A few days ago, I shared about the first dog bite I sustained. I was six years old and unintentionally provoked our family dog to snap at my face. Max had his fair share of behavior problems, which were no doubt a result of the heavy hand he experienced throughout his life. For my parents, the bite to my face was the last straw. And just like that, Max was gone.
I wish I could say that I learned my lesson with Max, but I didn’t. Shortly after we sent Max to the pound, my parents bought a little Shih Tzu from a hobby breeder. As with Max, I was frequently left alone with Bruno. Lucky for me, Bruno didn’t share Max’s inner demons. Unfortunately for Bruno, I still treated him like a toy. Nobody taught me what was appropriate and inappropriate. After all, he was a pet.
I was roughly 10 years old when Bruno bit my hand. This time I knew better than to say anything about it. I hid the small scratch, but not after popping Bruno on the nose for it. That is how we handled discipline in my house, so that is what I thought was correct. I also learned that it was okay to tease our dog, especially when my rowdy cousins came to visit. Bruno quickly figured out how to stay out of arms reach during those visits. He would hide under my parents’ bed until the coast was clear. We were very lucky that in the 15 years we had Bruno there were no additional severe bites.
Although I eventually grew out of my obnoxious behavior around dogs, it took tremendous study and practice to learn how to speak dog well. Unfortunately, humans are very good at making excuses for not changing our ways. I can’t tell you how many adults I see behaving in the same obnoxious way that children who provoke bites do. The difference is that adults get away with it more than toddlers do. This is a problem because we are leading by example. And that particular example leads to a very disappointing experience for both humans and dogs.
So, how can we parent our dogs (and kids!) well? Here are my top pawrenting-for-peace priorities:
Teach your dog bite inhibition
Bite inhibition is trainer jargon for a dog’s ability to use his mouth at varying degrees of pressure. There is a longstanding myth that we must teach our dogs to never use their mouths. That’s about as absurd as asking you to never use your thumbs. Dogs need to learn how to use their mouths appropriately. Denying them that knowledge is like living with a ticking time bomb. All dogs, even the most unassuming ones, can be pushed to bite. When a dog with poor bite inhibition finally does bite, the damage is most severe.
Dogs learn bite inhibition best from socializing with other dogs. That’s why there has been a huge industry shift that promotes puppy play dates from a very young age. Playing with their own species teaches a dog what is too rough. If a dog uses his mouth too hard on another dog during play, the game ends or the other dog tells him off. Most dogs are motivated to continue the game, so the offending dog learns to be gentler the next time around.
Another way to teach your puppy how to use his mouth gently is to actually allow him to explore the world with his mouth. There is an unfortunate rumor that continues to circulate, advising pawrents to slam their dog’s muzzle shut to stop mouthing. I have heard that this punishment is similar to what a momma dog would do to her pup for nipping too hard. While momma dogs do teach their offspring a thing or two about bite inhibition, can we all please agree that our dogs are smart enough to know that we are not dogs? Not only is this a physically violent practice, it also teaches your dog not to trust you. Most importantly, it robs him of the ability to learn how to use his mouth gently.
By, instead, allowing a puppy to explore the world with his mouth, we can offer feedback about pressure. People often look at me like I have two heads when I allow a young pup to lick and lightly gnaw on my hands or arms. Why are you doing that? Isn’t that bad? Actually, it’s very good for them. Because if the puppy gets too rough, then I whimper and/or take my hands away. I have yet to meet a puppy who couldn’t learn how to be gentler with his mouth or that needed some archaic form of punishment.
Teach children about “good touch”
It’s not enough to only teach the dog. We also need to teach our children how to use their bodies gently. Kids need to learn what good touch and bad touch is like for the dog, in the same way that we teach them how to recognize good and bad touch from other humans. It’s important that from a young age, we are learning to respect dogs as more than just a pet. Dogs, like us, thrive on trust and a sense of security. We rob them of that when we allow kids free reign over the dog. We wouldn’t expect kids to be okay with anyone petting them, hugging them or climbing on them. So, why would we teach them to do that to dogs?
