Why dogs and children don’t mix….
In the past there have been some horrific stories reported, regarding our pet dogs biting children, and worse still: killing a baby!! Absolutely horrendous! Often the dogs are killed following these incidents – only getting a reprieve if they are NOT a “dangerous dog” – ie a pit bull terrier and others.
Why is this? Why does our faithful dog attack its own family? What could have happened in our dogs brain to cause such an awful reaction?
In order to look at this in depth, and try to understand, we must firstly look at a normal family:
2 parents, and 2 children perhaps? A puppy is brought into the family for the children? Training is not thought of often – the dog will just fit in won’t it? The children will enjoy playing with it…
Reality is: Children can get quite excited. They run around, scream, flap their hands about, poke, prod, hug, kiss, pull ears, jump on……these are just a few things, and that’s when the children are just playing normally – not being naughty – just acting as normal children!
Mum and Dad are usually busy running the home, earning the money, cleaning, washing, cooking, gardening and running the kids to various clubs - giving their children the attention and care they need.
However, dogs/pups also have “needs”.
They need exercise, companionship, good food, health care so that they are inoculated against all the common dog diseases, given treatment to avoid worms and fleas and should be free from pain. They need to live in a safe environment and also need to be allowed to carry out some natural behaviours. Natural behaviours??
Whats that then?? Well, they ARE dogs first, and enjoy various things like running, sniffing, rolling in horrible stuff, swimming, digging, chewing, barking and meeting and playing with other dogs, to name a few.
Dog have been bred by humans to help us with certain jobs – for example Retrievers were bred to retrieve animals that the human shot – in a home they are just a pet and don’t need to work, but these Retrievers need to carry out “natural behaviours” and so we see them carrying our shoes around!
A Border Collie will be bred to herd sheep – as a pet, not allowed to work, the Border Collie may try to herd other animals in the house or us! They occasionally nip the sheep, and this nipping can be seen in a home too. It’s their natural behaviour… Collies are easily stimulated and often like chasing cars, cyclists, joggers. They need to work.
Next to consider is the dogs previous experience in life.
If the family have owned the dog since it was a pup then great. If not, we never know what experiences they have had and learned. The experiences can be good or bad. An older dog in the house needs to be monitored carefully.
A pup however, is just starting to learn, and needs to be socialised in lots of different situations including meeting and playing with other dogs/pups, they need to learn what travelling in a car is all about, and this should be covered regularly if the dog is to travel regularly. The pup needs to learn to walk nicely on a lead and this involves following some rules.
The whole family have to follow these “rules” consistently. The pup should learn all about its environment while it is being socialised. And the pup needs to learn what we, the human, find acceptable and not acceptable.
If their first experiences are pleasant ones then the pup often accepts the situation and is quite relaxed when the same situation arises in the future. If however, something unpleasant happens then the pup may be wary next time a similar situation arises.
The human needs to spend time watching their pup/dog and learning how it is feeling in various situations, so that the human can act accordingly – to perhaps reassure the dog if they are wary and so hopefully make this situation more pleasant next time.
An example of the human misreading their dog may be when walking along a pavement with their dog on lead, and another dog comes towards them. Their dog barks due to being unsure. The human misunderstands and tugs sharply on the lead, telling their dog off in a harsh, cross tone.
Oh dear. The dog hasn’t had a chance to meet many other dogs, so when seeing this one it wasn’t sure how to react. It barked because that’s how dogs communicate to us and other dogs. If the human had recognised that the dog was worried, and allowed the dog to get away from the situation – have more space between it and the other dog - reassured the dog – offered it a treat to let it know that there was nothing to worry about – if the human taken charge of the situation in a calm and confident way, the situation would have turned out differently.
Instead, in this situation, the human wasn’t “on the dogs’ side” at all, instead the human told the dog off severely for being scared!!
Are you scared of anything? How would it be if someone that you trusted acted like this human towards you when you were near the thing that you found terrifying?
So, dogs get scared.
When they are scared they have a choice of how to react.
Fight, flight, freeze and pfaff about.
