By Ashley Talmadge
We’ve seen them posted online or traded between phones: the adorable home video clips capturing kid-and-pet antics. Who doesn’t admit to an “Awwww!” moment, as the preschooler wraps her arms around her dog’s fluffy neck, and presses her face to his nose?
But for animal specialists, these scenes can be tense rather than tender. Why? The dog’s body language (stiff posture, quick lip-licks, and visible crescent-shaped white of an eye) shows that he’s stressed. There’s clearly a loving bond between the child and her canine companion. But the pooch is sending a message: “I don’t like this squeezy hug!”
Nearly half of American households include a dog, and almost 40 percent include a cat. Science shows that our physical and mental health are improved by relationships with companion animals. The simple act of stroking a pet’s fur can decrease anxiety and reduce blood pressure. Kids are often calmed by the presence of an animal, and many use a pet’s uncritical ear to sort through problems, or even improve their reading skills. But how many times do we take this unconditional love for granted?
When a dog bites or a cat scratches a child, parents often report that the animal was unprovoked – that it happened “out of the blue.” Yet shelter manager Kim Latos, says there are always warning signs. Unfortunately kids – and often their parents – do not know how to read them. For instance, Latos says, “Dogs don’t like to be hugged. Kids always want to hug animals, but how often do we see animals hugging each other?”
While many dogs tolerate this human display of affection, they also give clues about their discomfort. And when warning signs continue to go unheeded, a dog is at risk for snapping or biting out of frustration.
We cannot expect our pets to be “on call” 24/7, and sometimes our failure to read the “I need a break” clues has severe consequences. Statistics indicate that more than 75 percent of pet-related injuries to children are inflicted by a familiar pet, whether their own or a friend’s. Yet, until an incident occurs, most parents believe their pet to be completely kid-safe.
This is frustrating to experts like Latos who cautions that any dog can bite, and any cat can scratch. She says the majority of animal bites and other pet-related injuries are preventable, and that it comes down to better supervision. “Children should never be left around pets unsupervised,” Latos says. “I can’t stress that enough.” She explains that a child is not developmentally ready to interpret the pet’s language and respond appropriately without assistance.
And kids are often vulnerable for reasons beyond their control. A child’s short stature means he can easily come face-to-face with a large dog. Consequently, the vast majority of dog-related injuries to a young child are inflicted to the head and neck. Katie Ball, CEO of the Love Your Pet Expo and Sanctuary, says, “Young children often smell like food,” and this can lead to confusion. “A dog might be licking a child’s face because it has remnants of donuts, crackers, or chicken – and the child is thinking the dog wants to kiss!” says Ball. Face-to-face contact between a pet and child dramatically increases the risk of injury.
Typical kid behavior can unintentionally provoke a dog or cat. Children move quickly and erratically; they’re loud and have high-pitched voices; and their lack of coordination means they may stumble onto a pet’s body or tail. The younger the child, the less able she is to empathize with a pet’s perspective. It’s important for parents to closely monitor all pet-child interactions. Sometimes that means giving the pet a safe place to go, away from the child.
Both Latos and Ball do presentations of the internationally acclaimed “Be a Tree” program for schools and community groups. Ball says the program “teaches children how to read dog body language, and how to act safely around dogs.” She explains that while education saves children from injury and trauma, it can actually save pets’ lives. “The dog might have ‘cranky leave-me-alone’ days, especially as it gets older,” she says. “What do you think happens to a 10-year-old dog that’s bitten a child? It’s put down … that’s why this education is so important.”
Latos agrees. Though cat-related injuries are not associated with the same level of trauma as dog bites, the consequences for the cat can be just as dire. She encourages parents with questions about kid-pet issues to call their local humane organization, especially if there’s a behaviorist on staff. “If we can help with the home environment, it works in the long run. We want to prevent animals from coming to the shelter.”
So before you point a lens at that precious puppy-child scene, take a moment to see it from your dog’s perspective. If he’s not having as much fun as your child, it’s time to say “cut” and let the actors take a break.
- About 400,000 children receive medical treatment for dog bites annually in the U.S.
Almost 12,000 children receive medical treatment for cat-related injuries.
75 percent of pet-related injuries are inflicted by pets familiar to the child.
Children under age 10 are at highest risk.
The “Be a Tree” Program
“Be a Tree” is a dog bite prevention program. Children learn to interpret dog body language and make safe proactive decisions when interacting with dogs. Emphasis is on informed choice, not fear. Large photographs, interactive games, role playing, and practice are incorporated into two 15- 20-minute presentation segments.
What does it mean to “Be a Tree?”
Hold your arms (branches) straight down
Clasp hands in front of you (thigh level)
Look down at your feet (watch your roots grow)
Wait for dog to leave
A child can “Be a Tree” when:
Her own dog is too frisky
A strange dog approaches her
A dog makes her feel nervous/scared
A dog is chasing her
Why does it work?
Movement excites dogs, but a “tree” standing still is boring. Dogs quickly move on to something more interesting.
Schedule a presentation:
Doggone Safe (www.doggonesafe.com)
List of “Be a Tree” presenters throughout North America. Info on the “Be a Tree” program. Support for children who have been bitten. Excellent resources for parents about safe and loving dog-child relationships.
Warning Behaviors in Pets
Dogs and cats display warning signs to show social discomfort. Always supervise child-pet interactions, and separate them if you see these signs:
“Nervous” licking of lips and/or yawning
Half-moon eye (where you see a crescent of white)
Attempts to leave
Ears laid back or pointed back
Pet Dos & Don’ts for Kids:
DO save your hugs and kisses for Mom, Dad, & other human family members.
DON’T hug your pets – they don’t like it!
DO watch what your pet is doing.
DON’T have a staring contest. Staring makes dogs and cats nervous.
DO give your pet a big “space bubble” while he is eating.
DON’T play near your pet’s food or take food from him.
DO scratch your cat on his neck and back.
DON’T try to touch your cat’s belly.
DO pat your dog on her back, sides and neck.
DON’T pull on your pet’s ears or put your face next to his face.
DO offer a treat with a flat palm.
DON’T feed a treat from between squeezed fingers.
DO play fetch and hide-n-seek with your dog.
DON’T play chase games.
DO dangle a string from a stick for your cat.
DON’T let your cat’s toy hang next to your body.
DO keep your body calm, tell stories, and sing quiet songs with your pet.
DON’T scream, yell or jump.
DO dress up your stuffed animals.
DON’T dress up your pets!
Pet Safety Resources:
Living with Kids and Dogs…Without Losing Your Mind: A Parent’s Guide to Controlling the Chaos, book by Colleen Pelar. See www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com for more resources.
Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss, book by Pam Johnson-Bennett. See www.catbehaviorassociates.com for more resources.
Tails Are Not for Pulling, by Elizabeth Verdick. Board book for very young children.
Family Paws Parent Education: www.familypaws.com
Check your local Humane Society chapter or animal rescue organization for family-oriented classes and/or school presentations focused on pet behavior, safety and care.