Over protective or overly permissive?

I recently came across an interesting article in the New York Times about the perils of “overparenting” versus “underparenting”.  Among the challenges mentioned included parents who were overly permissive as well as parents who were overly controlling. According to the article, “the happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing; and their parents do not do things for them that satisfy their own needs rather than the needs of the child.” In other words, parents who balance control with freedom as needed.

There is also a balance with regard to living with children and dogs.  While being overly passive and leaving children unsupervised around dogs is clearly negligent, unless the dog is actually child-aggressive, it is may not be to the child’s benefit to prevent him or her from having any interactions whatsoever with the family dogs. Children need to learn how to behave around dogs, how to pet them, what they should and should not do, etc. Simply telling children that they can never ever go near any dogs has the potential to do more harm than good.

Georgia and her boy

Demonstrating petting at arm’s length.

In my work with dog bite prevention education, I have run into many people with fears of dogs. With few exceptions, they tell stories of how dogs always want to attack them. It appears that fearful people are more likely to be attacked than people who aren’t afraid possibly because of the way in which they react: staring at the dogs, potentially screaming and running away, etc. In children’s safety courses, I teach children to “be a tree or a log” and never to run away.  This is particularly difficult to teach to fearful children.

From www.drsophiayin.com

From Dr. Sophia Yin, here is a classic example

If we instead teach children how to properly pet dogs at arm’s length, allow dogs to approach them rather than approaching the dogs, petting under the chin instead of the top of the head, etc., then they will go out into the world with a clearer understanding of these animals with which we live in our communities. Avoiding dogs altogether is just not really possible in today’s society. They are a part of so many families, and increasingly, venues such as shopping centers, coffee shops with outdoor seating, and even baseball parks are not only allowing them but actively encouraging their presence.  Trying to teach children to steer clear of all dogs would be akin to trying to teach them to steer clear of bicycles or cars; unless you move to a remote island, it just won’t happen.

The same goes for teaching our dogs. While it is not reasonable to expect them to put up with harsh, punishing treatment such as ear pulling and pokes in the eyes, we can teach most dogs to tolerate the presence of children and to choose to walk away when they feel uncomfortable, instead of opting to try to “defend themselves.”

All in all, it is a balancing act: teaching our children respect for dogs – and all living things for that matter – while supervising sufficiently to prevent mishaps. And for our dogs, more “micromanagement” may be needed, all the while protecting them from harm. I’ve said it before and will repeat here: raising children and dogs together is certainly more work than raising children alone, but the long-term benefits for all involved are worthwhile.

Kids Welcome?

I read an article the other day about the “Top 7 Good Habits of Great Veterinary Clients”, which listed, among the others, “The last thing an upset animal patient needs is a rambunctious or ill-mannered child in the mix. There are also safety concerns when small lively kids are roaming around a veterinary hospital or exam room.”

While it specifically states “rambunctious or ill-mannered”, I recognize that it is not always possible to leave the children behind when it’s time to take Fido to the vet. For me, since I work evenings and have my daughter with me during the day, I often have little choice but to take her with me to routine vet appointments unless I have family available to help out. That said, I do understand the sentiment.

A well-behaved child knows not to interfere with the veterinarian or trainer.

In training classes, I encourage people to bring their well-mannered children, and many of my students do bring them. I even wrote an article about this for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ Chronicle of the Dog some years ago, which was re-published in the book, The Dog Trainer’s Resource. When children are well-behaved, they can be an asset to a class, as they provide just enough additional distraction to help the dogs to learn to deal with them. On the other hand, when they are overly rambunctious or out of control, they can pose a danger to themselves as well as to the dogs.

So, what should a well-behaved child do in a vet office or training class, or other dog-centric venue?