They don’t want to fight, they prefer to flee. If they can, they will move away from what they are scared of.
If you imagine when relaxed – they have a bubble tightly around them. This means they don’t mind anyone or anything being close to them, in simple terms – but when scared, this bubble becomes “blown up” and they want to keep the scary thing out of their bubble. Therefore they need a bit of distance between them and the scary thing. So they want to move away – to flee.
Sometimes they may freeze – especially if the scary thing is coming towards them. Perhaps they will freeze before fleeing.
Sometimes they can’t actually escape ( if they are in a restricted place off lead ) but they feel uneasy so run around in a figure of eight, in a generally silly way! “Pffaffing” about!! (this often confuses the scary thing so seems to work!)
But if they are restricted – on a lead… then they can’t do any of the above and their only option is fight.
Sounds scary - fight.
But it means they don’t want to get hurt. They feel in danger and want to avoid danger. The first thing they will do is warn the scary thing. They will growl and move away. They will keep doing this if they can as it is a preferred option for most dogs. ( fighting is dangerous – survival is important! Fighting is best avoided)
Other dogs have learned what growling means and accept it. Humans often don’t understand what is going on, or don’t notice it –( they are busy doing stuff, not like our dogs who spend most of their time watching us) – OR they tell the dog off for telling us how it is feeling in a certain situation because they totally misread the situation. Not good.
So the dog is feeling uneasy, the growling isn’t working – they progress to a snap with their teeth. That’s how they communicate. Other dogs understand and back off. Humans don’t. They tell the dog off for being scared…
So the snap progresses to a bite – which may not draw blood initially, but as the scenario goes on, eventually the dog doesn’t know how else to tell the scary thing that they are scared! And to leave them alone!
We need to learn to read and understand our dogs, and realise they may be scared of something that we think is really silly. If they haven’t been socialised often enough in this situation, they can be scared. We shouldn’t assume they should be happy and relaxed with everything they encounter in life…
So, let’s go back to the family... 2 parents and 2 children. The Parents are busy. They are running the home. They can’t be watching the children all the time, but know they are safe in the home…
Remember how the children act when they are being normal? Jumping about, screaming, poking, prodding etc = if the dog feels uneasy around this – they may try to get away. If they can’t get away, they may try the growl first…and so it goes on.
Dogs hurt too – and poking and prodding and pulling ears may upset them as much as a scary thing, so they will act in the same way. First they try to move away so they don’t get hurt. There is no way that children can possibly understand this. They can’t understand why the dog has run away from them. This looks like a game doesn’t it? So the child runs after the dog and the dog becomes more scared of being hurt. It snaps as gently as it can, it lifts a paw and so it goes on until the growl (that gets missed,) then the snap and perhaps on to a bite over time………….
Dogs are very precise at targeting and if they intend to bite hard they will bite the target hard – so a near miss means they have more self -control than we realise and that they really don’t want to hurt us.
Similarly, remember the collie that was bred to herd sheep?
How might that dog react to a running child? The fact that the child is running may excite the dog and it will carry out its “natural behaviour” by running after the child and trying to control the situation. It may nip? It may nudge?
Many toys that we give our dogs are squeaky toys. Mostly the dog tries to get the squeak out of the toy. We laugh as they do this. Before they do this, we laugh at them as they walk around squeaking the toy. Our laughing is positively reinforcing our dogs’ behaviour and makes them repeat their action. They like to please the human! There are a variety of squeaky toys on the market – they make a variety of noises – not just a squeak. And mostly they don’t make the noise until they are chewed.
My pet dog found a baby rabbit once – he nudged it and it squeaked. He did it again – it was a game as far as he was concerned. I saw and luckily my dog responded to “leave it” and left the rabbit. If I hadn’t been there, would he have picked up the rabbit? Continued nudging? Chewing?
A crying baby can make some really odd noises too…….
Please spread the word:
Dogs and children don’t mix. They need to be supervised closely. And when this can’t be done, they need to be separated by a closed door.
It is not that you can’t trust all dogs and all children – it’s just that when they act like dogs and children, they don’t mix well.