It’s Dog Bite Prevention Week again! Resources abound for how to look for body language warning signs and what to avoid doing that might prompt a bite, but what can you do right now with your dog to make it less likely he or she will bite if everything else falls through?
What happens when the unthinkable happens? Your child falls off her chair and lands right on your dog? A visiting kid grabs your dog’s ears and screams in his face? There are tons of these stories — stuff happens despite our best efforts. I can tell you no one wants to be in the position of trying to resolve a bite where you can see why it happened and you can’t really “blame” the dog but you also don’t feel safe anymore and you don’t want to put your child at risk but no one wants to adopt a dog with a bite history so what are you going to do? These are the kinds of cases I work with, but I’d rather YOU avoid that situation all together.
What you need is a “Get Out of Bite Free” Card.
What would you pay to undo a bite? Don’t we all wish for a magic wand that could do such a thing? Can you imagine the fees I could charge to come in with my magic wand and make it all like it never happened? If you have a Get Out of Bite Free Card, that’s what you get to do. You preemptively make a bite in the future not happen because you prepared ahead.
Here’s the thing. You can’t buy one all at once. You have to get it on layaway, with lots of small deposits.
A “deposit” happens when you link a mildly weird occurrence with the prize of getting a treat. If something not so mildly weird happens to happen, go with a bigger, better deposit to counteract what would be almost certainly otherwise be a withdrawal from your dog’s goodwill account.
Here’s how I teach it in the context of preparing for life with a baby:
Condition a happy phrase that announces a tasty treat is forthcoming. This is easy, right? Don’t we all know dogs that make us have to spell t-r-e-a-t? Just say your phrase and follow with a treat. (Tip: the better the treat, the more quickly the dog will attend to the phrase that announces it’s coming.) Use any phrase you want. Can’t think of one? I suggest, “What happened?” because it’ll fit the context in which you’ll be making deposits and it suits your friendly, helpful tone of voice that is likely to bring tensions down. Repeat this in sets of ten in different areas of your house, yard and on walks – taking special care to present it like a dictionary: Here’s the phrase and then here’s the meaning (treat). If you are already coming with the treat, your dog will not pick up on the phrase as good information to alert to – he or she will just learn to stare at your hand.
Test the association. Think your dog gets it after some number of repetitions? Try saying your phrase when your dog is not expecting it. That means no getting the treats out ahead of time or looking at him or her expectantly. Call out, “What happened?” and note how your dog responds. We are looking for head whipping over to look at you for the treat. Not there yet? Practice more on making the association, paying particular attention to the sequence of phrase, then treat.
Make something happen. Here, you are establishing that changes in the environment might trigger the “What happened?” that leads to a treat. The plan is to change the “flavor” of what changes mean to your dog. Start with something your dog will notice but not particularly react to. Definitely do not do something that is going to scare or startle your dog. One example is to pretend to fall. Or, you might choose to drop something. Do your thing and immediately say, “What happened?” and give your dog a treat. Change = possibility of a treat. You’ll have to set up practice maybe 10 – 100 times over a few days before it makes sense to test. Make it a game!
Test the association. Do something odd and pause to see your dog’s response. Ideally, he or she is looking at your expectantly, with happy body language – just as if you said, “Who wants a cookie?” This tells you that your dog is starting to anticipate the sequence that leads to something good. Of course, be sure to follow up with the treat to keep this association strong.
All of these steps can be completed in less than a week so it’s particularly good for the last minute baby prep crammers out there!
Baby Homecoming Through Infancy:
Use phrase + treat for anything baby does. Baby shrieks? “What happened?” + toss dog a treat. Baby flails arms around? “What happened?” + treat. Baby drops/throws something? “What happened?” + treat. The idea is to take these actions that might be perceived as weird, or hopefully just neutrally odd, to your dog as opportunities for deposits. Use your judgment and balance with reinforcement for behaviors like lying down or relaxing so you do not have a dog too much underfoot waiting for the baby to do something weird. Always, my intent is on dog and baby coexisting peacefully without too much attention or concern from one to the other. You’ll probably start with lots of deposits to preserve a neutral/positive association with baby activity vs. just hoping for the best. Within a few days or weeks, you’ll limit your deposits to the more freaky/noticeable/novel baby actions and let the everyday stuff fade into the background. The goal is to build the association of Weird Stuff Baby Does = Attend to Owner in Expectation of Something Nice.
Crawler/Toddler and Beyond:
Turn the bad into good with deposits. Here is where you’ll have lots of opportunities to show your dog that weird stuff kids do means good treats are coming for dog. Note: This is no substitute for keeping your kids from being magnetized to dogs, nor is it permission to slack off in guiding child/dog interactions or continuing to monitor your dog’s comfort level throughout changing stages with your children. Still, kids do weird things just by existing. Keep up your deposits, making sure to match the value of the treat to the level of weirdness. Interestingly, I think this makes dogs who live with kids resilient and even kind of interested to see what might happen each day. Warning! Watch for signs that you are overdoing it and need to focus more on other behaviors. For example, I had a dog that liked to be everywhere you wanted to be. That meant she got bonked in the head with a soccer ball – which, of course, I made a deposit for. It was not long before she took up lying right in front of the soccer goal. Oops, my bad. Good news is that you can then reinforce lying down away from the action or make other adjustments. This is so much better than a dog who is not doing anything “bad” but may be worried or uncomfortable about the kid activity and now here comes the soccer ball and you don’t know how the dog is going to react.
The Payoff – When Mistakes Happen
We know mistakes are going to happen. We just don’t know when or where. Equip your dog with a “Get Out of Bite Free” Card so he or she is ready to play it when called for. In our family, our dog Betty used hers when our two-year-old son fell off his chair at dinner and landed pretty much right on her. As I turned my head, seemingly in slow motion, what I saw was my dog looking right at me with a big smile on her face and her tail thumping. Clear as day, it was like seeing a thought bubble over her head, “He fell RIGHT ON ME! Do I get a bite of your burger?” I gave that dog my whole plate. Why? Because my family was not rushing to the emergency room that night. I could certainly get up and get myself some more dinner. Rewarding our dog in that way was my attempt to recharge her Get Out of Bite Free Card for next time. Because you never know when the next time is coming where too much will be asked of your dog.
Here’s a great analogy to explain how dog bites can happen due to a myriad of factors that build up to an unexpected breaking point. By making deposits for the “little” things, you can keep your dog from being as affected by the day-to-day stressors and keep him or her far from the edge.
The cost for all this? A few pieces of cheese or hot dog here and there. It’s an insane bargain vs. what you’d pay to get out of the Emergency Room unscathed.