One of my favorite graphics is from Family Paws Parent Education. (Please go follow their Instagram for more). If there is only one thing you teach your child, may it be the mantra: “One hand enough; two hands too rough.” Keeping it simple for our kiddos will keep them safer. Because even if your dog tolerates hugs and rough touch from the kids she lives with, it is unlikely that other dogs will be as tolerant. By teaching kids how to behave safely around their own dogs, you are setting them up for success around all the other dogs of the world.
Facilitate safe interactions between kiddos and doggos
As the adults in this equation, it is important that we are taking ownership of our dog’s every interaction with a kid, and vice versa. I don’t blame kids for feeling an urge to squeeze a dog until his eyes bulge out of his head. Though I’m older than I care to admit, my inner child still go bonkers at the sight of a cute dog. I want to hug and squeeze all the dogs! But I know better than to act on the urge. We need to teach our children the same impulse control. Kids with impulse control will stay safer around dogs, but also learn valuable life skills.
Another one of my favorite graphics is from Lili Chin. Whether you’re the human parent or the dog parent in this situation, it is your responsibility to advocate for the little one in your care. We often put our dogs or kids in unsafe situations because of the social pressure to have a friendly dog, and because of how difficult it can be to say “No, you may not pet my dog right now.” Well, let me be the voice of reason here and assure all dog moms and dads that your dog can prefer to not meet strangers and still be considered friendly. I mean, I’m a fairly kind person but that doesn’t mean I let just anyone rub my belly or pat me on the head.
I was recently at an adoption event where I had to facilitate safe interactions between a mouthy puppy and children. The more bored Callahan got, the more incessant his rowdy jumping and mouthing got. He even tried to take a playful chomp out of a little girl’s Sunday dress. When I got the leash, I focused on keeping him busy with training games and toys. When Callahan was going into deep puppy snooze mode, four little girls appeared out of nowhere. As they all reached for his face, I asked them to move to my side where they could pet his side or back. I let him acknowledge the new visitors before they pet him. It was that simple. “Please pet him here, not there.”
Pay attention to your dog’s needs too!
Being a multi-species parent is hard work. Our little two- and four-legged creatures need so much from us. We start to fall apart when our own needs go unmet, and the same is true for our dogs. I have heard a lot of people criticize dog parents for treating their dogs like children. Or worse, for putting the dog’s needs above the kids! Does it really have to be one over the other? Why can’t it be both? Well, I’m here to tell you that meeting our dogs’ needs and our kids’ needs can go hand in hand.
One of my secret weapons for parenting is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Dog Needs. All of the behavior problems I have been consulted on can be traced back to a gap in the dog’s basic needs. Fill in the gaps, and life with that dog suddenly gets easier. More than that, it makes having a dog more enjoyable. I absolutely love giving my dog the things she needs. We exercise together, we learn together, we snuggle together. And we both feel a little fuller because of those things. Finding ways to fill up the emotional piggy banks of your dog and child will give you a sense of peace that fills you up, too.
Supervise! Supervise! Supervise!
Do you remember what the common theme was during both the dog bites I sustained as a child? I was left unsupervised with the family dog. These were not new dogs that we did not know. These were dogs we had lived with for months or years. When it comes to kids and dogs, we need to keep our guard up. Because at the end of the day, a child is still a child. And in their innocent attempts to show dogs love, they make a lot of mistakes. Similarly, no matter how reliable our dogs are, they have only so many ways of communicating what they need. And biting is every dog’s last resort.
The truth is that children are most frequently but by a dog they live with. I remember hearing an internationally renowned dog expert emphasize the parent’s need to supervise, supervise, supervise. Does she really think parents have time for that? I thought. Well, if we want to have safe dogs and safe kids, then we are going to have to make the time. Most of the dog bites to children I have seen occurred when they were left passively supervised with a dog they knew. We can save ourselves (and our dogs & our kids) a lot of heartache and fear by committing to active supervision.
What are some of the ways you keep your dogs and kids safe around each other?