Friday, February 17, 2012

Dogs and Babies

I confess: I am semi-addicted to Facebook. It is my social vice. I like keeping in touch with friends, clients and colleagues worldwide, and especially love the daily dose of dog-news: links to articles and video clips without having to comb the web.
Info seems to come in trends. Sometimes there is a cluster of training advice, then the topic is health and food, and recently there were a few youtube clips in a row of kids interacting with dogs. Little kids, babies and toddlers, and not so little dogs. In one, a mastiff had a bone and an about one-year old child kept on reaching for it. In another, a Bernese mountain dog frenetically licked a, crawling into his space, baby. Obviously, in each case there was an adult nearby - filming, and equally obvious unconcerned about the baby’s safety. Nobody interfered, not even when the dog with the bone briefly stiffened.
It is not unusual that situations laypeople find adorable or funny bristles dog pros’ neck hair. We see the dog’s discomfort in his body language - and a looming incident that always leaves both baby and pooch on the losing end.
How can parents be so oblivious? Well, some dog signals are easier to understand than others. Licking, for example, is typically interpreted as the dog loving the baby and kissing it in affection, but that is not necessarily the case. Yes, the dog might like the baby generally, but incessant licking indicates that, at the moment, he’d rather have some space. Some dog trainers use the term “kiss to dismiss” to illustrate the dog’s intention: wanting distance and peace, but communicating it in a much friendlier way than growling.
Whether a dog licks or growls depends on his personality. Naturally, humans understand a growl right away and take action – not always the right one, but at least they are aware how their pooch feels and ensure the little person’s safety. Anything less clear coming from the dog is often missed. But can a layperson be expected to comprehend subtleties in canine communication? Perhaps not, and hence the common advice is to never allow dogs and children to interact unsupervised. Except, in both clips they weren’t. Grown-ups were right there, but filming instead of intercepting.
A bite can happen a flash. There was another video making the rounds recently of a Malinois snapping at another dog 5 times in 2 seconds. 2 seconds is nothing; certainly not enough time to get a child out of the way even when you’re there. For that reason, many of my colleagues recommend to never allow dog and baby in face-to-face, or face-to-body, proximity. I am reluctant to go that far. There are dogs who really do love young humans and want to interact. I met them, and lived with them, and it would be a shame to withhold that. The solution, as I see it, is for people to learn more about dogs. Especially parents, and regardless if they own a dog or not, because the fact is that dogs are part of our society and everywhere. Fortunately, it isn’t that complicated. There is a fabulous website that illustrates when a dog is uncomfortable. Locally, here in Nova Scotia, one of my wonderful colleagues, Tamara McFarland, is holding a couple of Dog & Baby workshops this spring.

Between children, dogs and adults, only the grown-ups have enough reasoning capabilities to assess a situation accurately, and take charge when needed. Whenever a dog becomes stiff and still, has a clamped mouth and/or round, white-rimmed eyes, the problem is already a big one, and a bite might be imminent. Taking action, creating space, should happen when he yawns or flicks his tongue in and out, and when he tries to avoid: turns his eyes, head or body away from the child, and yes, also when he kisses to dismiss. Frenzied licking indicates that the dog is annoyed rather than affectionate. In fact, anything fast moving on a dog puts me on alert, including a fast wagging tail, and especially when only part of it wags. When a dog seeks friendly social contact, the dog wags, not just the tail.
Parents also should remember that dog/child interactions are dynamic. Just because the pooch enjoys the baby close by today, doesn’t mean he will tomorrow. The most difficult age I find is when a child is between 1-3 years old. They are mobile, but their motor skills not yet well developed, and they are too young to comprehend space politeness. Toddlers are unpredictable and uncoordinated and dogs know this. Especially more vulnerable tiny poochies, and older ones who might be a bit arthritic, can be quite guarded of themselves. Older dogs might also need more rest, and it is up to the owner to ensure they have a refuge zone where young humans won’t disturb them. Dogs, young or old, big or small, should always be given the opportunity to retreat when they have had enough. Many dogs are naturally curious about babies and want to sniff, but feel much safer when it happens on their terms. And please keep in mind that retreating can be an effort for older and giant dogs, and so they’d rather want the baby to create the distance, and they signal that with growling, or kissing.
Even if your dog is childproof, not every dog is and not all of the time, and it is crucial that youngsters learn to be considerate; learn manners and respect for other living beings. Their family pooch perhaps tolerates being hugged, pulled or slouched on, but their friend or neighbor’s dog might object. An average 3-year-old can comprehend basic dog language, and should be involved as “trainer helper”. Handing over a Smarty each time they point out “what the doggy is saying” correctly makes learning fun for everyone. The child is rewarded for giving the dog space, and that increases the likelihood that she'll be respectful with every pooch she meets.
Parents must model appropriate behavior. One would think that’s a no-brainer, but I remember a family of 4 we once encountered while hiking where that wasn’t the case. Davie and Will ignored them as they should, and the children ignored our dogs, but dad ran his hand over Davie’s back as he passed on the narrow trail. Davie was a small Aussie, and he had to bend down and make an effort. Duh! I complemented the kids for not patting a strange dog, threw dad the evil eye, and fed Davie a few treats for not biting the hand that rudely touched her.

The babies in the videos clips weren’t hurt. The dog with the bone loosened up again and left the scene, bone between his teeth. The Berner continued licking, too amiable to aggress. Dogs that are bonded to their social group members don’t want to injure any of them, including children, and try everything to avoid a bite. All adults need to do is watch and listen, and help the dog out when he feels overwhelmed. Not much effort for a huge payoff: a child not ending up in emergency, injured and traumatized, and a once beloved family companion not ending up at the receiving end of the euthanasia needle.


  1. Interesting post Silvia and timely, especially, with the recent death of a new born baby in Alberta from the family dog. Your comments regarding “lick to dismiss” was very interesting to me as I have always been curious (and annoyed) as to why Taffy will almost maul some people with her licking. I thought it was because they were wearing hand lotion which she likes the taste of. I find it strange that she crawls all over some people with insistent licking. In these instances she is the one invading their space and I have to keep removing her. The person is usually just sitting in the livingroom having a conversation and not making any demands on her, could it be that she is wanting to dismiss them so that she has my undivided attention? She will also try this with me sometimes, but never when I’m attempting t interact with her.

  2. Very well written. Hopefully people get the message so that we don't have more tragic events in the future.

  3. Hm, not sure what Taffy's licking some people is about. We know that when she is anxious, she doesn't lick to dismiss, but barks. So, it could indeed be that she feels more comfortable with some of your guests, but still wants them to leave.
    It could also be that she likes their hand lotion a lot.
    In any case, I would redirect her when she does it.

  4. Great read Silvia.... I totally agree with everything you said ( not that you need me to :) )