Awwwww… This is sooo cute! (No, no it isn’t. Not even a little bit when you really see what you’re looking at.)
I see it all the time, on my friends’ facebook pages, on animal rescue pages, on funny memes and even in my email. People who know I am an animal lover and send me pictures of “cute kids and dogs”. About 3 years ago, I wrote a facebook soapbox note about my thoughts on cute kids and dogs. Today, I am going to update “My Thoughts on Cute Kids and Dogs.”
The picture above is used regularly in Memes and across the internet about how cute labs are and how great with kids they are. Truth in those statements! Labs are, as a general rule, pretty even tempered dogs as evidenced by their higher than average passing score on the American Temperament Testing Society’s ATTS evaluation. (http://atts.org/breed-statistics/) What I see in this photo is SO very different than “Smile! It’s Friday!” or “awwww what a good dog, what a sweet baby!” or even “oh, aren’t they cute?!” Nope. My heart races and I cringe when I see this photo. The body language this dog is displaying is troubling to me. The dog is leaning away, eyes diverted, the whites of the eyes showing, a furrowed brow and ears down flat. All too often we hear horror stories about “the dog attacked out of nowhere! He didn’t even give a warning!” The warnings are here, we are just missing them. If a person were to invade our personal space in this way, lift up our lips and play with our cheeks, we would be a little stand-offish too. And I think we all know someone who would “nip” or “growl” or even take a swing. Really this is no different for dogs. We expect our dogs to tolerate things that are naturally something they wouldn’t tolerate because it comes from a child. This picture above is a prime example of that. This dog is being a VERY good sport, even though the dog is obviously uncomfortable.
Every last one of the pictures above shows dogs in various stages of “warning”. The body language exhibited in these photos that people inevitably thought were “cute” or “funny” (all of these pictures were found on a quick google search of “cute kids and dogs”). How is it that we can look at these pictures and miss the obvious signs of distress, discomfort and warning? Dogs almost never “bite without warning”. We are seeing the “warnings” in these photos, yet socially we accept these things as being part of kids being around dogs. Yet, when things go wrong, the dog barks, or nips, or runs away to remove themselves from the situation we aren’t protecting them from, we tend to “discipline” our dogs for misbehaving around the children. When we tell our dogs that we won’t protect them, we won’t allow them to leave, and they are not allowed to warn of their discomfort, they learn to both not respond with warnings and they learn that we will not intervene on their behalf. While we have taken the time to turn these into “kodak moments” we haven’t stopped to look at the true subject matter in the picture. Is the kid cute? Sure! Your kid is adorable! Is the dog pleased? Absolutely not. I would wager a guess that most of these dogs are pretty “trustworthy” and “laid back” or there may have been problems up to this point, but we can’t rule out the possibility of potential disaster here.
In these pictures, we have very small children, toddlers, who haven’t quite learned how to “pet nice” or approach an animal slowly and appropriately. This Brittany Spaniel is pleading quietly while this child grabs a handful of fur in both hands. In another photo the child grabs a very sensitive spot on the dog, grabbing his jowels. This is likely not a soft touch, and the dog is obviously just a puppy himself, likely not in complete control of his impulse response. In the last picture, this child is grabbing a dog who is obviously fearful. The child’s hands are around the dog’s mouth and the dog is obviously uncomfortable (as well as chained which is another topic for discussion further down in this blog). In all of these pictures, I see beautiful children, and dogs desperate for the protection and intervention of their people. Instead of taking the opportunity to intervene and make a teaching moment, “no, no. We don’t grab puppy like that, that hurts” we take the time to snap a picture and laugh about how cute those 2 are together, all the while missing the obvious signs our dogs are giving us.
In the world of animal advocacy, rescue, training, etc, we hear regularly that the dog snaps at the children, or doesn’t tolerate children of a certain age. My question is always; are these things going on? Is the dog being expected to tolerate ill behaved children, or children that have never been properly taught how to interact with a dog? Is the dog expected to be perfect among the chaos and when it isn’t, it has to go? Is the dog snapping at the child who has been pulling tails, ears, hair, toes, etc?
Dogs and children are a great combination, don’t get me wrong, I think every dog deserves to have a child to love it, and vice versa. Supervision and proper respect for the animal is a must though. If your infant hasn’t grown up with a dog, wait until they are old enough to understand and have shown that they know how to properly interact with an animal. Teach children how to pet, not pull. How to approach a dog they know and one they don’t. Dog bite statistics are almost universal. The highest number of reported dog bite victims is almost always juvenile males between the ages of 6 and 13. I don’t think that, universally, dogs are predisposed to disliking male children. I think that we haven’t instilled a sense of respect in our children for the animal’s space and well-being.
