Behavior or “What the heck?”
Any trainer worth her weight in dog hair will tell you that recognizing your dog’s stress signals is critical to insuring that it is not overwhelmed by current events. I have written columns about recognizing the most common stress signals,* but the question today is: What are some of the most common holiday situations that can drive even the most easy going of dogs to dismay and distraction?**
Colleen Pelar, trainer and author (Living with Kids and Dogs, Puppy Training for Kids), describes doggie stress*** as part of a continuum of behavior:
Nobody is happy all the time. We each have our good moments and our bad moments. It’s important to remember that dogs do too. Rather than look at dog behavior as simply aggressive or nonaggressive, it’s far better to see it as a continuum ranging from Enjoyment to Tolerance to Enough Already (and back again).
The critical thing to remember is: when our dogs move from enjoyment to tolerance, they are asking for help. It is our obligation to help them get back to enjoying the happenings so that they do not have to take the situation into their own paws and say, “Enough! I have had enough already!!”
Her enlightening photo gallery of dogs and kids presents situations that most people do not recognize as trying for their dogs. The holidays provide many such stressful opportunities. I encourage everyone to ask: How many times do I put my dog into a position where he is uncomfortable and simply tolerating the situation?
One common stressful scenario is staged photo shoots. Everyone wants the photo of the children and the dog all snuggly and happy for the holidays. Look at image #21 of 32 in Colleen’s gallery. This attempt at making the dog part of the photo op results in a dog who is not happy, but only tolerating the situation. A great example of how quickly a dog can move from comfortable to tolerant is the sequence of #24-25. In 24, the dog is happy to be with his children because he has sufficient space around his head. But in #25, the children have turned towards him and are crowding his head. He has moved to tolerance.
Think carefully about how you arrange the family photos. If your dog goes from open mouthed to close mouthed, wiggly to barely moving, looking at you to avoiding eye contact, he is telling you that this is not comfortable for him. Your best bet is to give him more space, especially around his head and face. Also give him several tasty treats throughout the photo session and have someone dedicated to be his private treat dispenser so that he has one person to focus on. If there are loud children, sudden movements, or other distractions that un-nerve your dog, give him a treat every time a kid shouts, runs, or otherwise acts in an erratic fashion.
Another situation that can stress a dog is Christmas morning, when we plunge “into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.” (Gene Shepherd, A Christmas Story). The opening of presents, the piles of paper, ribbons, and box tops, the squeals of delight and the wanton disregard for the normal canine routine can unsettle your dog. To help Rover better cope with the chaos, make sure he gets outside first thing, and is given a tasty stuffed Kong to work on while the presents are opened. Make the Kong the night (or two) before and freeze it so it is readily available and long lasting. I have several stuffed Kongs at the ready so my guys have something to do besides helping the grandkids open their treasure trove.
A third situation to keep in mind is the constant stream of people who the dog sees but once or twice a year. Many dogs revel in the flow of humanity through their abode, but for others, this is the height of stress and anxiety. In my blog Make Your Holidays Merrier I suggest two strategies for your dog to meet and greet guests:
Tip #3: Manage your meet and greets! Two strategies can be employed here:
1 Fido meets people as they come in, then retires to happy spot; or
2 Have Fido outside or in a crate. Then when your guests are settled, Fido comes out for a meet and greet, goes potty, and then settles down with a tasty kong.
And remember: your dog doesn’t have to meet everyone who comes to the house. If Fifi feels overwhelmed, put her in her happy place and let her choose when to re-join the festivities. That way, everyone’s Christmas is merry and bright.
**To help your dog manage the holidays see: “Make Your Holidays Merrier!” http://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com/photos.html
***Check out Colleen’s stress signal list at: http://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com/stress.html.
With the holidays fast approaching, it is important not to leave Fido out of the loop. Thoughtful preparations will help him cope with the busyness of the season, and will make the revelries merrier for all involved.
Last year I published, “Fido’s Guide to a Stress-free Holiday” that contained several suggestions for helping your canine manage the seasonal chaos. Suggestions included: a) making sit your dog’s default behavior, b) providing him with a place to recharge, c) using food distribution toys to keep him happy while you feast, and d) a short list of foods that can cause serious problems for your pooch.
