurt my friend’s feelings a little bit.  I know she meant well and this is a very nice boy who follows directions and behaves well with my dogs.  Nothing bad was likely to happen in that moment.  But it’s these individual, seemingly innocuous moments that lead to a young child acquiring the habit of approaching dogs, specifically in this case, dogs who are sick.

This is routinely praised and encouraged by adults as an example of being “good with dogs,” but it sets up these good kids for a higher risk of a bite down the road.  The boy was perfectly OK with not going over to my dog — it made sense to him that she didn’t feel well and wanted to be by herself. We could have easily reinforced that idea and made him feel proud to be a good friend to Betty by letting her have her space, and thus made it more likely that he would do the same with someone else’s dog.

Is there ever a situation where an adult should be telling a young child to approach a dog?  Think it through before you do it — you may be planting the seeds for future behavior that puts the child at risk.  And for what purpose?  Good intentions abound, I know, but today’s cuteness may have a price to pay later.  No one wants to hear it now, but I can guarantee that when there’s a bite, we would all do anything to go back in time and undo it.  Now’s your chance to not let it happen in the first place!

Dogs need space.

Kids should never “close the gap” on dogs.

Pass it on.

Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | September 15, 2011

Updated Classes for Dogs!

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

My lecture classes presented through Sharp and Scripps childbirth education programs are chock full of information about safety and planning and managing expectations from pregnancy through preschool.  It’s an excellent stand-alone class and definitely necessary for the safety side of things.

As part of the “dog profiling” part of the class, we identify training gaps and individual areas for improvement.  While I provide lots of resources for the “do-it-yourselfers,” I know not everyone learns as easily from books or videos and there’s no substitute for getting to work with your own dog under a trainer’s guidance and encouragement.

With that in mind, I’m starting two new classes to offer more hands-on support both pre and post-baby:

  1. Loose Leash Walking With a Stroller, and
  2. Loving Life With Dog and Baby

These classes are an adjunct to the Dogs and Babies – Play It Safe! class and are not a replacement.  However, classes can be taken in any order.  You don’t even have to be pregnant!

See class description page which includes contact info for questions and registration.

Let’s make it a smooth transition to life with baby!

Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | August 18, 2011

Your Dog is Not Your Baby…And That’s OK!

Heads Up!…I’ve moved this blog to my new website:  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.

Photo courtesy of Emily Larlham

Is Your Dog Your “First Baby?”

Cute puppy faces with those big eyes are irresistible.  In fact, they actually ARE hard to resist because humans are biologically inclined to respond to baby-like faces.  We get that “Aww, how cute!” feeling from a burst of oxytocin and it feels natural to be nurturing and protective.  The bond is cemented when our dogs respond with affection and attachment of their own.  It’s no wonder so many people in my classes express worry about how their dog might handle being displaced by a real baby.

After all, you hear so many stories of people who seemingly didn’t love their dogs as much or in the same way anymore once their babies were born.  I remember that being one of my three biggest dog-related worries when I was pregnant the first time:

Am I not going to be a good “Dog Mom” anymore? Is it like getting struck by lightning and I won’t like my dogs? Why would anyone suddenly not want their dogs around?  What if it happens to me?  I love my dogs and I want to still love them.  (But to get the full effect, you’d have to picture me following you around saying these things over and over again for months on end.  Ask my husband – he can tell you how that was!)

Interestingly, I attended a talk just a few months ago by Patricia McConnell, noted animal behaviorist and author of many terrific training and behavior books, where she discussed research on the role of oxytocin and the love we share with our dogs.  My mind started wandering to implications for new parents with dogs…

Oxytocin levels surge after giving birth and facilitate attachment between mother and baby.  This is where you hear people say they felt overwhelming love the moment they laid eyes on their baby.  (Although, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I’m not a fan of childbirth and I was still too squeamish about the whole thing to feel that instant “magic” attraction.  Happily, it’s not a prerequisite for loving your children!)