  1. The child should absolutely NOT run around the dogs! Sometimes a young child will suddenly realize that he wants to be there and not here, and will run off. As a parent, you should be aware of this possibility and head it off quickly.
  2. The child should NEVER approach dogs other than his or her own! Regardless of the dog’s temperament, a classroom, or especially a veterinary office, can be a stressful place, and a dog’s reaction may not be what he would typically do.
  3. The child should be, for the most part, QUIET. This means no screaming or loud yelling. I realize that many children do not quite have the concept of the “indoor voice”, but at the very least, discourage loud screaming or squealing.

If you don’t have an option but to bring a young child with you to a training class or veterinary office, consider bringing quiet toys to entertain the child and keep him hushed. Books, coloring books, blocks, puzzles, Legos, or even a tablet computer with a nice game and the sound turned down, could go a long way to avoid troubles with a young child in such a setting.

When you are able to focus on your child, you could take advantage of the great learning opportunities: explaining what the various dogs are doing, what types of dogs they are (OK, maybe this one is just a dog trainer’s custom) and emphasizing why they shouldn’t try to pet them. In the habit of turning everything into a learning exercise, I engage in counting games with my toddler, ask about big and small, color identification, and remind her not to approach any animal without first checking in with me, and then asking the owner.

In the end, it is not just about polite manners and keeping the stress levels down for all of the pets in the vet office or training class, but also about safety for everyone involved. By remaining vigilant and teaching our children good pet manners, we can help our children to be welcomed in more dog-centric venues.

Where is common sense?

Last week, in one of the trainers’ forums which I follow, somebody posted the following photo:

Selma Blair straddles her son over her boxer.

In discussions over the photo, all agreed that this was not appropriate to be teaching a young child, since riding a dog is not good for the dog and potentially dangerous for a child should the dog object. We also agreed that, based on the Boxer’s body language in the photo, he was uncomfortable about having the child on his back, though he appeared to be tolerating it.

While I understand and completely concur with the concerns about this photo, my deeper concerns were about the tone in which some of the critics posted. The comments of the trainers in the discussion ranged from “what was she thinking” to more scathing and enraged remarks regarding parents who should absolutely know better. Ms. Blair is not necessarily a bad parent, and she apparently really loves dogs; she just needs better information.

Years ago, the owner of a dog training school for which I worked complained incessantly about how ridiculous people were when training their dogs, and how they “should know better.” Completely indignant, she expected everyone to naturally understand how dogs learn and what the latest training methods were. I was uncomfortable whenever she made such comments, because I wondered how on earth people could possibly know what was right unless somebody told them. With children, as with dogs, we don’t expect them to automatically know what is right. Instead, we spend time diligently teaching or training them regarding the rules. Yet in many aspects, adults are expected to naturally understand what is “right” and “wrong”. And in today’s technologically driven society, this expectation is driven even higher. However, when it comes to dog training, animal behavior, and even parenting with children and dogs, many of the messages are, sadly, very mixed.

Our parents were very different with their dogs than the way we are today. Even many of our childhood dogs lived differently than today’s pampered pooches. “Back in the day”, the dog that misbehaved or bit someone was either put to sleep, or labeled as a “biter” and kept away from people. Today, we have trainers and behavior counselors and veterinary behaviorists to help rehabilitate many of these dogs. Yet, the mixed messages persist, making it difficult for the average parent with a dog to know what is best. We see frightening images in the media touted as “cute”, fall prey to their “adorableness”, overlooking the fact that the situations represented are potentially dangerous. Then we are shocked on the rare occasion when the inevitable happens and someone is actually injured.

This series of photos has been making the rounds for years, and it still terrifies me.

But, if people can’t be expected to automatically “know better”, then what are we to do to keep our children safe? To start, gentle education can go a long way toward remedying the profusion of misinformation. Encourage your friends to look to science instead of “hype” when it comes to dog behavior and training. And when someone is doing something dangerous, rather than condemning them outright, politely show them what is appropriate. If you can’t convince them, then is the time to be more forceful.

