Dr. Emily Weiss and her dogs had a run-in with some kids, and it got her thinking...
The other morning I was running with my dogs past the school bus stop. Sea and Que insisted we stop to say hi to the kids waiting for the bus on their first day of school. A little girl hugged Que and told me about her dog at home. She giggled as she shared that her pup greets her by knocking her over in the morning—and she then exclaimed she was going to be a vet when she grew up. We ran on, and I thought to myself that there is such magic that happens when kids and dogs grow up together... and many dogs in our shelters never get the opportunity, based often on arbitrary criteria. I thought it may be the perfect time to resurface this blog about kids and dogs.
Sending Dogs Home with Families—originally published November 29, 2012
Dogs and kids… A natural combination in most situations, but in some organizations – considered a “no-no.” The concerns range from fear of the child injuring the dog to the dog injuring the child. I recently visited a shelter where there were literally 2 dogs available out of 55 on the adoption floor who could go home to families with young children. Almost all of the folks I meet in the field had dogs when growing up – and they are still alive…and I think I can safely bet that the vast majority of their pets survived the interactions with them.
As a behaviorist I like to get to the WHY? – why is it that some shelters are uncomfortable with the dog-child dynamic? When I have asked, the most common response is that they are not comfortable ‘taking the chance.’ Without a good understanding of canine behavior, an interaction, even years in the past, where a dog was hugged by a child and the child was bitten will likely become the zeitgeist.
The logic may be hugging=bite. Better safe than sorry, right? Well… When the safe means that the dog may not get a chance to go home, maybe empowering our adoption counselors with a solid understanding of canine behavior is safer for both the kids and the dogs. As you are likely already aware, I do not think shelters should require all of the family to come in to meet the dog before adoption – a behavior assessment like the ASPCA’s SAFER® assessment can help identify the dogs most uncomfortable with touch or at a higher probability for aggression, so that the proper support can be provided for those dogs. For those that do bring their children, or want a meet-and-greet with their kids prior to going home, there are some simple behaviors we can observe that can help us better understand the interactions between a dog and a child. The ASPCA SAFER glossary provides visuals for these behaviors as well.
- Upon initial approach to the child – note if the dog’s body changes –
- Does he become more rubbery and loose? This indicates an affiliative ‘no fight’ response.
- Does he become a bit more stiff? This could mean he is a bit uncomfortable – look at the mouth…
- What is his mouth doing?
- Open mouth and long lip indicates he is comfortable and relaxed
- Closed mouth and long lip, a bit less comfortable but safe and affiliative response
- Does he yawn? Yawning indicates a bit of conflict or discomfort – but be sure to note what is happening when he yawns – he may be yawning because he is being held back and unable to approach the child!
- Do the corners of his lips become shorter? If so, he may be displaying discomfort.
- How about those eyes and the forehead? Are the eyes soft and almond-shaped? This again is an affiliative ‘no fight’ response. If the brow is furrowed, he is less comfortable than a dog with a relaxed forehead. Compare the boxer and Weimaraner in these pictures below. While neither dog is close to aggression, the boxer’s furrowed brow indicates his discomfort. The Weimaraner has a great soft eye and relaxed brow (his expression makes him look, if one was anthropomorphizing, quite humorous).
4. Observe the response when the dog and child touch. Ideally, have the child first sit and wait for the dog to approach her (but remember what you were like when you were that age… it can be really hard to wait for that dog to come to you!).
- Rubbery and loose?
- Mouth stays open? Lip long?
- Eyes stay almond shaped?
- Does he lick his lips? This is a sign he is a bit uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable does not mean the dog is going to bite – it simply means he is uncomfortable and likely a bit anxious. This is a great educational opportunity for the adopter to learn some basics in canine communication. Certainly there are times in which the interaction could lead to aggression, and understanding the signs leading to a higher potential for aggression is important in becoming comfortable. Watch for increases from yawns and lip licking to a shortening of the lip, stiffness, wide eyes and, finally, freezing – strong indicators that a bite is imminent.
The dog in the above photo happens to have great bite inhibition. The baby was safely moved from the situation as the dog warned clearly. I love the set of images below - dogs with open mouths, relaxed lips, soft eyes and relaxed brows… The kids look pretty happy, too!