Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | May 16, 2011

Ask the Dog! (Part 1)

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?

Here’s some artwork I commissioned last summer from Lili Chin (who also has a terrific Dog Bite Prevention Week overview here):

How NOT to Meet Dogs

How many concerns do YOU spot in this picture?

Before the girl even gets to the dog, does this look like a good situation to you?  Here’s a little checklist you can apply to real life encounters, too:

Always look first at the dog.  Is he welcoming the child’s approach?  In this case, no.  He’s leaning away from her, with a paw raised, mouth closed, ears back and head turned away.  He is saying, “I’m worried and uncomfortable and I don’t know what to do.”

Next, look at the person guiding the dog.  In real life, you often see a variation of this illustration.  The owner is stern with the dog, holding the leash tight and commanding the dog, “Sit!”  I’ve even seen people hold the dog in place and invite children to approach.

What about the child?  She’s excited and thinking only about touching that dog, but, bless her heart, she’s doing what she’s been told, isn’t she?

Children all over are taught to present their closed hand for a dog to smell.  Unless that hand has been dipped in liver juice, believe me, it’s probably not welcome in most dog’s faces.  In fact, I can’t think of any species on the planet that welcomes a fist up close to their face while the person looms over them and stares.  So, why would we ever teach our children to assume this weird, somewhat threatening posture when meeting dogs?

Yes, I get it that a closed hand is better than grabby hands and no one wants a nip on a dangling finger, but I know we can do better than this for our children and dogs!

Don’t Close the Gap

The most important lesson for children with every single dog (especially the ones they “know” and the ones they live with at home) is:

DON’T CLOSE THE GAP

I’m sure there’s a catchier way to say that.  (Ideas?)  But, the key point is that children can be taught to stop and wait a short distance away from dogs and to notice and respect the dog’s personal space.  How often do you hear of a dog that got up, walked over to a child who was just standing there and then jumped up and bit her on the face?  I’d say pretty much never.  Before there’s even a hint of teaching children how to touch dogs, let’s teach them how to stop at an appropriate distance and never be the ones to close the gap on a dog.

Instead…Ask the Dog!

What changed in this scenario to make the dog more comfortable?

With a dog that’s comfortable and willing and kids that can follow directions, I’m not completely against letting children pet dogs.  It’s up to the DOG to say, “Yes,” though.  As you’ll see in coming posts, it’s not just a matter of asking the owner.

Here, the little girl stops before entering the dog’s space (3-5 feet is usually good).  Instead of rushing in, she invites the dog to come to her with welcoming body language — turn to the side, pat your leg or clap your hands gently, speak sweetly to the dog.  In this case, the dog accepts and is happy to come over, especially because his person is engaged and relaxed.  Because there is no pressure on the dog, you can better trust the dog’s answer.

What Can You Do To Make Things Better?

Parents can teach “Don’t Close the Gap” as the #1 child behavior around dogs.  What better week to start than Dog Bite Prevention Week?  Kids absorb all kinds of catchy safety messages and it becomes second nature.  They can repeat, “Stop, Drop and Roll” and even demonstrate it so you know they’re ready if they ever happen to catch on fire.  Kids are taught not to touch matches to the point where I think my younger son believed they would spontaneously combust in his presence.  The other day, he saw a box of matches on the counter from my junk drawer cleaning and said, “Quick, get these away from me!!!”

Dog owners can and should clearly direct the children they choose to allow to interact with their dogs.  Honestly, if the kids can’t pleasantly follow your directions from a few feet away, how can you trust them up close with your dog?  Tell the children exactly how to “Ask the dog” and be sure to support your dog’s choice.  The more people that do this, the more normal it seems to kids and parents.

To make this easier, I printed cards with the artwork and the key steps to meeting a dog in a way that makes the dog feel safe and more likely to like you back.  It’s nice to have something to hand parents.  I’m not doing a whole lot commercially with them at this point, but I do have a stack of boxes here…  The artwork makes a nice t-shirt front, so I may order some more of those, too, if there is interest down the road.

Front of Card

Back of Card

Just for Laughs

Good thing there are talented professionals like Lili Chin or you'd have to look at MY pitiful attempts at drawing!

Next post…my film about real life dogs and kids meeting in ways that make them both feel safe.

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Responses

  1. […] And this. Sigh. Cute, innocent enough picture, right? Or… is Proudie telling us with her body language “please give me a little space?” It’s subtle, but it’s there. I am not an expert on dog body language and communication. But I certainly think it is our responsibility, as parents and dog-owners, to inform ourselves of a dog’s “Seven Common Stress Signals” so that we can look out for potential problems. Also, I think it extremely important to teach our children these signals, along with some sage advice about approaching strange dogs. If you teach your child one thing about other people’s dogs, please let it be this: “Don’t Close the Gap” […]

  2. My dog is a therapy dog. We visit children in schools. The first thing I say to children when we enter a classroom is “Puppy touches you Before you touch Puppy”. Puppy not his real name, but I use Puppy as it is easy for kids to remember.
    In 5 years, children are very successful and comply with Puppy’s wishes. I wish the adult teachers were as good!

    • I love this, Sue! That’s a nice way to break it down and make it stick for kids. You are correct that adults are sometimes a whole different story.

  3. Is there any way to order these cards? They’re fantastic!!!!

    • I do have a bunch available to sell but I’m reluctant to go full force on it because I have too many other projects. At this point, I will sell them individually in batches of 50 for $5 + shipping. I can always go back to the printer and order in quantity like I did for our local Animal Services dept that wanted 2,000 of them, but I’m not promoting the cards or t-shirts at this point. E-mail me if you want to talk more!


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