In addition to these 4 suggestions, I also recommend that you consider some management techniques that might help to make it easier for your dog to be successful when the house is brimming with decorative items, wonderful smells, and lots of people that he only meets 1-2 times per year.
Tip #1: Exercise: a tired dog is a well behaved dog! On big days such as Thanksgiving, one thing we do is get the dogs some real exercise before dinner prep and serving goes into high gear. By this I mean taking them to run in a field, chase balls till they drop, and generally be active for at least 45 minutes. Then, when they get back to the house, stuffed Kongs and long naps are not only in order, but welcomed!
Tip #2: Gates and Crates are your friends! Gates allow dogs to be safe and to be there in spirit if not in person (or would that be “in canine”?). In other words, they have a visual on activity, but not direct contact with each other or with the people while eating. We have found gates to be particularly helpful when we have toddlers in highchairs so that inordinate sharing of finger food is eliminated. Also, consider gating off the tree, especially if you have a puppy. In the Company of Dogs has some really pretty doorway gates as well as free standing gates so that immobilizing your dog or tree does not look as if they are incarcerated in San Quentin: http://www.inthecompanyofdogs.com/itemdy00.aspx?ID=17,478&T1=D13551+MH+3P+SWR
Tip #3: Manage your meet and greets! Two strategies can be employed here:
- Fido meets people as they come in, then retires to happy spot; or
- Have Fido outside or in a crate. Then when your guests are settled, Fido comes out for a meet and greet, goes potty, and then settles down with a tasty kong.
I have found both can work nicely, but I am developing a decided preference for #2. Last week I co-hosted an event at my house, but I could not be there for the beginning of the event as I was teaching a class. I took my dogs with me so that set up could run more easily for my co-hosts. When the dogs and I got home, I allowed them to go in and greet everyone. Then they settled upstairs with their favorite intelligence toys while the party proceeded, and we did not hear from them the rest of the evening. I found that having the guests seated was much easier for them then the steady (and apparently thrilling) stream of newcomers advancing through the front door. The dogs got to say hi, receive the adoration of their public, and then they were ready for some down time. Believe it or not, your dog(s) do not need to be with your guests at all times. Use their happy places (dogs, not guests) to insure that interactions with others are well timed and thus easier for them to be on their best behavior.
Tip #4: Food Management! I have made suggestions about food management in this post and in Fido’s guide, but here is a summary of the strategies that we use:
- Gates and crates to manage doggie access to food laden areas as well as to one another. For example, at Kong time, Bingley is either in his crate or gated into my office, Buckley is in the master bed room and Tex goes into the office. Our dogs, in general, do not resource guard from one another, but why put them under stress that another dog may be eyeing his Kong?
- Don’t feed any canine meals in a bowl, but instead use strategically timed Kongs and other food distribution toys to keep your dog(s) happy and out of the way. This is an especially useful strategy to employ as you sit down to your feast.
- Be careful of foods that are unhealthy or dangerous to your pet and take precautions to keep them out of Fido’s reach. Once again, gates are useful tools to keep Fido from the cookie platter, chocolates that Aunt Edith brought, candy canes on the tree, or the roast Turkey on the counter waiting to be carved. In the event that your dog has consumed something harmful The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center number is: 888-426-4435 (Note: there is a charge for their services).
- Have dog appropriate treats handy in every room so that you can reward Fido when he is well behaved and to distract him from temptation. For instance, if our pups are lying around providing doggie ambiance, I will drop a treat or two at their noses to let them know that I appreciate their calm demeanors. I will also use a well timed canine cookie to get Bingley to move away from a grandchild’s toy.
Holidays do not have to be a time of stress for you and your dog, it can be a relaxed and happy time for everyone, if a bit of management and strategic planning are employed. If you need help devising a plan of action for your holidays, do not hesitate to call me, 740-587-0429.
Your dog lunges at passing dogs, snaps at approaching people, or growls when you least expect it. Maybe you think your dog is unpredictable – sometimes she’s okay with a person or another dog, sometimes she isn’t.
What you do know is that you don’t trust her to behave in a civilized manner, and want to do something about it. Can you? The answer is, maybe.
-Trish King, Director Behavior and Training, Marin Humane Society (http://www.positivelytrained.com/edu_resources/Difficult_Dog.pdf)
When your dog behaves in an unpredictable, difficult, or aggressive way it can make you feel as if you are being betrayed by your best friend. So, what do you do when your dog displays behaviors that make you uncomfortable at best, and scared of her at the worst?
First of all, don’t ignore it, and don’t make excuses for it. You know your dog better than anyone else, so if something is off with your dog, get some help before the problem escalates to the point of being completely unmanageable, especially if your dog has a sudden onset of bad behavior for no apparent reason. A good place to start is with your veterinarian. For example, if your dog suddenly starts house soiling, have him checked for a urinary tract infection (UTI). Or, if your elderly dog starts pacing and knocking things over, especially when you are gone, don’t assume this dog has suddenly developed Separation Anxiety. It could be that your best buddy has developed vision or hearing problems or perhaps is showing signs of Canine Cognitive Disorder Syndrome (another symptom of which is house soiling). Detailed observations of his behavior will help your vet to diagnose the problem and get your pup the relief he needs. Moreover, the sooner you take care of a physical problem the less likely it will develop a lasting behavioral component as well.
(And, just for the record, UTIs can also cause problems with puppy house training. If your house training is not going well with a puppy, despite doing all the things your positive reinforcement trainer has suggested you do*, then have your puppy tested for a urinary tract infection (UTI) to rule out an organic cause to the problem.)
Another thing to consider when you have a sudden onset of cranky or aggressive behavior in your dog is whether or not your dog is in pain. My dog developed arthritis in his right elbow at the age of 2 and getting the pain under control helped to restore his happy nature. One thing I ask of owners whose dogs have behavior changes that seem to come on quickly or with our a clear reason, is to get the dog into the vet for a thorough physical exam to rule out any organic causes for the behavior changes (such as joint/spinal pain, allergies, ear infections, or other underlying causes of irritation, pain, or inflammation). You don’t want to jump into an extensive behavior modification program that can be time consuming, costly, and difficult to implement consistently by all members of the of the family, if it isn’t needed.
There are many reasons other than physical problems which can cause your dog to demonstrate aggressive behavior. A few things to consider are:
- Fear: is the most common cause of aggression in dogs. Dogs that are cautious as puppies may learn that aggressive behavior is the best way to keep scary things at bay.
- Trauma: “One of the more common causes of fear-based aggression is a traumatic episode in early life… The younger the dog is when the trauma occurs, the more lasting the imprint of the event. Often, the dog learns not to trust dogs, people… or even you, since you have been unable to keep her safe.” – Trish King
- Frustration: Dogs who lunge, growl, bark, etc., at the end of the leash, at a fence, or on a tie out are frustrated and may be fearful as well. They have learned that aggressive displays will scare away that which frustrates them.
If you see signs of aggression developing, especially in a puppy, don’t wait it out hoping that he will grow out of it. (See my blog, This is not the dog I wanted… http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=1386). A common adage among trainers is, “Dogs grow into aggression, not out of it.” The longer you wait to address a problem, the more difficult it will be to resolve and your chances for success will diminish. Don’t hesitate to call me and together we can move towards a solution.
* See my blogs on house training: To pee or not to pee…inside: http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=2710, and Housetraining: how do I get Sparky to tell me he needs to go out? http://apositiveconnection.com/?p=1730
Play is an integral part of most dogs’ mental health and physical well being. Play is generally high energy and knowing what to look for in appropriate play helps you prevent your dog’s enthusiasm from getting out of hand.
Dogs’ play styles vary across breed, temperament, size, and experience, but some general observations or rules about play can be used to 1) distinguish it from the prey sequence from which it is derived, and 2) keep your dog safe and in the happy zone.
The first thing I point out to clients is that play is large, loose, lateral, and sometimes loud. Dogs’ movements are exaggerated and loosey-goosey as they solicit a friend to play. This lets the potential playmate know this is going to be fun and don’t take this too seriously. When in prey mode, animals tend to have small tightly controlled movements because they don’t want to let the object of their desire know where they are or that they are approaching. In play, dogs bounce back and forth in play bows, or lateral leaps, and may bark, whine, or play growl. When stalking prey, predators are focused, forward moving and quiet. You cannot catch a silly wabbit if you announce your intentions.
