Safety Aside, What Happened to Respect?

Recently – as happens at least weekly – I came across yet another of those “adorable” photos of a child mistreating a dog, with a caption to the effect of “what a great dog” he was to have such patience with the baby. The poor dog in this particular photo was clearly tolerating the smooch of a toddler who appeared to be grabbing part of the dog’s eye with his little baby fingers. While we professional trainers were up on our high horses, discussing how ridiculous people are in allowing such risky behavior to continue, it occurred to me that even if the dog were completely safe with the children – as some extremely tolerant dogs seem to be – why aren’t the people concerned about the treatment of the dogs themselves?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece in my High Drive Dogs Blog about what I call “respecting” your dog, that is, recognizing dog body language and allowing your dog to get out of uncomfortable situations whenever possible. Now it occurs to me that perhaps this article missed a large piece of its mark. To quote my esteemed colleague and kids and dogs expert, Madeline Clark Gabriel,

I ask why the definition of a good dog is often, ‘You can do anything to him.’ That wouldn’t make any sense if phrased in terms of other relationships: ‘I have a really good wife. You can do anything to her.’ Creepy!

In my home, we work constantly to teach our daughter to respect the dogs and other pets in our household (which include cats, turtles, and fish.) We reward her for appropriate behaviors, and sternly remind her to be nice when she makes a mistake. She is never allowed to pull hair, tails and ears; never allowed to hit or shove them; never allowed to sit upon them (I know one dog who sustained a back injury due to a child sitting upon him.)

Boy and his dog

A boy and his dog – mutual respect.
Photo courtesy of Natasha Gelfand

I find it troubling that some people are so determined to prove how great their dogs are, that they seem to forget that these dogs have feelings too! And I don’t mean just emotions, but physical feelings of pain and discomfort. Granted, sometimes we don’t have a choice but to suffer discomfort or pain, as with doctor visits or vaccines, but when we can prevent discomfort, why don’t we? I tell my clients not to allow their children to do anything to a dog that they wouldn’t allow done to themselves. Would you let a child pull your earlobe until it hurt? Or bite your forehead with his little baby teeth? I can tell you that my tolerance for that would be low. Of course, I wouldn’t injure the child, but I would make it stop and redirect the child to something less painful, such as chewing on a teething ring. Similarly, if you see a child doing something like this to your dog, redirect the child. If your dog learns that you will step in to protect him, then he will not need to ever defend himself, and he will be able to remain the great dog that you know him to be.

We must never forget that dogs do feel, and thus we must strive to treat them with the respect with which we wish to be treated ourselves. As Matthew Scully so eloquently states:

“Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”

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