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.

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