Those of you that follow BestBehaviour's facebook page may have seen a shorter version of this post before, however I thought it was worth repeating!
A note on punishment based training for dogs that came up in discussion today: punishment supresses undesired behaviour by creating a fear of punishment from the owner/trainer. This initially stops a dog from performing the undesired behaviour however this does not addresses the actual cause of the behaviour in the first place. For example, when presented with a dog that growls at a child (commonly because the dog is fearful of the child or uncomfortable with what the child is doing) some professionals would punish the dog for growling. The dog remains fearful in presence of the child but learns to supress the growling behaviour through fear of punishment. The dog may cease to use growling behaviours around children due to the fear of punishment. You may think 'great! problem solved' however instead of growling next time your dog sees the child they may go straight to biting, this is because THE MOTIVATION BEHIND THE BEHAVIOUR WAS NEVER ADDRESSED! In this case the dog is still fearful of children. Therefore by punishing growling behaviour your trainer has accidently taught your dog to bite when they feel frightened instead! (To understand this better check our the ladder of aggression diagram in staying safe: children & dogs part 2. You can punish any of the behaviours seen on the rungs on the ladder to stop these behaviours however this just means your dog may move up to the next rung on the ladder. A dog will give as many signals as possible to avoid aggression however if we ignore these behaviours or even punish these behaviours eventually we leave our dogs with no alternative but to bite.)
A behaviourist works with a client and their dog to stop the dog being afraid of children. By removing the fear of the child the behaviourist significantly reduces the likelihood the dog will bite the child. In fact behaviourists go further than this to help you build positive associations so your dog begins to see children as a positive. They also provide you with effective management techniques so you can always be safe with your dog around children.
In addition it is worth noting that 'pack theory' research has been retracted (some time ago I might add!!!) due to serious methodology flaws. This was discovered when the research was compared with wolves in the wild and found not to agree with behaviour observations. The 'pack theory' idea has been used to promote punishment based methods by many trainers however it is based on dud science and a reliance on punishment rather than training skills to create obedience. You can control anyone or anything if you are successfully able to punish them enough! The use of punishment does not support the idea of pack theory! Dominance and submission do exist in various contexts for dogs (and other animals) but not in the form of dog's constantly trying to become dominant over their owners or become a 'pack leader'. This would be detrimental to the dogs survival for a start due to the wasted energy and risk of injury through aggressive behaviours. This is a fact well established by animal behaviour research. Therefore BestBehaviour advises owners and trainers to avoid professionals advertising services that continue to purport this theory and rely on punishment based methods.
Dogs generally do not enjoy overly friendly attention such as hugging. Everywhere I go I see people, more often than not children, hugging dogs! Some dogs may seek out attention wishing to snuggle up with their owners on the sofa etc.. and this is absolutely fine, however many dogs do not enjoy hugging! (I am talking about the type of hugging where a person's arms are linked around the neck or body of the dog.) It may appear like a caring comforting gesture to us but it is not something dogs would normally experience within the dog world. If you look for the signs on the ladder of aggression (see staying safe part 2) you will see many dogs licking their lips, yawning, blinking and turning their heads away when they are being hugged. These are the first signals a dog performs in any given situation to communicate that they are feeling uncomfortable. The type of physical restraint caused by hugging a dog around their neck or body will cause some fearful dogs to react very quickly and aggressively in order to free themselves straight away. It is therefore particularly unwise to hug a dog that is not your own or to let a child hug a dog. In these situations the child’s head is often close to the mouth of the dog (particularly in the case of children of toddler age) putting them at risk of a serious bite to this vulnerable area should something go wrong.
You may well say "but my kids do this with my dog all the time and he is fine with it!". It may be that your dog tolerates the interaction however it is unlikely that they particularly enjoy it. Imagine you dog is having a bad day, perhaps your dog has had to cope with a lot of strangers in the house, has been bothered by the dog next door or been chased round the garden all afternoon by your noisy nephew. There may be a point at which your dog feels they have reached their limit with what they can cope with on that day, they have reached what you or I might call 'breaking point' or what we as behaviourists call the dog's 'threshold'. When your child then goes to hug the dog it is suddenly all to much and they snap. To owners the attack appears out of character and totally unpredictable however these type of attacks are avoidable. I always advise that hugging interactions are avoided between children and dogs 100% of the time. There are plenty of other fun ways your child can interact with their dog and it is simply just not worth the risk of a bite to your child. Putting dogs into a situation where we know they are uncomfortable is always ill advised. The dog is not misbehaving when they react with aggression in this way they are actually behaving normally, the same way as you or I might behave if we felt threatened. There are very very few truly aggressive dogs and it is time we started recognising that aggression is a normal behaviour in dogs and we should expect aggression to occur in any dog including our own if they feel threatened.
