KIDS AND DOGS: When Supervision IS NOT Enough

Most parents, who are dog owners, know that supervision is essential, BUT uninformed supervision can’t prevent bite events. Half of all dog bite victims are children. Even the most gentle dog can and will bite, if pushed beyond her threshold. Often a parent or caregiver is in close proximity to the child and the dog when an event occurs. So what happened?
The key to real supervision is the ability to recognize your dog’s stress signals. These subtle indicators can be a prelude to a bite. Parents and caregivers must know when to intervene and defuse a potential situation. Knowing the basics of canine body language and honing observation skills will help to keep kids safe.
Dogs are most relaxed in structured and predictable environments. Body posture is relaxed, perhaps wiggly. The tail set is at mid-body or lower, and it swishes or waves gently. A non-stressed dog has an open mouth with even breathing. There are no furrows on her brow. Her ears are completely neutral, and she has a soft gaze. As an appeasement signal, the eyes may be squinty and the commissures (corners) of the mouth may be pulled back into a “grin”. A dog who is comfortable in an environment promptly complies with learned cues and readily plays and takes treats. There is an ease in his movements and behavior with no signs of conflicted thinking.
When stress sets in, a dog’s behavior changes. Some dogs become unruly and, literally, do not know what to do. Body language tells us a great deal about emotional state. Rigidity in the body and a stiff gait are indicators that a dog is no longer relaxed. Ears may move forward or back, and the mouth closes. The tail may be tucked in fear or raised high and flagging rather than waving. Eyes take on a harder look, and the whites may be visible (whale-eye). The dog’s brow furrows.
A stressed dog refuses even a high-value treat and may appear to “shut down”. If the dog is sitting with her back to you or cannot look at you, she has shut down. Observe ALL her signals, so you do not mistake her shut down for a relaxed state. Lip licking when no food is present and self-grooming or scratching out of context are stress signals. Yawning at times other than awakening is also a stress signal.
Many bite events involving children are caused by resource guarding. (See Blog article: Resource Guarding – for more on this.) If your dog shows a reluctance to release an object from his mouth or growls when you attempt to remove it, contact a professional behavior specialist/trainer. Guarding behaviors plus kids equals a dangerous combination.
Observe your dog and learn to recognize her stress signals. Defuse the situation in a calm manner. Refresh your basic training cues, such as “come” and “leave it”. Provide play and activities to alleviate doggy boredom, which is a major cause of generalized anxiety. Incorporating environmental enrichment and mental stimulation is a great way to reduce overall stress in dogs. For example, all meals and treats can be delivered in a Kong or other food-stuffable toy or puzzle.
As much as we love them and consider them family members, dogs do not behave or think like us humans.  We love hugs from our children, but many dogs really do not. Check out this website and video to observe the dogs’ responses to our human show of affection: – “Does your dog REALLY want a hug?”  If you see these stress signals in your dog, switch gears pronto!
Hearing your dog growl at anyone is upsetting. Resist the temptation to punish him for it. It’s highly likely that he’s tried other means to express his discomfort, but the subtler signs were missed. It’s hard to miss a growl or show of teeth. If he could verbalize, he would tell you, “I’ve reached the end of my patience with this situation. Please make it stop; I’m about to blow a fuse!” Learn something from his aggressive display and make changes to create a safe home for your children and your dog.
The most dangerous dog is the one whose warning system has been sufficiently punished that he skips the it and goes directly to the bite.
©Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2015 All rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC