In honor of this year’s National Dog Bite Prevention Week, I’ve got a post for each day! Dog bites are almost entirely preventable – especially bites to children. What will YOU do this week to prevent a dog bite?
Am I glad my dog “might” bite my kids? No, what I’m saying is that I’m glad I am able to think it’s possible. That means I can choose to educate myself about dog body language and understand the situations that may prompt a dog to bite – and thus be more likely to prevent it rather than wring my hands later and wonder why it happened.
I don’t want my children bitten and I don’t want to lose my dog. With that in mind, I look, really look, at my dog every single day and make my best educated guess as to how she feels about what’s going on. I look at her body language and I factor in what kind of day it’s been so far. I also consider, “If I were a dog, would I be happy about this?” and I look ahead and consider, “Regardless of how the dog feels about it today, is it safe and appropriate for my children to be rehearsing this particular behavior?”
If you don’t look, you won’t see.
That’s one reason why bites seem to happen out of the blue.
Do You Have a GOAL?
I came across this trucking acronym for “Get Out And Look” several weeks ago reading Letters to the Editor in our local paper. The letter was in response to an article about rear view cameras in cars and the need to prevent backing up accidents. The writer emphasized that even experienced truck drivers are reminded to always get out and look and not trust what they think is happening behind them.
This stuck in my mind as also true for interactions with dogs and children (and certainly many other aspects of parenting when you’d rather not get up and just call out, “What’s going on in there?”). The first step to seeing is looking.
Here, I’m talking both to parents and to dog owners. Young children do unpredictable things. It’s not a sign of bad parenting. You can’t assume that nice parents + nice kids = guaranteed good encounter for the dog. If it’s your dog, YOU need to be looking.
Don’t Think it Can Happen to You?
A couple of years ago, I was at our park with our dog chit-chatting with another mom. Her four year old daughter was standing right there with us. She has literally grown up with our dog and been around her hundreds of times with nothing but appropriate behavior. So, was I watching? No, I was too busy with the chit-chat. That is, until I heard a gurgly/growly noise from my dog and looked down to see the little girl with my dog in a strangle hold. I had to physically disentangle her. As I explained that dogs don’t like hugs, my friend mentioned that her daughter had been spending time visiting another family who let the children hug the dog. See how kids innocently pick up dangerous behaviors?
What if my dog had snapped at this girl? Don’t you think being strangled is reasonable cause to object? But, wow, that would have caused a rift in a dear friendship…or worse. No matter how you may choose to lay the blame, the fact remains that I was not looking at my dog while a young child was within reach of her.
Now That You are Looking, Do You See?
As part of this year’s Clicker Expo animal training conference, I attended a terrific lecture by Kathy Sdao, world-renowned trainer. The emphasis was on observation skills for animal trainers and how our expectations color or limit what we actually see when we look.
Specific to dog and child interactions, this is something I come across all the time. The mere presence of a child, especially a happy, laughing child obscures our view of whether or not the dog is enjoying the encounter. I recently taught a class at the Bernese Mountain Dog National Specialty about this very topic. I gathered pictures of Berners with children but cropped out the children. We discussed body language and all agreed that the dogs appeared distressed. Then, I switched to the pictures in context and everyone was surprised — it was obviously the same photos but it was so much harder to look past the happy kids.
Check out this video (even if you’ve seen something similar – it’s not the same):
Why We Don’t See What Our Dogs Are Telling Us
- We don’t expect it
- We don’t know what to look for (See here for information on dog body language and further resources at Doggone Safe)
- We are focused on the children, especially if they are laughing
- Social Pressure makes us deniers
The video comes from the work of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, described in their fascinating book, The Invisible Gorilla. They coined the term “inattentional blindness” to refer to situations like in the video where we actually do not see what we are not looking for. It can be so obvious but pass us right by. That is, until you literally open your eyes to the possibility.
Why Do We Think Our Dogs Would “Never” Bite?
I think it’s a combination of missing more subtle signs of discomfort and the drift towards denial that comes from social pressure. After all, who wants to think their dog might bite someone?
This is a situation I never want to be in:
“Okay…I’m having a real hard time here. We have had this dog for almost 2 years now. People think he looks intimidating but he is just a big ole baby. Our dd jumps on his back all the time, tugs on his tail, collar, whatever and it NEVER even phases him one bit. He has been a pretty good dog minus the annoying crap that happens sometimes such as chewing things up. Anyway, yesterday he nipped our friends daughter in the face. At that point in time I said okay this is ENOUGH, he has to go, I cannot have him doing that especially with a baby on the way. I still can’t even understand why he did it. She just barely had her arm around him and was kinda in his face talking to him, but still! He has been around tons of kids who are all over him. She had a puncture on both sides of her lip that was bleeding.”
From Gavin de Becker’s Protecting the Gift – Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane):
“Just as intuition protects us from danger, denial protects us from something too: unwanted information. Denial serves to eliminate the discomfort of accepting realities we’d rather not acknowledge. There are times this protection is valuable for emotional survival, but it is rarely useful for physical survival — and it’s downright destructive for the safety of children.”
He identifies 5 Signals of Denial in his discussion of dangers to children from human predators and abusers. (By the way, all parents should read this book!) While he is not writing at all about dog bites, it’s a similar pattern:
- Rationalization [“I think the dog was just tired.”]
- Justification [“My son should have known better than to go near the food bowl.”]
- Minimization [“It was only a snap.”]
- Excuse-making [“He hasn’t been around a lot of kids.”]
- Refusal [“It was a one-time thing.”]
Reality says, “Dogs can bite…even that really cute one you love so much.”
Fantasy says, “Oh, my dog would NEVER bite! He’s so good with kids.”
You get to choose. Will you live in reality or fantasy? Reality is where you will find the tools of prevention. Look and see.
Next…Do the Math!