Updated: Nov 13, 2021
The idea to write this post was born on the day when I was on a walk with my dog. I passed a group of children about 10 years old. My pooch carelessly (on a leash) sniffed the bushes, not paying attention at all to the children. Suddenly one of them suddenly put his hand to the pooch and patted him on the head. My dog raised his head immediately but did not react. Of course, I was happy with my dog’s reaction, but the child’s behaviour irritated me.
Of course, it’s not the child’s fault but the parent’s fault. This situation may end very badly — e.g. a dog suddenly biting a child. And then the fault lies with the dog and his guardian, not the child or parent who “allowed himself” to pat the dog. And here, in this situation, the dog has three reasons for a negative reaction:
sudden and unexpected leaning and extending their hand towards them,
by a person whom he never met or even “not noticed at the moment”
and a sudden pat on the head, which dogs just don’t like very much.
Therefore, always before touching the dog or initiating any contact, ask the dog’s owner for permission. This especially applies to parents who should teach their children that you simply can’t touch foreign dogs like that. Perhaps this suddenly patted dog was never socialized with children or is simply sick. A dog, like people, has the right to feel annoyed, feel bad, or simply not feel like contact.
always before touching the dog or initiating any contact, ask the dog’s owner for permission
The subject of dog’s aggression towards a child is like a river, it has many variables and dependencies, so it’s impossible to tell everything in one post. This post will be about signals that you need to want to learn and read a lot of materials, but above all, develop a habit of careful observation of the quadruped and learn to read them. And this is only practice.
The dog is a living creature. It has mood, emotions, feelings and humour, like all of us. And this should be respected and accepted. However, most often it depends on the parents whether the dog and the child will be a harmonious duo. Unfortunately, owners still often deal with this topic only when the dog begins to show the first aggressive behaviour or when the child is bitten, rather than preventing future problems and threats much earlier. Often then, under the influence of strong emotions, they immediately demand euthanasia of the dog.
Imagine the following situation:
I lie on the couch and rest. I am sleepy, tired and really need a nap because I had a bad night. And suddenly my sister starts accosting me, patting my head and talking to me as if wound up. I tell her that I would like to have a moment of peace and please leave her alone for half an hour. It does not help, my sister begins to pull my hands, wants to hug me and pull me off the couch. “Please, leave me alone”, I say on a little bit annoyed tone, but I’m already very annoyed. My action doesn’t have any effect, because my sister starts to be more insistent and pulls my hand hard. She is noisy and all the time she “puts her finger” to the side, pats my head and talks to me. Finally, the measure is changed: I am nervous, I scream that I want to have peace, I push her away and I’m really angry. My sister leaves, finally I have peace.
I sent several messages, initially calm, then blunt. That I want to have a moment of peace. They didn’t work, so I went to the more aggressive ones, right? And I succeeded: I achieved my goal.
We understand that, right?
And why do we not understand this in the case of a dog? It’s the same situation, except that the dog doesn’t speak. Dogs don’t speak like us, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a complex communication system. Their communication includes body language, sounds and smell. Their range of sounds includes howling, croaking, barking, howling, “chatting”, screaming and of course growling. As a highly social species, conflict avoidance is one of the main communication goals for a dog. The dog first shows us the signals that he is not comfortable. Then he shows warning signals if the former did not have the desired effect. And finally, he goes into aggression because he sees no other way to achieve what he needs at the moment: peace and rest.
If I don’t have the effect several times by asking to leave me alone, what will I do next time? I will not ask, just react immediately, because this behaviour was effective and I had my moment of peace.
Calming signals, stress signals
let’s learn to read them!
And here is the role of parents and the reason why the dog should always be with the child under the care of adults. Children do not understand the messages and want to encourage the dog to play. The parent is obliged to ensure the comfort of the resting animal and the child’s safety. Therefore, everyone should be able to read the basic stress signals in a dog, saying “I do not feel comfortable, leave me” and intervene.
These signals include:
freezing, standing still
looking away and showing the white eye, i.e. “Eye of the whale”
licking your mouth
turning the head sideways
crouched body posture
raising one paw up
turning sideways to the stimulus
attempt to leave;
If our dog shows them while playing with the child, we should end the interaction and take the child, because for a dog it is no longer fun and I feel bad about it.
Further behaviour and the risk of a bite will be our fault if we don’t respond properly.
The children, in their carefree joy, are not aware of sending threatening signals to the dog, which the dog shows in a dog-dog situation means “I am ready to confront and I am stronger”.
These include, among others:
approach from the front,
staring at the dog’s eyes,
an attempt to limit the dog’s freedom (embracing, hugging),
leaning over the dog,
a wide smile (sometimes seen by a stressed dog as grinning),
patting the head,
putting an arm on the neck and neck (hugging),
kissing in the mouth;
The problem is exacerbated by insecure, fearful, noise-less and small dogs. Such dogs react more emotionally, violently and quickly defend themselves when they feel threatened.
