Forced friendship

Reisner Veterinary Behavioral Services posted this on August 20 and I think it contains important information about “safe” dogs, and that you cannot force dogs to like anyone (emphasis mine):

This news item was noted on my feed: “A dog that was being trained to be friendly with children bit an 8-year-old child in the face Sunday and will be put down after a quarantine period…A veterinarian at XYZ Animal Hospital told the officer that one of her employees took the male Shepherd mixed dog to a location “in an effort to make the dog friendly with children.” The deputy spoke to the employee, whose son was bitten, and she told the officer that everything was fine with the dog for about an hour, but when they went to leave the yard the dog attacked and bit the child on the face.


The wording of the news story is interesting: this was “an effort to make the dog friendly with children.” We can’t ‘make’ dogs be friendly to anyone. Forced social interactions with an anxious dog can make things worse.


There was a recent discussion among veterinary behavior colleagues about anecdotal stories of [large, national pet supply chain] trainers taking dogs around a store and asking children, whose parents were shopping, to give the dog food. Of course, these exercises sometimes result in snapping or biting.


It’s simply not always possible to distinguish “safe” dogs from those at risk of biting. Whether a dog is new to a family or not, there can be unforeseen bite triggers in interactions with children – who stand closer to eye level, who giggle and jump, who may try to kiss or hug, and who may be intimidating just because they’re unfamiliar. And as we’re repeatedly reminded in the news, asking an owner for permission to pet a dog does not guarantee safety, because the owner himself/herself may be unaware of those risks.


If you’re a dog owner/guardian with a mildly anxious dog, or a parent of young children, keep the two at a safe distance from each other. The dog person can counter-condition with food and reassurances without setting the dog up to fail; the parent can explain why this is the kindest and safest strategy with a nervous dog.


So, can you ever trust a dog around children? It depends on the dog, it depends on the child, and it depends on the circumstances. But, the safe answer is unfortunately “no.”

Toddlers can be very scary to dogs as they move erratically, make odd and often loud noises, and may appear threatening as they lurch toward the dog. Elementary age children run, yell, race around, and do all the things that they should do as kids, but are confusing to dogs. Children may find a dog so irresistibly cute, that they cannot resist hugging Fido, and that is not something most dogs enjoy. Babies are particularly vulnerable, so dogs should never have access to a newborn baby, unless the baby is held in an adult’s arms. (Even better, have the dog on a leash as well when around a baby.)

This was one of BIngley's safe havens, my chair in our den.

This was one of Bingley’s safe havens, my chair in our den.

However, there are things you can do to make life with kids and dogs run smoothly:

  1. Learn what your dog’s stress signals are, so you understand when he is telling you that he is uncomfortable with the situation.
  2. Allow Fido to say no to meeting people. If he backs away, turns his head, averts his eyes, or does not move to meet the new person, he is clearly saying that he does not want to interact with this human. Do not let the person try to pet your dog if he says no. Letting him have a choice in who he meets will help him to be more comfortable with the world, and will reduce the chances he will growl, snap or bite.
  3. Make sure Fido has a safe haven to go that is his alone. Sometimes your dog will need to re-group, so give him a bed or crate in a quiet, comfortable place where he can go and not be disturbed.
  4. Don’t let your dog get pinned into a corner! In addition to a safe haven, make sure you dog has an escape route so he can leave a situation that has become uncomfortable.
  5. Teach your children how to correctly meet a dog and supervise, closely, the meeting. (See: A Parent’s Guide to Dog Bite Prevention by Colleen Pelar.)*
  6. Family Paws has a lot of good information for parents as well as terrific handouts that clearly define what supervision is and is not and which illustrate safety procedures that will help to keep everyone, dogs and kids, safe.
  7. A jackpot can be anything your dog loves, as long as it is wonderful and plentiful!

    Give your dog positive attention when the kids are around, so that he learns to happily anticipate their presence. As I stated in one of my blogsYour goal should be to have your dog not just tolerate, but actually enjoy the presence of your child. This is best accomplished by pairing the presence of the child with the presence of things the dog enjoys. Perhaps Fido gets a stuffed Kong while the baby eats, or you can scratch his ears while the baby is sleeping in a bassinet nearby, or you can toss his kibble piece by piece around the room while you sit on the couch with Junior.

You are your dog’s best advocate and the one to whom he should be able to turn for help navigating the human world. Forcing a friendship between your dog and anyone is not a good idea for either the dog or the person seeking his attention. Instead, allow your dog to have some control over his life (thereby reducing some of his anxiety or nervousness) by choosing who he wants to meet and rewarding him for making the effort to be social.

Bingley, at 5 months of age. Notice that he has plenty of room to move (or escape) and has eagerly sought out the attention of the teenagers.


*Colleen also has a wonderful book, Living with Kids and Dogs, without losing your mindthat I recommend to all parents trying to negotiate the blend of canines and small humans.


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