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.
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!