Play is also repetitive and self-regulating. When my dogs rev up in the back yard it generally starts with one of the retrievers giving a play bow. The other one stops, spays its front legs in an abbreviated play bow and off they zoom (with the Bernese Mt Dog in pursuit) around the shed, across the patio, around the holly bush through the day lilies and back again, and again, and again. (In fact, we specifically designed the backyard gardens with the dogs’ “flight paths” in mind. Though, apparently, this is not how most people landscape…). This repetitive pattern is a hallmark of play, whereas when pursuing dinner, you don’t generally get a second chance to capture the main entree, so most predators keep themselves tightly wound and let loose once in a quick burst of determination.
If you watch dogs playing, you should notice that they will play, play, play, stop, re-group, repeat. Dogs don’t want to spillover into aggression any more than we want them too, so they will naturally self-regulate in order to keep arousal at a fun level. Puppies learn a lot about this from their litter mates, but sometimes we have to help them learn how to keep themselves from being obnoxious with other dogs or people. When I host play groups, especially puppy play groups, I will help dogs learn to regulate by breaking up play anywhere from every 30 seconds to every 5-10 minutes depending on the intensity of the play, how quickly the dogs escalate their arousal level, and how comfortable all the dogs in the play group seem to be. If your dog or puppy quickly escalates to biting your pants, hands, or shoes at an uncomfortable level, try stopping play the first time his teeth hit your skin or clothes. Have him sit, give him a treat and let him calm down for 15-60 seconds (until he is relaxed enough to stop biting), and resume play.
Break play up as often as necessary to keep him below his biting threshold, and try re-directing his mouth from you to a toy. If you feel as if your puppy cannot play without drawing blood or it just isn’t fun, call a positive reinforcement trainer for some help. (The Association of Professional Dog Trainers has a trainer search page: https://apdt.com/trainer-search/ where you can search by zip code for a trainer close to you.)
Knowing what sort of play your dog prefers as well as how quickly he revs up will also help to keep play fun and rewarding for your canine. My dog Bingley loved his morning tug sessions with Hudson and chasing Huddy around the shed, but in general prefers to play ball with me over playing with other dogs (Or any available human with an arm, for that matter. He swears all repairmen are hired specifically to throw balls for him). It’s really okay that some dogs are not as interested in playing with other dogs as they are with their people. Think if it as good information to have about your dog that helps you keep him from being overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of other dogs. For example, when you go to a dog park take a bunch of tennis
balls and have your dog play ball with you while the other dogs romp and wrestle. (Extra tennis balls will help to keep all canine ball addicts happy, while allowing your dog to pursue his magic golden orb without interference).
I have a t-shirt that reads, “Life is short, play with your dog.” So bearing that in mind, find something you both enjoy and get large, loose, lateral, and a little bit loud.
How do I handle Ralphie “biting” our hands when we pet him? If I pull my hand away isn’t that what he wants? But if I keep petting him, then am I encouraging that behavior also?
In order to provide the best solution to this concern, I needed to gather some more information:
When you go to pet him, is he soliciting attention from you or are you approaching him? Does he back away, move his head away from your hand or otherwise try to avoid contact with you when you reach over to pet him? How he reacts to your approach and petting will determine what I suggest you do.
I promised in my May 19th post Fleas, ticks, and pests, oh my! that as soon as I had the opportunity to use my new flea removal instruments I would let you all know how they worked. Well yesterday I had the opportunity to remove a large tick from the base of Bingley’s tail using the Tick Lasso, and it worked just as promised! It was easy, painless for Bingley, quick, and removed the entire tick (head and all). I heartily recommend it! Since he only had one tick, I was not able to use the tick Key, but I will let you know how that goes when the time comes.
On other fronts, Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services (if you haven’t “liked” them on Facebook, take a minute, click on the link above, and do so now!) posted this Tuesday’s Pearl:
Tuesday’s Pearl: Socialization is often pushed too hard onto worried dogs.