Photo courtesy of Roma Robbins

If your love for your dog is based primarily on a “baby” sort of attraction, you can see how it would pale in comparison to the real thing, especially when you are under the influence of super high oxytocin directing your affection towards the baby.

In fact, if you browse parenting discussion boards, you will see that it is not unheard of for new moms to confess to temporarily feeling differently about their older toddlers.  All of a sudden, the noise, the dirt, the activity level, the whining, the pestering is in sharp contrast to the cute, helpless baby that holds you in thrall.

Mix in a string of sleepless nights and it’s hard not to be annoyed by everyone around you, human or canine.  This is normal, but it’s not going to stay this way.  Hormone levels go back to normal, sleeping patterns improve, everyone gets a grip and life goes on.

But, Where Does the Dog Fit in Now?

Nope. Still not the baby!

In many cases, the dog doesn’t seem to fit in at all.  Parents are stretched thin, with everyone needing something from you all the time and, honestly, the dog can feel more like a nuisance than a joy.  The thought may cross your mind, “My life would be easier without this dog…”

Jennifer Shryock of Dogs and Storks calls this the “Impulsive Rehoming Phase” to bring attention to the all-too-common situation where new parents temporarily lose perspective and can use some support to get to a stage where they can more clearly assess their options.  She offers webinars and parent support that you can find here.  I love that she’s giving this a name so no one feels like they are struggling on their own!

We don’t need to see any more dogs in shelters with the words “New Baby” written on the kennel card as reason for relinquishment.

In my experience, personally and with clients, the most effective solutions involve help for people and dogs.  Planning ahead can make all the difference for your family.

Parents Are People, Too! (And Need Proper Care and Feeding!)

Even though it may seem like the dog’s issues are bringing you to a breaking point, it’s rarely just the dog.  Usually, it’s a matter of being stretched to your limit in so many other ways that something has to give.  You can’t send the baby back where he/she came from.  You can’t get a divorce (too much paperwork – if you had time for all that paperwork, you’d have time to walk the dog).

Lack of sleep, crying baby, new family roles can all take a toll.  Pay close attention to discussions of post partum depression in your childbirth classes and take note of resources in your area to support new parents.

Take advantage of your friends and family!  No offer of help should go unused!  It is really no big deal for people who have not just had a baby to do your grocery shopping, make meals, babysit, do laundry, hold your crying baby, take your dog for a walk, stuff some Kongs, etc.

Don’t suffer alone in a situation that seems untenable.  It WILL get better, but maybe not as quickly without some help along the way.  Don’t make a permanent decision about your best friend when you are not at your best.

Good News!!  Your Dog Can Be So Much MORE Than Just Your “First Baby”

I hope this next part is encouraging for people who love their “spoiled” dogs.  People are often a little embarrassed to admit their dog is spoiled but there’s always a big sigh of relief in class when everyone realizes they are not the only ones.  I usually say it’s a GOOD thing to love another creature and want to make it happy – it’s good practice for being a parent!

The problem comes when the dog is left in the lurch – being the dependent “baby” isn’t an option anymore but the dog hasn’t been prepared for any other role.  What else can such a dog do but pester and whine and be a nuisance?  It’s not because he’s mean-spirited or “jealous” – it’s just that this is what he’s learned to do to get your attention and affection.  The dog doesn’t know what else to do.

The good news is that there’s more to your wonderful dog than just a baby substitute.  It’s not a matter of loving him less because he’s “just a dog” – it’s a matter of building up your dog so you can love him even more for all the things a dog can be as your companion in your new role as Mom or Dad.

Why can't you still enjoy your "best friend" now that you're a mom? It's not one or the other!

You’ll all be happier when your baby can be your baby and your dog can be your dog.  It’s not  a step down or a loss of “status” — it’s the way things should be.  In fact, for many months, you’ll probably be able to have a better conversation with your dog than your baby!  Look forward to enjoying your dog’s companionship.

I have to say that I ended up loving my dogs MORE after I had kids.  Didn’t think that was possible because I was pretty smitten with them, but, yet, that’s the way it happened.

