One Big Happy Family

Sep 19, 2016


     As many of you know, my husband and I are expecting our first child in December of this year. While we are beyond thrilled and anxious for the baby to be here, I’ve certainly had my concerns over how our two furry babies will react to having a human baby in the house and so I’ve been doing a lot of preparation to try to make the transition as smooth as possible. I have no doubt that our dogs will enjoy the free buffet that comes with when our baby gets to that age where they “share” their food with their canine siblings. But I do have some reservations about when the baby isn’t safe in a high chair - but on the ground, walking around, wanting to play and interact with the dogs. Hopefully by now everyone knows to never leave a dog unsupervised with a child, but I recently came across a few great articles about how most dog attacks on kids happen seemingly “out of the blue” from a dog that was being supervised and has “always been so tolerant” of the children.  So why is this the case and what can be done to prevent it? It’s really a two-step process – learning how our pets communicate with us, and teaching children how to safely interact and respect animals.

Step 1: Let’s Learn to Speak Dog!

While we probably all talk to our pets and they have learned the way we communicate with our body language, the problem is that we haven’t spent enough time learning how our pets communicate with us. Animals have languages all their own, and learning just a few of the ways they communicate can help prevent unnecessary harm to our kids, and sadly unnecessary euthanasia.

1.What your dog is doing: wiggling and relaxed body, enthusiastic tail wagging, loose ears. Or in some cases lying comfortably, often with a paw tucked under.

What your dog is saying: I’m happy and comfortable with my surroundings! I feel relaxed and calm.  If someone is interacting with me, it is either not bothering me or I am enjoying the attention.

2. What your dog is doing: ears forward, eyes intense, body tense, tail high and possibly slowly and deliberately wagging.

What your dog is saying: I’m focused on something and not interested in being hugged or interacted with. I am trying to decide how to react to something in my surroundings.

3. What your dog is doing: avoiding interaction/walking away from a child/person or completely freezing, yawning or licking repeatedly, “whale eye” (you can see the whites on the outer edges of your dogs eyes)

What your dog is saying: I’m stressed and want away from my current situation. I’m trying to tell you I am unhappy without having to growl or bite. Please leave me alone. Warning: Dogs communicate on a spectrum. These body signs generally precede growls, snarling and bites. It is very important to “listen” when your dog is communicating this body language.

4. Aggressive behaviors - when it may be too late: lip snarling, growling, guarding (food, toys, people), biting (other than a playful bite). Immediate intervention is necessary. Move the child away from the dog immediately. It is generally advised that rather than punishing a growl, try to understand why the dog is growling and prevent that situation from recurring. When your dog snarls its lips or growls, they are giving a warning sign that they are extremely stressed by their situation and a bite is soon to follow. When a growl is punished, dogs can be come “unpredictable biters”, where they give no warning signals before biting. If you are seeing any of these behaviors at home, it is important to seek professional help! Usually watching for behavior categories 1 through 3 can help prevent a dog from needing to use aggression to communicate their needs. 

Step 2: Teaching little ones to respect animals

Older kids can also be taught to watch for the body language discussed in step 1, but teaching even very little ones how to respect animals comes down to teaching your child to treat their pet the way they would like to be treated. Here are some of the top common mistakes parents make:

o  Allowing a child to “ride” a dog, pull their ears, yank the tail, and otherwise poking/prodding/stepping on a dog.

o  Allowing a child to chase a dog that is actively trying to escape/walk away from the child

o  Allowing a child to hug a dog or get directly in the face of a dog. Although some dogs are very tolerant of this behavior, always use caution when allowing a child to hug an animal – hugging is a human behavior, and most animals do not like being hugged.

o  Do not disturb a sleeping dog. Dogs deserve a quiet place to relax and sleep too!

o  Do not take or interfere with a dog’s food or toys. This can lead to possessive and guarding behaviors that can escalate to dangerous situations.

Help your children understand ways they can positively interact with their furry siblings: like giving food rewards for good behaviors (sit, stay, lay), scratching or petting them (gently!) on their favorite spots (often by the neck or lower back), and for the playful pooch – a good game of fetch (as long as your dog has learned how to politely return their toy J )

Thankfully most dogs are very tolerant of their human counterparts (I am guilty of hugging my dogs from time to time, although I try not to), but hopefully this brings to light some ways that we can do a better job of “listening” to what our canine kids are trying to tell us.

On a related noted, Dr. Mayers hosts a fabulous class several times a year in conjunction with Bon Secours St. Francis Health System on introducing your newborn to your pet! You can register online and classes are FREE and held several times throughout the year. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Dr. Megan Vessalo