If you live with a worried dog, taking her to public places to ‘socialize’ her is not necessarily a positive experience – for either of you. This is most often a problem with newly adopted young adult dogs whose backgrounds are unknown, but applies to anxious puppies as well.
The post goes onto list several drawbacks to socializing timid dogs without giving due diligence to their special needs. Here is a summary of those drawbacks: (check out the complete post here)
1. Anytime the social or physical environment is unpredictable, you’re taking a risk that your dog will be startled or frightened…
2. As an extension of #1, it’s not possible to control what other people do in public spaces. Those unfamiliar people may come too close, too quickly or touch and interact with your dog inappropriately…
3. An anxious dog needs to move towards confidence at her own pace… (check out my blog about forced novelty: Beware of Cement Pigs)
4. A worried dog is always at risk of biting the person/animal who worries them – and those triggers of fear-related aggression can be very subtle. Don’t set your dog up for failure by forcing interactions…(check out my blog: Stand Back Earthing! for more suggestions on helping your shy dog).
In other words, don’t force your sensitive dog to be a social butterfly and put him into a situation that will overwhelm, rather than encourage him. Rather, accommodating your dog’s limits will do more to build his confidence, then will forcing an uncomfortable or scary (for him) encounter upon your dog.
One last thought: remember that all obedience training is about impulse control! We are striving to help our puppies learn that calm, controlled behavior is the best choice they can make. So, if you want Sit! to be your dog’s go-to behavior when he doesn’t know what else to do, practice it in a variety of places, times, situations, and with diverse distractions so that controlling his impulse to surge ahead or jump on guests is second nature.
Astute reader Laura Sommers recently sent this link to me about an app that will search “for adoptable pets that look just like your old ones.” Petmatch, as the app is called, uses modern technology to help you create a search image of the perfect pet as well as locate one close to you. While in theory I have no problem with this (Who doesn’t want an adorable pet?), there are much more important factors to consider when adopting a dog.
A few years back a client asked me to evaluate a litter of puppies as he was interested in adopting one for his children. My daughter Emma and I, always delighted to play with puppies, readily agreed, and off we went. There were 2 puppies available from the litter, a boy and a girl. The boy was adorable with lovely tawny-brown, soft, curly hair, and a sweet face. The girl was more of a dirty grey, her coat an interesting mix of curls and tuffs, and her face was a bit longer, not as uniform in color, and her ears were not as perky. She was cute, he was adorable. But, upon evaluation, Emma and I fell hard for the little girl because she had all the characteristics we look for in puppy, especially one destined for a household of children. She sought out the children, curled up in their laps and gently licked their hands. When presented with a stuffed toy, she ran over to one of the children to solicit a game of fetch and tug. When petted, she curled in for more, did not mind when I lifted her lips or hugged her. In fact, when I hugged her she quickly settled into being with me and when I set her down, she leaned into my legs.
The male was was a nice little dog, but lacked the social drive that I like to see from a family dog. He was far more interested in the environment (though this was his house and not a new environment), did not stick around to be petted, was not interested in engaging with the people (i.e.: he did not seek out attention from anyone in the room, but did not object if someone petted him), he resisted being hugged and immediately walked away from me when I set him down. When offered a toy, he ran into another room and was not interested in playing with me or the kids.
The female was everything we would have wanted for this family and we were sorely tempted to bring her home ourselves! The client, however, loved the look of the male, and as much as we tried to encourage him to take the female, he decided to pass on both dogs. He understood that the male was not temperamentally suitable for his family, but could not get pass the scruffy look of the female. (Nota bena: He did take to heart what we told him to look for in a dog and ended up getting a very nice little dog a few weeks later.)
Petmatch and the story of my client illustrate a very common scenario: people choose their pets based on looks, not temperament. And that’s fine, until the “most adorable” bichon/lab/jack russell/poodle/collie/cocker/newfoundland shows unsociable behavior such as growling, barking, or snapping at children, other dogs, or grandma. I am fully aware that many cute dogs are temperamentally fine, but many wonderful “ugly” dogs get passed over because they aren’t the right color, or their nose is too long, or “I wanted perky ears.” When looking for a dog, I ask clients to bear in mind that even the ugliest dog will become beautiful in your eyes when you see how gently it interacts with your children, licks away their tears, and sighs contently at their feet. My mantra: Temperament trumps looks every time. Every, single, time.
