The Curse of the Good Dog

We had another fantastic, multi-tasking agility training session/play date with our pals the other day. Natasha’s dog, Polly, is one of those stereotypical, mellow and inherently well-behaved labs that everyone sees in the movies and on greeting cards. She is even-tempered and sweet, and will put up with pretty much anything from everyone, including the children.

In conversation with Natasha, we were pondering the challenges of having such a dog with children, and this brought to mind the kids and dogs safety demo that I did at the C-DOG event this past weekend. Since developing the demo 8 years ago, it has, of course, undergone a number of improvements, but notably, I now find myself telling parents that the fact that they have dogs at home means that they may have to be more vigilant with their children than non-dog owning parents.

This photo made my heart stop, and sparked discussion among colleagues.

I so often hear of people with dogs that allow all manner of things to be “done to them”, even in spite of parents’ threats to children to leave them alone. Natasha mentioned how her older, male Labrador was harassed by children (under another parent’s supposed supervision) and. she went running to him when he barked loudly. She arrived to see him surrounded by harassing children who had been crowding around, poking and prodding him, while he sat quietly and took it until he decided to call for help. After an appropriate tongue-lashing to the parent of the children, Natasha thanked her lucky stars that her dog was so tolerant because, unlike many unfortunate parents, Natasha understands dogs, and knows what is appropriate, what is natural and normal, and what parents should NOT allow children to do to them.

Within the various lists to which I belong, I often see photos that are downright shocking – people letting children kiss dogs on the noses, when said dogs are very clearly uneasy with the interactions. They are posted in the name of “cute”, yet those of us who are trainers and understand dog body language cringe when we see them.

This dog is not comfortable with the baby's kiss

Nevertheless, those of us who have “good” dogs, do have the luxury of worrying just a little bit less about our dogs. We have two such dogs, out of our four. Shadow allowed Shelby to crawl into his crate with him the other day – when I didn’t realize that I had not completely latched it closed before going to the kitchen for a moment. I would never have relaxed so much had it been one of the other dogs. He and our boy, Flash, also tolerate hugs and close petting with quiet sighs and otherwise relaxed looks. I know the difference between Shadow’s body language and my girl, Claire’s when they are about to be hugged by a child, and I stop the hugs immediately with Claire. And believe it or not, I’m grateful for Claire, who is helping me to teach Shelby that not all dogs like that close contact – in fact, most dogs do *not* want to be hugged. I constantly remind her to keep her face away from other dogs, don’t pet any dog unless it approaches you first (all of our dogs will do this, but not all the time) and under no circumstance should you “ride the dog like a pony”.  (Yes, it is frowned upon in this establishment as well!)

But what about those families with the overly tolerant dogs, or big dogs that just don’t care or even truly love children? Those parents, believe it or not, may have it harder in the long run. They will have to teach their children that other dogs are NOT their dogs; other dogs do not want their attention; other dogs do not take treats nicely or even wait until treats are offered; other dogs will jump up on you if you squeal and run…

Shelby enjoys playing in the crates when the dogs are outside.

I was at a park a few years ago and had my dogs on down-stays. They were patiently watching me as I watched and winced as a young child went right up to them and tried to pat them on the back. I ran toward him and stopped him before it happened, as his hapless mom told me “oh, he has dogs at home, so wants to pet them all.” What?? I couldn’t understand why she didn’t even try to stop him?

And therein lies the curse – not all dogs are like “your” dog, and this is a tough lesson for a toddler. Heck, it’s a tough lesson that a lot of adults even have a hard time learning with, as anyone with a reactive dog who has endured dirty looks from others can attest.  Just a short glance at the D.I.N.O.S. Dogs in Need of Space page will show you plenty of stories of such grown-ups, as well as a few children.

Cursed though you may be, thank your lucky stars, and then get to work teaching your child how to properly behave around any and all dogs that are not part of the family. It could be a life-saver, not just for your child, but for someone’s beloved dog as well.

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