Respecting Dog Boundaries
When a baby arrives in a home with a resident dog, their initial encounters are usually supervised by a parent or adult. As the baby matures and begins crawling toward the dog, no matter how much affection the dog has for this tiny human, boundaries need to be set for everyone’s safety.
Frequently in our culture, images of young children climbing on or kissing the family dog are met with responses like “How cute!" While it’s nice to see any child enjoy their animal companion, actions like that can lead to harm for them when the pet is injured, stressed, or at the end of their tolerance limit.
At Dakin Humane Society we have been on the receiving end of conversations with heartbroken parents who needed to surrender their dog after a bite incident. Some of these incidents involved parents and kids not being able to read the dog's signals that their tolerance was wearing thin. During these conversations, we hear, “It came out of nowhere…” Actually, dogs do give signals before biting, but they’re sometimes very subtle.
Reading the cues
According to Certified Professional Dog Trainer Jill Haley Rose, founder of Paws of Nature Dog & Cat Behavior and Training Services, many dogs signal that they don’t care for hugging and kissing. She advises we watch for the following dog signals:
- Rapid lip or nose licking
- Yawning or stiffening
- A wide, round-eyed look
One common misinterpretation is when a dog (not enjoying being hugged or kissed) licks the child’s face. Jill said, “I may observe the dog licking, then looking away from the child repeatedly until she can physically move away. We call this ‘kiss to dismiss.’ It’s actually the dog’s way of saying ‘Please stop’ in a nice way.”
When dogs experience handling that annoys them, according to Jill, most tend to have “a ladder of aggression that they follow before they get to a bite zone.” If the previous signals weren’t caught, the dog may show her teeth, vocalize, snap or bite. “Each dog can be very different in this progression,” she noted, “Some dogs have many steps in the ladder whereas other dogs only have one or two steps before a contact bite.”
Giving space and reducing contact
Steph DuPreez, certified dog behavior consultant and owner of Ohh Sit! Dog Training suggests setting up “a safe place for your dog that is off-limits to the kids. Utilize a crate or gates to avoid confrontations or bad interactions. Give the children age-appropriate tasks and games to play with the dogs to teach them responsibility and how to play in a manner everyone can enjoy.”
No parent wants to see their child or their pet hurt. You can teach young children how to show affection toward dogs in ways that don’t involve contact. Instead of kissing the dog on the face, let kids blow kisses to the dog instead, or wave “bye-bye” or “night-night.”
Steph noted, “In situations where people tell me that their dog has growled at their children, I encourage parents to explain to the kids - if they’re old enough to understand - that the doggy is trying to tell them ‘I need space.’”
Jill, like Steph, trains dogs using positive reinforcement and advises parents to “teach your child to reward the dog for a sit, for example. That helps the dog continue to develop a positive association with your child.”
“Dogs are put on pedestals, and people often think they should be able to handle everything that happens to them,” stated Jill. “With humans, if someone is doing something that makes us uncomfortable, we’ll communicate by saying ‘Knock it off' or something similar. Dogs aren’t human. They’re a different species, and the best thing a dog’s person can do is learn to ‘speak’ their language.”
Thanks to Jill Haley Rose, CDBC, CTC, CSAT, CPDT-KA and Steph Du Preez, BS, CDBC, CPDT-KA for their contributions to this blog.