Meanwhile, focus on your family, friends and those close to you. It is much easier to have an impact on friends than strangers – or movie stars, for that matter! With social networking as powerful as it is these days, share your trusted child and dog sites with everyone you know, and let them share with those they know. Sites such as Family Paws, Living with Kids and Dogs, and KADIE offer solid, reasonable advice for living safely with children and dogs. And if you’re still unsure, join a forum such as the Crates and Cribs Facebook page, or other groups for parents with children and dogs.

And don’t stop studying. Every day, we learn more about dogs and dog behavior through the research of fantastic experts such as Patricia McConnell, Roger Abrantes and Brian Hare. Then, when someone comes to you with a new training technique, or some trick that their child is doing with their dog, you can look at it objectively, and make the decision for yourself as to whether you want your child to do this with your dog. Then share with your friends yet again. And if anyone out there is friends with Ms. Blair, share this with her as well and encourage her to join Crates and Cribs or a similar kids and dogs group.

She Started It!

When I was in college, I had a sweet cat, Scheida, and my roommate had a lovely dog, Bixby. They got along well, since I got the kitten while the dog was young and they basically grew up together. One evening, as we were watching a movie, Bixby repeatedly chased Scheida out of the family room into the back bedroom. Each time, my roommate reprimanded Bixby, insisting that he leave the cat alone. Later, as we were chatting after the movie ended, we happened to watch: Scheida walked right up to Bixby and whapped him on the nose three times then ran away. As Bixby got up to chase her, he looked at us, knowing he’d be reprimanded. At that moment, I really wanted to tell him to go get that cat! She was, after all, the instigator.

While at the surface, this story could speak to cats as troublemakers, (remember Lady and the Tramp?) the fact is, cats are not the only ones who can behave in this manner. Like the old school trouble-maker who lures classmates into trouble, I have seen dogs and children behave this way as well.

Among dogs, I’ve seen plenty of instigators as well: dogs who nudge and nudge at a dog that is clearly giving “cut off” signals, until they have to be reprimanded loudly. In many such cases, I’ve seen the growling dogs reprimanded, when in fact the other dog was the one who had instigated the dispute.

Similarly, children often do not intentionally start things, but do things because they do not know better. I am often called to work with dogs that have bitten and/or threatened children.  While not in all cases, I have encountered a number of situations where the children had been allowed (or unsupervised) to do things that the dogs did not like. In one case that dropped my heart to my stomach, the dog had snapped at the 2-year-old and grazed his face. While the cut was truly just a scrape, there was concern about the dog. When I asked the child what had happened just before his dog bit him, he said to me “I squished his face”. His mother’s face went sheet-white as she heard this, and wondered why he hadn’t told her this part.

In other cases, I’ve been told that the dogs had previously allowed the children to climb on them or pull on their ears and tails, and then “one day, out of the blue, started to growl at them.” This case is so very common: the dog endures all manner of abuse (yes, pulling on one’s ears can hurt) and then one day decides that he’s had enough, and people are appalled that the dog now growls. The sad part is that after this, it can be a steep, uphill battle to convince the dog to once again trust children.

So, what is the solution? To start, we know that children must be closely supervised around dogs. They often do things that they do not even know are bad or painful. The child who “squished” his dog’s face did so in the same room with his mother, who was busy on her computer.

Classic example: the little girl means well,but the dog is uncomfortable
In such a case, call the child away

Unsupervised, children may do things to dogs that we would never even consider, such as sticking things into their ears, pulling their tails, climbing on them, or hugging them too hard. It is not fair to insist that any dog should endure this kind of treatment. In addition to interfering to protect a dog, I recommend teaching dogs that leaving a situation is a perfectly acceptable – in fact preferable – option: flight over fight. Give your dogs a place to hide where the children know they are off limits. When you’re unable to supervise closely, separate them. And when it comes to reprimanding bad behavior, make sure you get your story straight first!