The article on Petmatch ends with, “there’s more to the relationship between humans and pets than appearance; maybe the next step is an app that intuitively pairs us based on personality and habits.” I couldn’t agree more. So, when you go looking for your next best friend, remember that beauty is only fur deep. And hopefully, you will find the perfect companion, even if he is a bit scruffy around the edges.
Last December we hosted a “Client Appreciation Open House” and one of our owners arrived with Sparky, an adorable new puppy, who wiggled profusely and curled in on himself so much that he looked like a donut! Emma and I were enchanted and delighted by this squirming bundle and gushed that Sparky had the perfect “puppy wiggle.” The owner asked me what I meant by puppy wiggle and why do I want to see it in young dogs? Perhaps more than anything else, it is a squirmy looseness to a dog’s movements and a softness in its approach and interaction with people that shows me that this is a dog with a high (and appropriate) social drive to people. Dogs with straight spines, stiffness to their movements, or hard interactions with people cause me to pause as their body language is not saying, “Come thither,” but rather “Stay where you are and no one gets hurt.”
On the contrary, a dog who is more interested in the environment (especially if the dog is in his home environment which is not new) than meeting people, who stands stiffly (may or may not have a wagging tail, but if wagging, the tail is not helicoptering), will not make eye contact or gives hard eye contact, and/or moves away from me, rather than into me, when I pet it, is not a dog with a high social drive to people. One thing that really makes me suspicious of a dog is when it does the “pounce off”. This is where an aroused dog rushes up to you, jumps up, and uses its two front paws to literally bounce off of you. This interaction takes a second or less and is not friendly, but a sign of arousal (high energy for whatever reason). It reminds me of charging in basketball. I imaging the player who is bowled over by his opponent feels much the same way I do when a dog ricochets off me.
Being forced to meet someone who scares or intimidates you is not fun, at all, ever.
For naturally extroverted people, this may be a rare occurrence, but ask any shy person (who you know well) what it feels like to routinely encounter someone who descends upon her with a boisterous voice, an overly eager handshake, and a million rapid-fire questions. Chances are this is her worst nightmare, and being told to “just get use to it” probably isn’t helpful, at all, ever.
The same is true for your shy, worried, or fearful dog. I once met a lovely woman with 2 small dogs, who were rather shy with strangers and not eager to meet me. So, I sat quietly at the kitchen table, ignoring them (waiting for them to make the first move to meet me), when all of a sudden the woman said, “This is Violet, she’s a bit shy but will be just fine.” Then, in one quick movement, she grabbed the little dog and plunked her in my lap. Violet and I were both caught off guard, and we both froze in place. After a moment, I gently petted her side and let Violet jump off my lap as soon as she could move again. Although I appreciated her attempt to help Violet get to know me, it didn’t help, and Violet never became comfortable with me, at all, ever.
Forcing your shy dog to participate in the big, wide world, without the necessary support, can make her fears and anxieties worse. Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services posted this on their Face Book page in January 2013 and I think it is a good reminder of what nervous dogs face and what our good intentions may actually mean to them:
If your dog is worried or nervous, especially if she is an adult, taking her to public places to ‘socialize’ her is not necessarily a positive thing to do for a few reasons: (1) it is not possible to control what other people do; (2) unfamiliar people may come too close, too quickly or touch and interact with your dog inappropriately; (3) it may be scary for her to be given treats by strangers; (4) it will not give your dog an opportunity to gain confidence at her own pace. This is a kind of ‘flooding’, which is not recommended for anxious dogs (at all, ever…). Instead, keep your dog at a safe (for her) distance*, using food (from you, not from strangers), voice and movement to counter-condition her anxiety. (Italics mine)
If you have a dog that is anxious and uncomfortable, call me, 740-587-0429. While I cannot promise that your dog will be nominated for “Socialite of the Year”, I do know that together we can help your dog become more comfortable with her world now and, perhaps, for ever.*A good rule of thumb for measuring a comfortable distance for your dog is the closest distance that a stranger can get and your dog will continue to take treats. For example, if your dog stops taking treats when a person gets within 6-7 feet, then a comfortable distance for strangers, for your dog, is 8-10 feet.
