You’ve probably seen the emails with photos of kids and dogs that make the rounds from time to time. The photos are supposed to be cute, but honestly, most of them make me shudder. If parents knew that children are those most often bitten, and that the dogs most often doing the biting are their own dogs, they might not put them both at risk for the sake of a photo. (For more information see the CDC information about dog bite statistics.)
You may say, “But my dog would never bite my child. And he didn’t bite him when we took the picture.” You are not alone; nearly everyone whose child has been bitten has uttered those words. No one thinks their dog would bite their child. But just because you’d like to think it won’t happen, does not mean it won’t. In fact, your child and dog may be at greater risk because you are leaving things to chance instead of being proactive. (I tell the participants in my Baby Meets Bowser classes that I suspect they are less likely to have a bite event in their families just by signing up for the class; their awareness that they must be proactive and their willingness to learn what do do to help their child and dog put them ahead of the game.) See if you can identify what the dog above may not like about the situation he’s been put in, and how he is showing he is tense.
I have three objections to these sorts of photos. One is that the child is being allowed (sometimes encouraged) to engage in the wrong behaviors towards their dog. The parents reward the child with attention, laughter, and even praise. The more the child gets in the habit of behaving toward the dog in these risky ways, the more comfortable she becomes, and the more likely it is she’ll repeat these behaviors. She is learning the wrong way to behave around dogs, and she will then behave that way not just with your dog, but with other dogs.
Second, the fact that the dog did not bite during the photo does not mean the dog likes to be touched or approached in the way captured in the picture. He may just be tolerating it. He may even be tense (often the dog has been commanded to lie down in an effort to pose the child and dog for the camera). He may give off warning signs, and then perceive that these are being ignored. Over time, as these annoying or frightening encounters add up, the dog escalates his warning, and one day there is a bite. If you are not sure what things may frighten or annoy your dog, please see the list of dos and don’ts. Dogs also sometimes perceive infants as prey objects, so please don’t ever put your baby down on the floor with your dog as in the photos left and below. (The child below is also being allowed to crawl directly toward the dog at face-level, which is not a fair thing to do to the dog.)
Finally, just because your child feels like touching a dog a certain way is not a good enough reason for allowing it. Most parents do not want to teach their child to ignore how his actions affect others. They want to teach their children lessons about empathy and about respecting others. Yesterday I was with a couple who had read Happy Kids, Happy Dogs, who knew the dog warning signs to look for and even what things their kids should not do to their dog. Yet I witnessed one child throw the leash at the dog when he was asked not to sit on the bed with the dog. Then the other child climbed into the dog’s bed, while the dog was resting there, and put his face up to the dog’s face. The parents lamented that they had explained the rules repeatedly to the children. I don’t doubt that, it’s just that they need a more effective approach. After all, parents find a way to make boundaries very clear to their children when it comes to touching a hot stove, hitting another child, throwing a rock at a cat, or running out into traffic. I am hopeful that these parents will no longer allow their children to engage in the “don’ts” with their dog and begin to encourage only the “dos.” Otherwise the dog’s warnings (turning away, yawning, stiffness, growling, and snapping) may soon give way to biting.