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Children and dogs: Are they speaking the same language?

By Adele Hollingworth

As parents we fully appreciate just how important it is that our children and dogs get along with each other. Surprisingly, however, statistics show the majority of dog bites inflictedupon children are done so by a dog familiar to them, for example by their own dog or that of a friend or relative, rather than as often envisioned, by a dog in the park or on the street.

We are frequently and indeed well advised by our family elders never to leave children and dogs together unsupervised, and for example, never to allow children to pull the dog’s tail – if only life was so simple! Anyone with more than one child will know how distracting each can be and how it is inevitable that we will fail miserably in our attempt to heed this sound advice as we whirringly attempt to follow the principles of quantum mechanics and be be in two places at once!

Having observed the complexity of the interactions between my own children and our dogs, it has become apparent that there is, more often than not, an unintentional but nevertheless distinct communication impediment which has the potential to undermine the harmonious relations we so eagerly pursue. I have noted some common examples from my own household where, by simply following their own interpretation of the world, my children’s actions have caused the dogs to feel somewhat uneasy.

  • Children may mistakenly believe that a dog which is trying to run away or avoid them, is ‘playing chase’. The child may continue to pursue the unfortunate dog as it attempts to escape, believing that it is enjoying a ‘great game’. The child is unwittingly causing the dog a great deal of stress as it unable to convey the message that it doesn’t want to be chased.

  • If a dog ‘ignores’ a child when they are talking to it or trying to get it to do something, the child will often put their face close to the dog’s and look it in the eye in an attempt to gain its attention – after all, this is how they successfully gain the attention of an adult! However, many dogs will feel very uneasy with such close facial contact, as in their terms it is emphatically most impolite.

  • Children will often hug a dog in a display of affection. Whilst we humans, by and large, enjoy this type of interaction with people we know, dogs generally do not! Children may not realise this, as hugging comes so naturally to them.

  • Children may want to kiss or stroke a dog whilst it is asleep, after all they looks so cute! This can of course, take the dog by surprise and in some instances, cause it to snap as a reflexive response to being disturbed. (Some humans in our household are just the same too – but not so cute!)

  • Children may not recognise the signs when a dog has ‘had enough’. For example, if a dog is particularly hot or tired it may not want to play or be fussed over but just left alone. Indeed, we all need our own space sometimes – mmmm, I wish!

  • Children may try to imitate the way in which adults in the household manage their dogs such as moving them by taking hold of their collar. Sometimes, however, children may do this in an overly forceful or clumsy manner or in an inappropriate context, making the dog the feel uncomfortable or defensive.

  • Children may not always recognise a tooth display as a sign that the dog is not very happy with the situation. Instead, they may see this as the dog smiling at them – after all, we show our teeth when we are happy (mainly)!

Although, like parents, many dogs have almost boundless patience and tolerance where children are concerned, it must be remembered that some dogs may be much more sensitive to various situations than others. What makes one dog feel just a tad uneasy could possibly make another afraid. When a dog is frightened, the possibility of aggression arising increases – something that we really do want to avoid!

Some of the best advice for families with dogs, is for everyone to familiarise themselves with the body language that dogs use to express their feelings and desires, and in particular that they are ill at ease. Early intervention may well prevent an undesirable situation occurring. Explaining to even young children that a dog is not happy with a particular situation can go a long way to developing an awareness in the child that a dog has feelings too! As the adage goes ‘prevention is better than cure’ .

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