Woofs and Growls by canine behaviour specialist Jez Rose
Dogs, much like children, don’t come with an instruction manual and more’s the pity! I see people all the time enforcing restriction, cuddles or petting on their dogs, despite the dog telling them that they are not comfortable with it. It is simple and enjoyable to have a safe and fun relationship with your dog but they do have teeth and if forced to use them, they will. The use of their teeth is both predictable and preventable.
Dogs don’t just bite without reason, so it’s important that adults as well as children, learn how to greet dogs properly and at the same time, that dogs learn how to be friendly around people – especially children. Many dogs find children a bit spooky. Dogs communicate through complex, co-ordinated body movements, yet children are bundles of energy and uncoordinated movement who often run head-first towards dogs. They don’t see the dog offering very loud signs, in dog language, telling the child that they don’t feel comfortable with their rather clumsy, energetic approach.
So here’s my quick guide on how to ensure a safe and enjoyable relationship with your dog:
1: Respect the dog’s space. Tell children not to approach the dog – allow the dog to come to them. When the dog does approach, keep quiet and calm.
2: Walk calmly and quietly when the dog is around: loud noises and lots of movement may scare the dog or over excite them.
3: Never go near to or disturb a dog when they are sleeping or eating.
4: Never, ever, under any circumstances leave children and dogs unattended – no matter how safe you believe the dog is. Both are naturally inquisitive, however, neither speak the same language and children aren’t taught what to look for in a dog’s body language; ways that show it may be upset, fearful or anxious: three things that often precede a dog bite.
5: Learn to “speak dog”. With even a very basic understanding of how dogs communicate, we can better understand them and adjust our behaviour accordingly.
When a dog’s hackles are raised (the hair at the scruff of their neck and along their back stands on end), it is commonly misconceived that this is aggression. It is actually caused by fear: the dog is scared but makes itself look scary in hope the scary thing will go away. I always aim to act before the dog shows fear or growls, as there are plenty of signals we can pick up on before it gets to this stage.
Have you ever noticed your dog yawning when it isn’t tired, panting when it isn’t particularly hot, licking its’ lips, narrowing its eyes or even turning its head away or lowering its head when you approach it, attempt to stroke or cuddle it? These are all what are commonly known as calming signals; subtle gestures the dog makes to indicate that it isn’t comfortable as a response to stress. The best way to respond to these is to stop what you are doing, or were about to do with the dog or change the environment. For example, if you have some of your children’s friends over and they are all happily playing but you notice that the dog is panting and turning its head even though it isn’t a hot day, take the dog to a safe zone where the children are not allowed to disturb it and ask the children to respect the dog’s space and needs. Many dog owners are guilty of forgetting that, although domesticated, dogs are animals none the less.
If you feed your dog in a bowl, I strongly recommend that you put the bowl into early retirement: they make quirky birdbaths and some plants really thrive in them! Start feeding your dog by hand: all the adults in the house should feed the dog its’ everyday food but you should reserve extra special things like bacon fat, cooked chicken or liver treats for children to give the dog under adult supervision. If your dog doesn’t have gentle jaws, the children can simply toss the food onto the floor in front of the dog. The dog learns very quickly that these small bundles of energy and movement are actually pretty good to have around as they deliver the best food, therefore, creating a positive association with them.
For information, articles and free training resources including full colour posters for children, visit: www.TheBehaviourCompany.com