Dog Body Language
Dog behavior is complex and the signals that dogs send are often subtle. The following is not intended to be a dissertation on dog behavior. It is intended to alert parents to situations that could compromise child safety around dogs. Parents seeing potential danger signs in their dog's behavior are encouraged to err on the side of caution and implement dog bite prevention measures (increase supervision and use physical barriers when supervision is not possible) until it can be determined whether the dog is actually a danger to the children and if so, until the problem is resolved through consultation with the appropriate professional.
Many dog bites could be prevented if parents and children were aware of the subtle communication signs that dogs send when they are anxious. An anxious dog is much more likely to bite than is a happy dog. There is a big difference between a dog that is tolerating interactions with children and a dog that is actually enjoying these interactions.
One of the most common things we hear from adult bite victims and the parents of child victims is "I wish I'd known...". We don't want you ever to have to say that. We want you to know and we are going to tell you.
Many dogs are exceptionally tolerant of mishandling by both kids and adults. They show signs of anxiety, yet never get to the point of biting. Other dogs tolerate things they don't enjoy for a period of time, or from certain people and not others, but at some point they have just had enough and they growl or snap. Most people are shocked when this happens. "He has never bitten anyone before" or "there was no warning", they say. Dog behavior experts will tell you that there is always a warning, it is is just that most people do not know how to interpret dog body language.
Growling at the kids
Never punish your dog for growling. This may seem counter-intuitive and may even go against the advice of your dog trainer or dog trainers you have seen on TV. If your dog growls at your child he is sending a clear warning that he is very uncomfortable with the actions or proximity of the child. Be grateful that your dog chose to warn with a growl rather than going straight to a bite. If you punish the growling, you may inhibit the warning growl the next time and the dog may bite without growling first. Punishment or scolding will not make the dog feel better about the child, in fact he may even feel more anxious and be even more likely to bite in the future, especially if you are not there to control the situation. If your child cannot follow directions and/or has got into the habit of being rough with the dog, then the dog and child should be separated until the child has learned to treat the dog with kindness and respect.
- Increase supervision.
- Take your dog to the vet to make sure he is not sick or in pain.
- Seek the advice of a dog behavior specialist who will use positive reinforcement to help teach the dog to change his attitude and to enjoy the company of the child.
Do not assume that the dog will not bite because he hasn't yet. As dogs get older they can become less tolerant. As children get older the dog can become less tolerant of rough treatment. How tragic if your last memory of a faithful long time family member is of a bite to your child.
Reinforcing the Growl
Teach your kids to back off and report it to you if the dog growls. The same goes for adults. "Doesn't this just encourage the dog to growl if he finds out he can control us with this behavior?" is a very common (and a very good) question. Yes, if you back off the dog will know that growling works to get him out of an uncomfortable situation. He will be likely to growl again in the same situation and less likely to feel the need to bite, since growling works well enough. Wouldn't you rather have a dog that will warn with a growl and not go straight to a bite? Of course we don't want the dog to turn into a growling machine and so action is required immediately to remedy the situation. The kids need to learn to avoid the behavior that causes growling until the dog is trained (and possibly afterward as well). The adults need to teach the dog to enjoy whatever situations cause him to growl. This requires behavior modification training so that the dog no longer feels anxious or threatened and so does not feel the need to growl. We recommend that you hire a dog behavior consultant to help you with this, since growling is such a serious warning and must be dealt with immediately and properly.
Remember, if you want your kids to tell you if the dog growls, thank them for this information. Avoid scolding or making them feel that they did something wrong (even if they did do something you have told them not do). Kids who get in trouble for making the dog growl and then telling you about it are not going to come to you with this information the next time. Some behavior modification may also be required for the child.