A cosmetic surgeon once told me that he dreads Sunday night phone calls. They are, almost always, about kids who need their faces put back together after being bitten by a dog. He said it breaks his heart. It breaks my heart too, thinking of the hundreds of cases I saw where the owner said the dog “was great with the kids all weekend, I just don’t know what happened on Sunday night.” Of course, we most likely do know what happened–the dog finally was exhausted, lost patience, and the rest is medical history. It’s easy to blame the parents, but the fact is, are we, each one of us, doing what we can to keep kids and dogs safe from each other?
We have to start by acknowledging, that no matter how much we love dogs, they can be dangerous. Especially to kids whose faces are at tooth level. Kids can be dangerous to dogs too, but they don’t have Def Con 3 level weapons in their mouths.
Estimates of the number of bites to children in the U.S range all over the place, but most put the number somewhere around 2 million. About a quarter of those require medical care. According to a study published through NIH, most dog bites to children are to the face, and almost 90% of the recipients were familiar to the dog. What if we cut that in half? Possible?
If you work with canine behavior problems, you know how complicated working with families with dogs and young children can be. The kids love the dog. The dog loves the kids . . . until they act like kids. One spouse wants the dog gone; one wants the other spouse gone. Being a behavior consultant is not for the faint of heart, but it’s critical work, because so many bites are preventable.
What if we made 2023 the year of helping kids and dogs be safe with one another? We could start by listening to a podcast specifically for families with dogs and young children, or people who work with them, hosted by Justine Shuurmans, owner and founder of The Family Dog. Her guests were Jennifer Shyrock of Family Paws, and Helen St. Pierre, No Monkey Business. All three are moms themselves, are well-certified for the work, and specialize in working with families. It’s a quick listen, an excellent summary of what’s essential for safety, and a window to many of the excellent resources on their websites.
One of favorite points of the episode is that “obedience” has nothing to do with ensuring a dog is safe around children. Rather, ideally, what’s needed is a “well-balanced dog,” one who is at ease and relaxed. Whether the dog sits or stays on cue is irrelevant if three little boys are running around the island in the kitchen screaming loud enough to raise the dead. In my experience, these dogs are worth their weight in gold (because they are rare), and we need parents to understand that most dogs do not have the patience of a saint.
That’s why what’s next on my own list, and on just about everyone else’s, (including the experts above) is the importance of teaching parents to “read dog.” Trainers have made huge strides with this in the last 10 years, and so have some vet clinics, putting up posters of Red/Yellow/Green body language. There are a lot of resources designed to help people read body language. Here’s an interactive one from Jennifer Shyrock that I really like. Of course, there’s my seminar, Lost in Translation, that has photos and videos that are also helpful. There are tons more, (tell us your favorite), including the astounding recently released volume, Dogs in Translation, by Katja Krauss and Gabi Maue. At the hefty price of $79.99, this is not a book every dog owner is going to want, but I highly recommend it for canine professionals.
However, I think we can do so much more. Every “family dog training or obedience class” should, interactively, teach reading dog every single session. I used to ask participants to evaluate a dog’s expression after different types of reinforcement, or when greeting another dog. Every vet visit with young dogs should include a comment about what the dog’s body language is telling the vet or the vet tech.
Another critical point stressed in the podcast is the importance of not just “supervision,” but “adult, active, aware ” supervision. Tragedies can occur in a second, and if you’re not “eyes on,” and know what to watch for, then you’re not really supervising. All the moms on this podcast are well aware that no one can be that focused for long periods of time, so Jennifer’s advises us all to have a plan in place for when you need to check your phone, answer the door, or avoid burning the grilled cheese sandwiches. Or in her words, “Don’t take a chance, plan in advance.” Check out the websites listed above for ideas about management plans that make life safer and easier with dogs and kids.
There’s so much more, including Helen’s mention of the importance of teaching safety around dogs, just as parents teach their kids to take their hand crossing the street, or not to touch the burner on the stove. As soon as children can look around the room, it’s time to start teaching them safety around dogs. She loves some of Jennifer’s saying “Sit on the ground, not the hound,” and “One hand enough, two hands too much.”
I’ve written about this issue relatively recently (2021), in “Invites Decrease Bites,” but I will probably write about it every year, because it’s so very, very important. Dog-child related tragedies are not confined to fatalities, but include serious injuries, life-long fear of dogs, and broken hearts and family discord. Is there one thing you could do this week, just one, to make the lives of kids and dogs safer? If so, let us know, we’ll be inspired.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Warm, cold, icy, muddy, rainy, no-snowy. Absolutely typical weather. For March. At least every once in a while we get to see some sun.
The photo below is for those of you who looked for Skip in my last post in a tangle of trees; this time you won’t be able to miss him. I took the photo with my iPhone, in low light, and zoomed way, way in to make Skip easy to find, thus the lousy resolution. But at least you can’t miss him now.
We took down the Christmas tree on Saturday; I’ll miss its cheerful lights as I walk down the stairs in the morning. But now the sheep get to snack on it.
Below is Swift, appropriately named as an early adapter, checking it out while the other sheep keep their eye on Skip, who is lying outside the pen to our left.
Skip had just worked them pretty hard up the hill, and brought them down to check out the tree. Even though it was under freezing, he was still grateful for a remaining patch of snow. He adores the cold, adores it; not surprising since he has a coat like a polar bear. It’s a shame about his heart, he’d be a fantastic sled dog otherwise–fast, powerful, loves to run. But then, one would need snow . . .
Swift decided to scent mark the tree before she started to eat it. I don’t see the sheep do that very often, not sure why she felt a need to mark the tree. She could just be rubbing her head, but it looked more purposeful than that.
It’s not very pretty outside here now. Brown, brown, brown, and grey, grey, grey. Some snow sure would be nice. But the landscape outside makes these tulips below, from White Flower Farm, extra special. Lots more flowers to come in this pot, and check out that Amaryllis at the bottom left! It’s got two separate buds coming, and each one usually has four flowers. Can’t wait.
Here’s to flowers, and color, and the knowledge that spring is coming. Just 59 days. (Although, uh, not usually very colorful on March 20th around here, but given the weather, who knows anymore?)
Stay safe out there, and add, if you can, to this conversation about keeping dogs and kids safe, this year, and all the years to come.
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