Gradation of warnings
However, we humans often do not notice the above signals and unknowingly ignore them, which is why the dog is forced to escalate its behaviour and most of the time no one hears it until it growls. Therefore, if we ignore the calming signals and our child still accosts the dog and wants to encourage him to play, which the dog does not feel like, further signals appear, because the quadruped will want to give a clear sign that he does not want something. Then we can see a clear gradation of the warnings that can lead to a bite:
a growl that says, “I don’t want to fight but I want you to know that I don’t feel good about it”
showing the whole set of teeth with a growl and change of body posture to slightly lowered with lowered ears,
snapping teeth “in the air” with a growl,
impact with the teeth on the human body (hand, face),
snapping your teeth while holding the human body (e.g. hands) and releasing it,
bite (varying in severity and severity);
All these behaviours are aimed at withdrawing something that the dog does not like at a safe distance and obtaining the desired comfort and peace by the dog.
And here we come to another important issue: we should not scold the dog for the behaviour above, especially for growling. Growling is really a wonderful gift. Growling is not an act of aggression, it is the only way a dog can hear itself when all its other signals are ignored. If you punish a growl, you turn off a really useful warning system. If the dog’s body language is ignored and his voice punished, he will have only one way of communication — his teeth. So if your dog growls at you or your child — Stop doing what you do and give the dog space.
Let’s come back to me and my insistent sister, whom I politely asked for a moment of peace, and she full of energy still jumps around my head and jerks me to play with her Monopoly. If I were nervous and raised my voice to leave her (growling, grinning) and in return for that my mother would come from the kitchen and give me in the face, I would say that it is not worth warning and it is better to react immediately.
First of all: asking politely has no effect.
Secondly: the warning is scolded and then I feel pain, and I don’t get peace either, so it doesn’t pay to warn.
And now, afraid of being hit in the face and failing to plead, I will immediately shout at my sister and push her away so that she will leave me alone. I will go straight to what will bring the desired effect and I will have my nap and peace.
What can you do?
Above all, prevent!
Every dog guardian and every parent who has a dog at home should be able to read calming signals and react before it’s too late. We learn to observe, interpret and respond to them. It will work out for us and the dog for good. Let’s teach ourselves and our older children to recognize when the dog is fed up and when it is stressed.
The second issue is to provide the dog with a place where he can rest undisturbed. Having his own corner will satisfy the most important need for dogs for safety. It should be a quiet and peaceful place, in which he will not be disturbed by the bustle of the household, drafts and noises, but in which he will also not feel lonely. A common mistake is placing the bed in the corridor, where we later stumble over a dog tangling under our feet.
Equally inappropriate location of the lair is a completely separate room, away from the household, because our four-legged friend needs to know what is going on in the house. Most dogs like being around people and making eye contact with household members. If we have doubts about where to place the dog’s bed, watch where he most often lies. It is important that the lair in which the dog feels safe also means a place where the dog is not hooked and to which the child is not allowed. Most often, parents explain that when the dog rests in this place, it must not be caught. In the case of crawling babies, this should be a fenced-off place, where the toddler will not enter and the dog, when he wants to rest from playing and being touched, just rest there.
And the third, though most important: we never leave a small child and a dog alone, even for a moment. The signals sent can be ignored by the toddler (it is logical that the two-year-old does not understand them), and it may end up bad for the toddler. Children get to know the world by touch and can also pull the dog’s tail or ear, and if they unwittingly cause pain to the dog, the dog can also react violently, e.g. by snapping his teeth. Unfortunately, eyes go round your head and you should always look after such a two-way interaction.
never leave a small child and a dog alone
A dog is not a cuddly toy that you can feed, drag around the house and take whenever you want. The dog has the right to have its own comfort zone, dislike touching e.g. on the ears or want to rest in peace. This should be respected and realized that having a dog and a child in one house is also respecting the needs of this four-legged family member and ensuring that he meets all needs and understanding.
This will allow us to prevent many difficult situations.
Finally, I would like to emphasize that growling is a normal, natural, functional part of the dog’s vocabulary and we misunderstand it. Almost invariably, when people tell me that their dog growled at them, they see the growl as a threat. An indication that the dog wants to hurt them. The irony is that snarling is just the opposite! Dogs growl to avoid conflict. Therefore, do not order your dog in any way or behave towards him in a similar “threatening” way, because you have been told that you must show your dog who the boss is. This kind of thinking is based on outdated theories and serves only to destroy your relationship with the dog and lead to more serious problems. So if the dog is growling at you and you really REALLY need the dog to do something (e.g. a pet eats something it can’t, so leaving it alone is out of the question), try to come up with a less confrontational way to ask for it. For example, if he eats something he shouldn’t, he might be happy to leave it if you offer him the opportunity to search for something else.
Watch the short animation below and respect that the dogs speak a different language. And if we understand this language we will get a great friend of our child.