It is imperative, for the sake of both the children and the animals, that we teach our children how to properly approach an animal. And in some cases, to not approach it at all. It is imperative that we teach our children that animal’s lives have value. Not just as a toy, but as a member of the family, as a helper, as food, as an intricate part of our eco system, as a living, breathing, feeling creature that can’t communicate with us in the way most understand.
Not just children, but adults should also be aware of times that are inappropriate to be attempting to interact with a dog. Dogs can be protective of their space and their toys, their beds, their kennels, their food, their puppies and whatever else they have determined to be theirs or in need of guarding. Interfering with a dog while they are eating is a recipe for disaster. Children should never put their hands in a dog’s food bowl.
Dogs that are chained also tend to become more territorial. There is a large amount of psychology that goes into the potential aggression of chained dogs, but the short of it is; dogs have two options when they are faced with what they perceive to be a threat- fight or flight. Chained dogs have had their option of flight removed. Chained dogs are left with only the option of fight when they find themselves with no more room to retreat. Chained dogs, even when familiar to a person, should never be approached without the dog’s owner present.
Dogs with puppies are also more prone to potentially bite as they have puppies to protect. Even the most docile dog can become protective when it comes to keeping watch over her puppies.
Even in some of these family pictures we see dogs tolerating interactions in a most unnatural way. Dogs are not made to be ridden, dogs as a general rule, don’t care to be hugged, or have people crowded around their faces. Often times it is the people closest to the dogs that suffer when the warning signs are ignored. 70% of dog bites happen with the family pet.
We become comfortable with our dogs. We begin to assume that our dogs “would never, ever bite” even when provoked. We begin to downplay what constitutes provocation. Tail pulling, teasing with food, treats, toys and affection. Direct and unyeilding eye contact. Invading the dog’s personal space such as dog beds, kennels, feeding areas and resting spaces. Waking the dog while he is sleeping. Taking toys from the dog. Barking at the dog or yelling or making noises in the dog’s face. All of these things are provocation, whether we choose to see accept it or not. It is not about whether WE, the humans feel the dog was provoked. It is about whether or not the the dog feels provoked.
So we have talked about “warnings” and the signs our dogs give us. What do those look like?
Whale eye (as evidenced in most of the dogs above) when the dog’s eye is averted slightly to the side and the whites of the eye is visible.
Lip licking- when the dog licks his nose or lips repeatedly this is often a sign of stress or discomfort.
Retreating- when a dog chooses to attempt to remove himself from a situation it is a sign that he is not comfortable and would like to avoid any escalation.
Lowered body posture- A dog who stands with head down, tail out straight or down behind and ears down flat, chances are good that this dog is less than comfortable and is waiting for an opportunity to remove himself from the stressor that is present.
Barking/growling- aggressive sounding vocalizations are intended to create space for the dog. It is a loud warning that the dog would like you to not come any closer.
Baring of teeth- again… this is intended to get your attention and let you know that the dog is not pleased and would prefer you not continue.
As a responsible pet guardian, we need to intercede on behalf of our pets when they have these distressed looks on their face. It isn’t cute, it isn’t sweet, it can go south VERY fast. For the sake of (in these cases) the children involved, we need to remove the situation from all involved before someone gets hurt, and the dog pays the ultimate price. No matter how much I love my fur kids, they are still dogs. They still react as a dog. They still have instinct like a dog. they still have personality like a dog, because they are, above all else, a dog. Yes, I am more protective of my dogs than some people are of their human children, because these are my children. I don’t have the kind with 2 legs, I have the kind with 4, and I will treat them as such. But, as a dog-mom, I recognize these things in my kids probably before a kid-mom and dog-owner might. Yes, my priority is my dog, and not someone else’s child. But if I put my dog in a sit so that your child can pet my dog, don’t get upset with me when I say, “don’t pull doggie’s ears, that hurts.” “No, you can’t pull his hair, that’s not nice”. Bottom line, there is no such thing as a truly unprovoked attack. Even if they have no malice, children often times cause a dog to bite. It may be accidental, lack of supervision, or lack of respect, but all of those things are teachable. Remember, if my dog looks at me with the look that any of these dogs are giving, we are out. We are gone, and until he doesn’t have that look around you any longer, we won’t be comfortable just parking ourselves and hanging out.