No matter what the context is around dogs and kids, there is that age-old, open-ended phrase “To supervise your kids around dogs.” What exactly is that supposed to mean!? This phrase is setting families up to fail because it gives them a false sense of security. It gives the impression that if they are supervising interactions that nothing could possibly go wrong. As a mother of two, not a second goes by in life that I am not overlooking, or supervising every situation my babies are in. It can actually be exhausting because your mind never stops working and anticipating the next moments. If my toddler is at the beach and starts walking towards the water, I anticipate what could happen, so I make sure to be extremely diligent because there is risk of her drowning. If my 11-month-old is picking something off the ground, I again go into mommy mode and take it from her because she could choke. The lists of things us mommies have to watch for are never ending!
With that being said, and me knowing that no normal mother wants anything bad to ever happen to her children, then why are over 800,000 patients seeking medical attention in the US for dog bite-related injuries, and most of them from their own family pets? I am here to tell you the simple reason, and that is families don’t know what to look for to make sure their children are having positive interactions with their family dog. If you have kids and dogs together, this information is pertinent. One of the hardest things to accept is that situations can change in an instant. A once tolerant family pet can finally reach their limits. A dog that used to allow kids to do certain things might not approve of that any longer. You have to stay flexible in understanding this and being aware of what our dogs are trying to tell us at any given time. Your children’s safety is at stake, and many dogs are having to be rehomed or surrendered to shelters because of the lack of understanding their communication system with us.
Dogs communicate the emotions they are experiencing when they are joyful, in a relaxed state, anxious, or fearful, by using body language and cues. It is a system of messages and cues that you can easily start to identify and comprehend. When you better understand your dog’s communications, then you can start to predict your dog’s feelings and intentions. By knowing all of this, you can anticipate your dog’s behavior in numerous scenarios. The key signals to look for in your canine, especially around young kids, are avoidance and displacement behaviors.
Avoidance behaviors are body cues that can tell us that your dog is uneasy, or stress is building. Here are some practical examples of avoidance behaviors:
- Your baby crawls towards the dog and they get up and find somewhere else to be away from the baby.
- Your toddler tries to pet the dog and the dog avoids the petting.
- Anytime your kids are overly active, the dog tries to find a quiet space away from them.
- When your child is being vocal or overwhelming, your dog can bark, start pacing, and/or retreat away from them.
- If your toddler is hugging the dog, and you see the dog turn its head and it shows the whites of his eyes. Dogs don’t like this!
- When your baby tries to sit by the dog, your dog constantly repositions themselves to have space away from the baby.
- When your young one approaches your dog when they are eating or drinking, the dog will growl or show their teeth. Remember to never correct a dog when they growl or you will take away that cue which may lead to the dog biting without warning.
Displacement behaviors are everyday dog behaviors that are shown out of context. They signal to us that they are experiencing conflict and anxious energy. Some examples are:
- When your baby starts crying, your dog will lick their lips randomly. This has nothing to do with feeding treats or their meals. This happens outside the context of food.
- When you raise your voice or the energy in the house gets chaotic, you notice your dog yawning.
- If your dog is around yelling and they randomly start sniffing.
- If your home is extra noisy, or the kids are running around, and you notice your dog is shaking, (like they just had a bath and are trying to get the water off.) it’s a sign your dog could have anxious energy. It is called a wet dog shake, but they are not wet!
- If you have company over, or the kids have their friends for a playdate, and you notice your dog trembling when it’s not cold out. That’s a sign they are uncomfortable and stressed.
If any of these examples are something you are recognizing in your dog, that means that avoidance and displacement behaviors are being displayed. It is critical that you interject or allow your dog the means to be able to get away from the scenario that is causing them stress. By recognizing these signs in your dog, around your kids, you could prevent your dog from the possibility of being pushed into a situation that could lead to biting. Remember, we want our dog to give us this feedback. There is nothing wrong with your dog for showing avoidance or displacement signs. It is much scarier and more unpredictable for a dog not to display this.
We never want to correct your dog for communicating to us that they are uneasy or anxious, especially when they are around babies and children. It’s not as simple as just supervising your child around your dog. You have now just entered the next stage of dog ownership, where it is your job to know your dog and be able to identify the body language they are displaying, and know how to react accordingly.
Don’t try to force your dog to like your baby or your kids as the family evolves. Instead, the best thing you can do for your family is to accept your dog’s reactions and then respond accordingly.
If your dog does display any aggression, seek out a professional trainer to evaluate the situation and determine if this is a training issue that can be addressed, or if your family could be at a risk. Remember dogs tolerance levels can change as the baby develops and ages. If families need any assistance reading the body language of their dog, watch this informational film at https://www.dogstodiapers.com/about-the-film/.