Dogs. Babies. Adorable. Unless you’re a trainer or behaviorist, and cover your eyes while watching some of the “cute” on line videos, showing young children at risk of being bitten because the dog was radiating discomfort while the parents cooed and laughed. People like me, CAABs (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists), Veterinary Behaviorists, and a whole lot of great trainers have been working hard to try to prevent dangerous interactions between dogs and young children for years. One of the best in the business is Jennifer Shyrock of Family Paws, who graciously gave me an hour of her time based on her extensive experience helping families keep dogs and young children happy and healthy together.
I asked Jennifer “What do you wish families knew, that they usually don’t?” Her answer was simple: “Please never allow a newly-crawling baby to approach and have access to your dog. It’s what everybody never thinks not to do. It’s every call I get.”
The problem usually begins after 3 months of age, when babies begin to face outward toward the world. Suddenly, to the dog, the interesting, smelly, lumpy, squally thing, which has been contained and mostly facing inward, becomes a different creature. By six months of age the baby is crawling, and can creep toward dogs and, at minimum, make them uncomfortable. We all know what the maximum is.
The solution is simple, IF parents think ahead. Family Paws counsels lots of expecting and new parents, and one of their most important recommendations is to set up barriers before the baby is five months old. Do a “management make over” when the child is three months old, and set up barriers, play yards, secure gates, comfy crates the dog likes in different rooms, etc. Family Paws offers Dogs and Storks for expecting parents, and suggests the ideal time to do the prep is in the 2nd trimester. “Think 3-6 months ahead.”
Also dear to my heart, after over two decades of seeing clients, is their five categories of supervision. As you can well imagine, just telling people to “supervise” their dog and child is not enough, because “supervise” can mean many things. Here are Jennifer’s five levels of supervision:
Absent: Obviously, no supervision at all if the parent is in the other room. But we all know how easy it is to say “I just left the room for a second!” (As in, when I left the room “for a second” and Maggie ate 1/3 of a double chocolate cake, resulting in New Year’s Day in the emergency room. It took awhile to forgive myself for that.) So, “supervising” your dog and child if you’re in another room, even for a second, isn’t supervising at all.
Passive Supervision: It’s easy to be guilty of this too. You’re in the same room, but you’re on the phone, cooking dinner, etc. The baby starts crawling, the dog is trapped in the corner and you look up and . . .
Reactive Supervision: Passive supervision often leads to the “reactive” kind. The baby is now too close to dog, the dog is starting to growl, the parent yells NO NO NO!!! and the dog learns that horrible things happen when the baby gets close.
Proactive Supervision: Think management and prevention–you know you’re going to be busy/tired/distracted, so you put the dog in the crate/bedroom/backyard long before anything unfortunate might happen. One of the most important things that professional dog trainers learn is that management and prevention is invaluable. You don’t have to train your dog to be perfect in every situation–you just have to know your dog and manage and prevent as well as train. Do your dogs bark too enthusiastically at visitors at the door? Nothing wrong with teaching them to run into their crates when the doorbell rings. Having relatives over to coo about the baby? Rover goes into his crate-happily, because he’s learned going into the crate means good things happen. You then can relax and enjoy your company and your baby without juggling too many actors.
Active, Aware Supervision: Just what it sounds like. Eyes are on the baby and the dog at every moment. Long before the baby gets too close, the parents have picked her up, or perhaps smooched to the dog to call him away, all to prevent the dog learning a negative association to the child. The key here, of course, is to be able to read a dog’s visual signals and know, long before things escalate, when a dog is uncomfortable.
Jennifer shared a video that a client sent her, I’ve included it below. Both are happy to send it out into the world to continue to educate people about reading dogs. It’s a great example of subtle signs of discomfort from a lovely dog who is not exactly sure how to respond to this strange new creature.
Did you note Jennifer’s comments about “kiss to dismiss?” She believes that face licking can be a way for a dog to increase distance between himself and the lickee. You can read more about it here in a blog I wrote in 2014, or better yet, on the Family Paws blog. I think it’s an interesting hypothesis, and at least can easily see a dog’s licks as a sign of discomfort. There are so many other signs of discomfort here; yay to the parents for learning about them and helping to spread the word.
The video is the perfect illustration of the importance of the phrase Jennifer is trying to get out into the world as much as possible: “Invites Decrease Bites.” In other words, the dog should go toward the child, not vice versa.
The good news is that Jennifer has found that, with most of her clients, if things haven’t escalated beyond growling, the prognosis is very good. I’d love to hear about your experiences with dogs and children. We all know how important this is–over two million children are bitten every year in the U.S. by dogs, and if the child is young, it’s usually on the face or neck. Please add to the conversation and tell us about your experiences with kids and dogs; the more the better to prevent future tragedies. And thank you Jennifer for our conversation, much appreciated!
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Hot. Humid. Dry. Pretty awful, really. Jim is getting up extra early to water the endless expanse of grass we are trying to grow after the grading around the barn was finally finished. Basically it’s the worst possible time to get grass started, but if there’s no grass there will be a lot of erosion, so there we are. If it ever rains again that is.
I’m working Skip early in the morning for his sake, as well as my own and the sheep’s. Most nights I’ll work him very briefly in the evening, but not for long. It’s bad enough on any dog, but with his heart condition I have to be extra careful. I keep the wading pool full and ready for him when he’s done.
On Sunday Jim and I escaped to a friend’s house on the Wisconsin River. It was heaven to spend a little time in the cool water.
You might have noticed that I didn’t mention working Maggie in the mornings? Her limp has returned, the one that seemed first to be about her pads. In early May I restricted her for 10 days, massaged balm into her pad, she then seemed fine. 4-5 days later she began limping again, and I discovered she had broken a nail. Ah ha! Found the problem, so kept her quiet for a few days while that healed. She was fine for a few days, and then, bingo, back came the limp.
It’s variable in intensity, duration and situation, so it’s hard for my vet and canine physical therapist to diagnose at this point. (Her Lyme test was negative, checked that right away.) Of course, both times she’s been to her GP vet and to canine physical therapist Courtney Arnoldy she hasn’t been limping. Best guess by Courtney is that it’s her shoulder, possibly a bicep tendon strain. So she’s on two weeks of no play, no sheep and no jumping off of the couch, and her Academy Award winning face of misery is on most of the time. We’re doing some light exercises and lots of belly rubs, and I’m refusing anyone around me to mention the “s” word. (Whispering now: “s” word = surgery. Do not, I repeat, do not, say or write that word in my presence.)
The good news is that the fireflies are out, at least I think it’s good. Seems awfully early. There are some early butterflies too, here’s what I think is a high brown Fritillary from this morning:
The Japanese Iris have been having a purple party the last week, although the heat and sun means they’ll be gone in just a few days. Same with the peony in the background. Look fast or you’ll miss it!
Too hot to go out and take any more photos, but I look forward to hearing your wisdom and experiences about kids and dogs. Here’s hoping you have good weather yourself, where ever you are.