Canines and Kids – Dangerous Combination

It is an image that probably goes back nearly as far as the domestication of the canine – a young child and their dog. What is more touching, more heart warming, more downright “awwwwwww” inspiring than the picture of a young boy or girl with arms wrapped tightly around a pup?

Frankly I can think of many images that are a heck of a lot better than that, because when I see these images what I see is all kinds of trouble. In almost every case, dogs are presenting with anything ranging from mild to deeply disturbed body language, indicating that while they may gamely tolerating a situation at the moment, there could well come a time when that tolerance wears off.

And we all know who will get blamed when it does. The dog reacts as a dog does, and a child gets hurt … or worse … and the dog ends up quarantined or euthanized.

When a child is wounded, gravely injured or in the most horrific occasion, killed, by a dog (especially the family pet) there is a special kind of horror and arises. We think back to images we’ve seen –  images of an infant being cradled between the front paws of an enormous mastiff, images of a small child nestled up to a puppy with which it will grow up, images of the toddler playing in a yard while the dutiful family dog stands watch. We think of these images and cannot fathom how they could go wrong.

The answer? Easily.

One would never leave their child alone in the company of a horse, or a goat, or even a pet parrot without insuring there was an adult’s watchful eye nearby. Dogs are not babysitters. Full stop. I don’t care what breed. I don’t care how well trained. I don’t care how many times we hear stories of the dog that saves the baby in the fire or from drowning in the pool. These are outlier cases, exceptions and special instances. They are far from a vast majority of scenarios. No. Far more often we hear stories like this one, or this one, or any of these.

Of course many of these stories involve pit bulls or pit mixes – a sad fact that plays into the horrible bastardization of an otherwise wonderful breed. That these dogs have a higher proportion of involvement in serious attacks has little to nothing to do with the breed save for the fact that they’re big and powerful. More people are bitten seriously on a regular basis by Chihuahuas and Poodles, it’s just that the damage those breeds do is far less cataclysmic.

But I digress.

This isn’t a post about what breeds are good or bad or if certain breeds are more dangerous than others. If you are interested in that discourse, check out this post.

Now back to the topic at hand …

You might think I’m angling towards a perspective that would have dogs prohibited from homes with kids – especially super small ones. That’s not the case. In fact, my take is precisely the opposite, because it is only by raising children properly around dogs that they will grow into the kind of adults who might then pass that knowledge on to their children, who then pass it on … and so forth.

The key here, is that the adults are responsible. This means that all those cute pictures and those fabulous videos that garner all that attention on Facebook? Forget about them. Videos like the one below do nothing more than encourage people to perpetuate truly careless (and negligent) behavior. In this video, there is absolutely nothing positive about the dog’s body language. Nothing. Where is the adult who should be responsible? Several feet away, encouraging the child and recording the whole thing.

So know the signs … a dog will signal its intent long before it takes any action. In fact, the biggest issue with a dog attack is that just before the dog makes its move, it will often slip into a neutral physical position and any vocalization will stop. This gives the perception that dogs “attack out of nowhere”. That is patently false.

The dog will try its best to tell you to back away and leave it alone – ears slicked back, tail either low and tucked or nervously wagging or tail up and stiff with ears pointed stiffly forward, it may be yawning or licking its lips, it may be looking sideways and trying to pull its head away, it may even be attempting to back away or remove itself from the situation.

There is a far deeper series of posts and analysis of dog body language to come from this, but in the interest of not leaving you hanging, here’s a great primer on canine body language from one of my most trusted resources for anything and everything canine communication – Stanley Coren.