For example, the novelty of breastfeeding wears off pretty quickly.  Soon enough, no one is fluffing your pillow or bringing you water.  It was just me going off with the baby yet again.  But, my dogs!  They came with me every single time.  Sure, it looked like they were sighing and trudging down the hall, but they’d keep me company – as if they were there to bear witness to the changes in my life and assure me that they’d stick with me.  It was very endearing.

Keep an eye out for ways that your dogs are trying.  Trying to understand what’s going on.  Trying to get you to look at them.  Trying to fit in.  Trying their best to be your companion as your needs are changing.  In horse training, they say, “Find the try.”  Same goes for dogs.

(I know this post doesn’t get into HOW to teach your dog the new behaviors you want so you can better enjoy his or her company, but if it did it would never be finished or would be so long it may as well be a chapter in my book project.  A book I highly recommend is “Chill Out Fido” by Nan Arthur.  Lots of nice step-by-step exercises you can do at home.  Because, obviously, your dog isn’t going to be able to magically figure it out all by himself.)

Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | August 17, 2011

When a Good Dog Is a Bad Idea

Heads Up!…I’ve moved this blog to my new website:  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.

Today I saw a young boy of about eleven years old punching his dog to make the dog sit.  One of my kids said he saw the boy trying to ride on the dog and punching the dog again after he fell off.  The boy was also jerking the dog back and forth to make the dog run with him.  All of this while in the company of two girls of about the same age or maybe a little younger.

Apparently, he was showing off.

The dog?  A Labrador who mostly wagged from time to time as he tried to follow along with the “game.”

As yourself:  Is it good or bad for this boy’s life experience and development that he has a dog that can “take it” and still want to be with him?  Isn’t it crazy that he gets to rehearse these behaviors from a young age?  Does any young man benefit from getting to punch or choke an animal when the animal displeases him?

Tell me how this behavior develops a man to be a good husband.  A good father?

It matters not one bit that the dog seemed “okay.”  It’s about how this boy is rehearsing behavior that seems “cool” to him or that vents his frustration when things don’t go his way.

His dog’s forgiving nature is not doing anyone any favors.  Sometimes, I wish dogs bit more often and were not subject to the death sentence for defending themselves.  If all dogs were “good dogs,” like this Lab, would we have more children growing up quick to punch and hit to get their way?

I was too far away with my own (elderly) dog to intervene this time, but I’m pretty sure I’ll see them again next week at the same park.  I’m getting old enough where maybe I don’t care if other parents get pissed at me for butting in.

Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | July 18, 2011

Dog Bite Statistics: Do the Math Before You Freak Out

Heads Up!…I’ve moved this blog to my new website:  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.

Oops, this is the one I never finished when I wasn’t feeling well and then we had the upheaval of kids getting out of school for the summer.  Better late than never!

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?

Let’s start by doing some math. 

The most frequently cited statistics on dog bites come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 1994 phone survey, which was updated in 2001-2003 with similar results.*

Here is a paraphrased statement you’ll find almost everywhere dog bites are discussed:

“There are almost five million dog bites every year and nearly one million require medical attention!!”

Wow, the wording leaves no doubt to the casual reader that this is a huge, dramatic problem.  Fear-mongering is what it is because these slick, oft-quoted statistics make people think things are out of control.

Here’s where the math comes in.  Ready?

  • Approximately 4,500,000 bites per year
  • Approximately 800,000 of those bites require medical attention
  • 800,000 divided by 4,500,000 = .18 (which is 18%)
  • 100% minus 18% = 82%


82% of dog bites require NO medical attention.

Why is this not the leading story?  There can’t be THAT many math-challenged people working in media, can there?

So, now we have 82% of all dog bites requiring, at most, a band aid applied at home.

Isn’t that an entirely different message?

I certainly think so because this math says the overwhelming majority of times that dogs bite, they cause little or no damage.  Do you think that’s because people are so good at pulling away or doing Matrix-style air bending?  I doubt it.  Dogs can bite in a fraction of a second.  It’s how dogs bite that makes the difference.

