Teaching Children How to Act Around Dogs
by Lynn Stacy-Smith
Last week another cringe-worthy video came across my social media news feed because someone thought it was cute. I suppose if you did not know a single thing about dogs, it might be cute. After all, what could be so awful about a curly-haired, resourceful toddler wearing just a diaper, climbing on top of his Basset Hound’s head and spine in order to reach into the refrigerator to get something? The dog patiently stood while the child climbed on his back and the video was being shared as an “awe, look at this boy and his dog” moment. Teamwork, right?
First of all, stepping on a dog’s head and standing on its back is a perfect way for that child to get bit when the dog tires of the game. Second, the long back and short legs of the Basset Hound make it prone to back problems and damage to their vertebrae without a child standing on its spine. Standing on any part of any dog is wrong, let alone a Basset Hound!
Our own late Basset Hound Maggie was only saved from a death at a young age by a clinical trial at the Purdue University Veterinary school after she became completely paralyzed from the upper back down to her back legs and tail. She became paralyzed because the overall design of the Basset Hound is flawed and like other dogs with long backs and short legs, she became paralyzed simply from everyday running around and playing. I cannot imagine letting our kids stand on her spine! After surgery she went through six months of physical therapy and kennel rest while we taught her how to walk again.
Six months of kennel rest to a dog whose life lasted twelve years is like over three years of recovery for a human whose life is eighty years. Some Basset Hounds and other breeds with a long back never recover once they are paralyzed like that, so to have a child stand on their spine using it as a step-stool could be deadly to the dog.
This is not the only video that’s gone viral by people who think that it is “cute” when those of us in the dog world view it as downright animal abuse. I have seen videos of babies and toddlers walking on dogs, stepping on their bellies and rib cages, riding them like horses, chasing after them and hitting them while the parents film the activity and laugh along at their poorly behaved child and their beleaguered, stressed out dog. I even saw one with a dog backed into a corner and snarling while the child hugs him, with the caption that the dog is smiling. The dog is not smiling, it is giving a warning that he does not like what is going on, and his next move is to bite to protect himself.
I personally have been chased down the street by children who did not have their parents with them, running at me screaming “Can we pet your dog??” This has happened with every one of my dogs in every town in which I’ve lived. The most recent time I was chased and followed by two young boys on bikes who wanted to pet my dogs and after I replied, “Sorry, not unless your Mom or Dad is with you,” and they rode off and yelled, “I’m going to kill your dogs!”
I have a firm rule when I walk my dogs, whether it is one dog at a time or both of them together, that kids may not approach or pet my dogs without their parents present. The reason for this is that I have seen far too many children whose parents have never taught them how to act around a dog. And while I have never had a dog who I ever felt would bite a human, my dogs approach the world with a happy, dopey look on their faces with their mouths open and their tongues hanging out. Yes, I tend to err on the side of neurotic caution, but I never want any sort of misunderstanding.
Fortunately I have also heard parents stop their children from charging up to me, yelling at them to stop and correcting their child by saying, “You do not run up to strange dogs! You have to ask their owner first if you can pet them and walk up slowly!” In that situation, I am happy to put my dog in a sitting position and give them the “say hello” command while the parent tells their child how to greet my dog.
Like I point out in nearly every blog: dogs are amazing creatures who live in harmony with we humans, but at the end of the day, they are a different species. They cannot speak in English or in words, so they must rely on body language when they are trapped into situations that they do not like or that scare them. And yes, they get scared! They are living, breathing, feeling creatures. Instead of saying, “hey, back up, you are too close and I am kinda freaked out right now” in words like we can, they can only lean away, walk away, turn their head, and if they must, growl or bite.
Here are some basic things that all parents can teach their children to do and not to do when around their own dog or dogs who belong to strangers:
- DO NOT climb on top of dogs, whether standing up on them, riding them like a horse, or stepping on their bodies.
- DO NOT hit or smack dogs.
- DO NOT hug dogs.
- DO NOT grab the heads of dogs for kisses.
- DO NOT get up close to the face of dogs.
- DO NOT wrestle with dogs.
- DO NOT grab something out of the dog’s mouth.
- DO NOT pull ears, tails, floppy skin, jowls or any body parts.
- DO NOT run up behind the dog.
- DO NOT run up to strange dogs.
- DO NOT corner dogs where they have not exit.
- DO NOT reach over or lean over dogs.
- DO NOT teach your dog games in which they chase you.
- DO NOT pet dogs on the top of their heads.
- DO NOT go into fenced areas in someone else’s property without being invited.
- DO NOT approach strange dogs who are tethered or tied up.
- DO pet dogs under the chin, on the chest.
- DO stroke dogs gently along the shoulder.
- DO NOT make eye contact with strange dogs.
- DO stand at a forty-five degree angle to let the new dog approach.
- DO hold your hand out just slightly with the back of your hand facing the dog or with your hand in a loose fist.
- DO always ask the owner if you can pet their dog.
- DO teach the dog to drop their toys in front of you if they want to play fetch.
- DO honor the dog’s decision to walk away and decide when the encounter is done.
- DO be calm and confident; dogs can smell the biological changes that occur with stress and fear and may also feel that stress or fear as a result.
- DO back away slowly if the dog shows signs of fear or aggression.
There are some things on the list that your own dog might let you get away with even though it is rude in their world simply because they know and trust you. My dogs let me kiss them and are frequently close to my face. I have raised them from puppies and I would never do this with a stranger’s dog or even other dogs that belong to family or friends. As your dog’s owner your dog may let you do things that your own children cannot. Our Maggie was fine if my husband or I held her close to us, but if the children tried to hug her she would give a warning growl, as if she recognized that we moved slowly and were not a threat and they were louder and more rough and tumble and not allowed to hold onto her as tightly. I recommend always watching babies, toddlers and even younger children with your own dogs until you are sure that they understand the rules of living side by side with their canine family members.