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The 'Dog Body Language' Strategy for Keeping Kids Safe From Bites

Every year, an estimated 800,000 people in the U.S. seek medical attention for dog bites. Sadly, half of those injured by dog bites are children between the ages of five to nine. Yet surely every parent has heard the advice that children should never be left alone with dogs, no matter how friendly they may seem. Are parents simply negligent, or does that advice simply not work?

One certified pet dog trainer (CPDT-KA), author and consultant strongly believes it’s the latter. She’s a retired U.S. Marine Corps Reserve colonel, so she probably didn’t have much trouble keeping her two children in line, but it’s her years of experience in dog training and pet care that lead her to that conclusion.

After consulting on hundreds of cases involving children injured by dog bites, she realized that about 95 percent of the time, a parent was in fact supervising -- standing a few feet away and even looking straight at the child and the dog. The problem, she says, is that those parents didn’t know what to look out for.

Most people don’t have any sense of what constitutes normal body language in dogs, or what cues dogs give when they’re becoming distressed and may be about the bite. Also, parents often read child-dog interactions solely by reading the child’s body language -- so their kids’ good intentions can cause parents to misread the situation, even when the dog is clearly uncomfortable.

Yet anyone can learn to read dogs better, she says. Here are a few tips:

  • Don’t focus on your child’s good intentions -- watch for inappropriate actions like ear pulling, tail yanking, poking, prodding or trying to ride the dog.
  • Listen for growling.
  • Keep an eye out for the dog stiffening up, stopping panting, or trying to move away from the child.
  • Watch for these common signals that the dog is stressed out:
    • Is the dog yawning although it didn’t just wake up?
    • Is the dog licking its lips although it hasn’t just eaten?
    • Can you see the whites around the top or outer edges of the dog’s eyes?

If any of these occurs, it’s time to immediately separate the dog and the child. On the other hand, if the dog’s body language is loose, relaxed and wiggly, the dog is happy and much less likely to bite.

Source: Robin Bennett: Helping Others Learn How to Keep Dogs Safe, "Why Supervising Dogs and Kids Doesn’t Work," Robin K. Bennett, CPDT, Aug. 19, 2013

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