Your chances of being killed by a dog or dogs are roughly one in 18 million. That means you are twice as likely to win a super lotto jackpot on a single ticket than to be killed by a dog. That means you are five times as likely to be killed by a bolt of lightening-not just struck by one, mind you – killed.
She further notes that “dog bite fatalities fall far behind other very rare causes of death in children, including five-gallon buckets, party balloons and swings.” Children are much more likely to be killed by a family member or caregiver than a dog. In fact, the average number of deaths per year caused by family and friends: 826, caused by dogs: 10. If you include the entire population, death by choking is 5555/year, bicycles: 774, falls: 14,440, dogs: 16.
But what about incidents with dogs that don’t result in death, but require medical treatment? Interestingly, Ms. Bradley notes:
In the United Kingdom, where injuries are broken down by very specific causes, bedroom slippers and sneakers each cause significantly more medically treated injuries than dogs. This is also true for “other” shoes, which do not include slippers, sneakers, sandals, high heels, platforms, clogs, or boots. And you can’t avoid the danger by going barefoot, which is almost twice as dangerous as any kind of footwear.”
Here are the numbers to support this statement: (Average number of injuries per year): Bare feet: 423,825; Sneakers: 214,646; Shoes: 198,670, Slippers: 64,974; Dogs: 62,743 (note that it doesn’t stipulate if this is dog bites, or just injuries involving a dog, such as tripping over one and spraining an ankle). With these sorts of statistics you’d think there would be a push for breed specific slipper bans…
Moreover, if you look at the raw numbers of dogs, estimated to be 60-64 million in this country (one for every 4-5 people) and figure that they come into contact with several people every day, that results in tens of billions of hours of dog-human contact every year. Realistically, anything with that level of exposure is going to have some risks or hazards attached. Comparatively, Ms Bradley states that,
roughly 180 million people of all ages in the US participate in some kind of sport or physical activity at least occasionally. The actual exposure time is probably much lower than that with dogs, but at least it’s a large scale one. So about double the number of people who live with dogs participate in sports. Yet emergency departments treat over 13 times as many sports-related injuries as dog bites. (emphasis mine.)
Still, dog bites do happen and children (especially those between the ages of 5 -9) are more likely than adults to be bitten, and boys are more likely to be bitten than girls. Children are also more likely to be bitten by a resident or family dog than a stranger dog. So what are parents to do to reduce the risk of a dog bite to one of their children? If I could give only two pieces of advice to anyone wishing to avoid being bitten here they are, in order of importance:
#1: Do not approach or pet a dog with a closed mouth.
#2: Wait and let the dog approach you.
I choose these two rules because they are easy to understand and remember for people of all ages, especially rule number one. So, what is the big deal about a closed mouth? First of all, this is something that is quick and easy to note about any dog and it is a bright line that children readily understand. Secondly, while this isn’t the only way a dog communicates its feelings about a situation, a closed mouth can serve as a good general indicator of a dog’s approachability. Dogs, like humans, often carry tension in their mouths. And, like people, when stressed or uncertain, dogs may keep their mouths closed. Just as people who smile are more approachable, dogs with open mouths tend to be more relaxed as well. Think of it this way: if he isn’t smiling at you, he probably doesn’t want to meet you.
As for rule number 2, if a dog wants to meet you, he will come up to you. Be patient and allow a dog to make the decision that you are irresistible! Sometimes dogs have bad days. Perhaps their hips hurt, or they are tired from running, or they are sleepy, or they have already met enough people that day and do not wish to meet any more. If you allow the dog to make the decision about who he meets, you are much more likely to have a good encounter. Think of it like this: how many new people do you want to meet who charge into your personal space and thunk you on the head, even when you feel great? Now imagine you are hot, tired, sore, or uncertain about how that stranger smells or looks. How tolerant would you be to his intrusive behavior?
Dogs are remarkably tolerant and gracious about the rudeness displayed to them by humans, increase your chances for a great interaction by giving the dog a choice.
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