82% of the time, dogs choose to “pull their punches,” so to speak and use minimal force in their bites.  Not only are they not trying to hurt us in these cases, they are trying not to hurt.

Conclusion:  Most Dog Bites (82%!) Are Coming From “Good Dogs”

Per the statistics, almost by definition that’s true because the dogs used only a small fraction of biting ability, choosing not to injure.  Think about that the next time you hear someone remark, “My dog is so good with the children!”  As discussed in an older post, “Good Dogs Don’t Bite Children, Do They?,” to me, that’s a red flag and I’d exercise caution with my children around that dog and with those children around my dog.

I’d love it if we all started listening to and protecting our “good dogs” — can you imagine the drop in number of dog bites?!!

What About the Other 18% That DO Require Medical Attention?

Get ready — more math…

  • Statistics say about 800,000 people require medical attention for dog bites each year.  In 2001, an estimated 368, 245 chose to go to the emergency room.  368,245 divided by 800,000 = 46%.  So, you could say that more than half of all dog bites requiring medical attention did NOT require a trip to the emergency room.  (If it were a serious bite, wouldn’t YOU go to the emergency room?)
  • In 2008, there were 9,500 hospitalizations following a dog bite.  So, assuming hospitalization followed emergency room admittance, you could say that 97.4% of the people treated in the emergency room for dog bites were treated and released without being admitted (100% – (9,500 divided by 368, 245)).

So, of all the estimated # of dog bites every year, .2% require hospitalization (9,500 divided by 4,500,000), or you could say that 99.8% of dog bites do not require a stay in the hospital.

So What Does This Mean?  No Harm, No Foul?

Of course not!  We can all say blah, blah, blah that it’s not a big deal when it’s a small injury but that all changes when that small injury is to our small child’s face.  It’s scary and unsettling and nothing is ever the same.  In many cases, it means the end of the dog’s life.  Plus, it makes no sense to ignore minor bites and not expect escalation if nothing changes to address the situation.

I don’t want any families having to sort out even very minor bites.  That’s why I’m so focused on prevention (see pretty much every past post and the links on my blogroll).  At the same time, I also want to remind people that a dog bite is not always a “DOG BITE!”  I came home from a consultation one day last year and mentioned that the dog bit me three times.  My husband immediately wanted to see.  Guess what?  There was nothing to see because the dog didn’t bite down hard.

We hear “dog bite” and we see “bloody mauling” in our mind’s eye.  Bite statistics are bandied about whenever there is a serious mauling or a fatality and the serious and non-serious bites get linked in our brains as if they are one and the same.  I think this makes us overreact to minor bites while at the same time neglecting to do our part to prevent those bites in the first place.  Too often, people tell me they will just get a different dog and it will be OK — you know, one of those dogs that don’t bite children.

Here’s what I believe to be true:

    1. Almost all dog bites are coming from “good dogs” — dogs that have been pushed too far, with earlier communication to “Please stop!” or “I’m freaking out over here!” overlooked by humans.  This is my primary area of experience because these are the situations (minimal injury) where people feel it is appropriate to consider training and behavior modification before making a final decision about the dog.
    2. Dog bites that cause serious injury are a whole different thing. You can find much excellent information from the National Canine Research Council, including a state-by-state review of the factors involved in fatalities from dog bites.  It’s important to know what’s different about the situations where dogs bite hard enough to maim or kill in order to have a chance at profiling your own dog and situation.  This isn’t my primary area of expertise but I may write more in a later post to summarize generally accepted factors that make dog experts think, “I’m not surprised,” when they hear the circumstances of a serious bite.
    3. Dog bites are almost entirely preventable through education and awareness and, of course, human willingness to pay attention and exercise good judgment.  Dog bites don’t just happen out of the blue.  This is a problem we can fix!

In the meantime, don’t forget that bite statistics are very squirrelly!  Just because you see an “exact” number reported somewhere doesn’t mean it’s accurate or reliable.   Always understand where your data comes from and DO YOUR MATH before accepting conclusions.  Dog bites ARE a big deal, but not necessarily in the way we usually hear the statistics presented — especially if the presentation makes us feel like there’s nothing we can do about it.

Footnote from above:

* except for an interesting 47% decline in bites to children – particularly for my 0-4 age range of interest.  (Why the decline?  Who knows?  That’s because a phone survey of 9,684 households in the United States is only .009% of the 105,480,101 US households per the US Census Bureau so how can you extrapolate with any predictive accuracy? )

Further Information:

Dogs Bite But Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous” by Janis Bradley

Dog Bite Fatalities:  The Stories Behind the Statistics” by Karen Delise

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:  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!

Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | May 18, 2011

National “No, You Can’t Pet My Dog” Day

Heads Up!…I’ve moved this blog to my new website:  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?

Me?  I’m going to tell a small child that he or she can’t pet my dog.  In fact, I’ve already done it and here’s how it went:

Barely walking baby toddles in my dog’s direction.  Mom smiles, “Is your dog friendly?”

I smile back and say, “My dog needs her space.  She’s old and her back is sore today.  She won’t enjoy being petted.”

Mom clutches her child and sort of glares at me as she walks off.

Wow, that’s pretty uncomfortable for everyone, but I can get over it knowing my response will not contribute to that little boy being magnetized to dogs.  Plus, it made the parents around me think twice about their own children rushing up to dogs, too.  Who knows?  Maybe I prevented lots of bites by introducing the possibility that people might say, “No, you can’t pet my dog.”

Right there is my issue with the focus on telling children merely to ask before touching dogs — people almost always say, “Yes.”  Why is that a problem?

  1. Children (and adults!) no longer wait for an answer because they presume it’s going to be yes.  Waiting for an answer drops out of the sequence and you often get kids who parrot, “May I pet your dog?” and then they’re moving right in before you can say anything.  After all, why not?  They asked, didn’t they?
  2. Because people expect a “Yes,” they do not know how to respond to a “No” and take it personally or get annoyed.  This leads to pet owners giving in to social pressure and feeling like they have to say “yes” when they’d rather say “no.”

(Parents should take careful note of #2!  Just because someone says “Yes,” doesn’t mean it’s safe for your child to touch that dog!)

So, here’s my proposal.  Pick a day and practice nicely saying, “No” to anyone who asks to pet your dog.  Heck, you can even say, “I’m sorry, but it’s National ‘No, You Can’t Pet My Dog’ Day so I just can’t.”  Go ahead – blame it on me!

The result of more “no’s” will be more people who stop to wait for an answer and probably less frequent willy-nilly asking because now they’re considering the possibility of a “No” response.  I think people will become more discerning and begin to take notice of the signs that someone doesn’t want to let a child pet their dog.

What About Kids That Rush Up Without Asking?

Even if you’re saying “No” to someone asking to pet your dog, please do reinforce that behavior of asking because there are plenty of kid and adults who do not ask.

If you are confronted by a wandering child pursuing your dog, you will need to be very directive.  If you have kids of your own, it becomes second nature to boss other people’s kids around, but I know it can feel awkward if you’re not used to it.  Expect to use a “stop” hand signal and use very direct language:  “Wait.  My dog needs more space.”  Or, “Stop!  Stay where you are.”  If you get into the sweet talking, “Wait a minute, honey, I’m not sure my dog is comfortable right now, OK?,” you’re done for.

My rule of thumb is that I will not consider letting a child touch my dog unless he or she is developmentally able to carry on a conversation with me.  If all they can do is repeat after their Mom, “Can I pet your dog?,” it’s not going to happen.  And, yes, parents are usually annoyed with me, but the more we all set limits for our dogs and children, the more normal it will seem that babies/toddlers should not be experimenting on other people’s dogs.

Below is a series of unused clips I shot for my Dogs Like Kids They Feel Safe With film.  The time limit didn’t allow for this segment and the clips are completely unpolished.  Watch at least the beginning, though, to see the body posture and words used to dissuade a running child.

Just say, “No,” and see what happens!

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