Risky Interactions with dogs. Note the proximity of the child's head to the dog's head in the image on the left and again the proximity of the woman's face to the dog's mouth in the image on the right.
Although most dog attacks are reported to have happened without warning this is generally not the case in reality. The majority of dogs are actually very good at giving warning signals before using aggression, it’s just we as humans are not very good at noticing them. The sequence of behaviours that typically occur before a bite can be thought of as a ladder (Shepherd, 2002). At the bottom rung subtle behaviour signals are used to show the dog’s initial discomfort. Dogs then progress up the ladder displaying more obvious signs of aggressive intent, fear and or frustration, until they reach the top rung where a bite occurs. Not all dogs display all the behaviours on the ladder but knowledge of these signals allows adults to recognise times when dogs may be uncomfortable. Some of the stages of aggression can happen very quickly particularly the latter stages and in addition some stages can be skipped entirely. Therefore all interactions between children and dogs should be monitored to prevent interactions escalating to a point where a bite could occur. Children should move away from dogs at the first signs of discomfort i.e. when the dog is performing behavious on the bottom rung of the ladder or if any of the behaviours on the ladder are observed. Teaching children to recognise the behaviour signals of dogs that are fearful or uncomfortable also allows children to feel more confident around dogs and make better decisions when interacting with dogs.
Lip Licking & Yawning - Frequent indicators of psychological discomfort in dogs within a number of situations
We’ve all seen the shocking pictures of what can happen to children who are victims of dog attacks, yet many families assume that the dogs in these attacks must be untrained, abused or of a particular aggressive breed. This assumption leads many parents to believe their children will always be safe around their own or other known dogs. More often than not, attacks on children involve much trusted family pets reported to have attacked without warning. In truth, even the most tolerant child friendly dog can behave aggressively in some circumstances. However understanding when such situations may occur and recognising some basic dog behaviour signals allows children to be protected from this danger.
Aggressive behaviours are normal behaviours which are often performed defensively in order to protect the individual. Although we like to think that dogs are comfortable living with us within our homes, we must recognise that the differences between our species means that dogs do not interpret our world in the same way we do. Normal everyday situations can appear threatening to dogs. For example, a young child approaching a dog with a typical toddler’s jerky movements or noisy excitement can be frightening, particularly for nervous or inexperienced dogs. In June 2012 a two year old boy in the UK was injured when he wandered into his neighbours’ garden to see their dogs. The boy was left with facial injuries to his nose, ear and one of his eyes. Cases such as these highlight the importance of teaching children not to approach dogs without permission from an adult.
So how else can you keep your child safe? Firstly be recognising common danger situations. You can often observe young children around toddler age chasing after dogs in public places while their parents chat away in the background. In these situations, the child will determinedly follow the unfortunate dog whilst the dog repeatedly tries to move away. A dog that is moving away is doing their best to remove themselves from a situation in which they are uncomfortable. If the child is persistent in chasing the dog or the dog becomes cornered or is on a lead, the dog may feel the only option to escape is to respond aggressively. Even confident dogs can become nervous when cornered. When greeting dogs it is therefore preferable if the child remains still and the dog is allowed to approach (if they choose to do so) before the child proceeds to petting the dog.
The safest way for a child to pet a dog is by stroking the dog's back and flanks with the dog’s head facing away from the child. This avoids any uncomfortable heavy handed petting of the dog’s head reducing the risk of a reaction from the dog. Reaching out a hand from above to pet the top of a dog’s head can also be a trigger for aggression in some dogs, particularly those who are head shy or nervous. If you see the dog licking their lips, yawning or turning their head away these are the first signs that the dog is uncomfortable. At this point it is safest for the child to stop stroking the dog.
For further information on dog safety keep following BestBehaviours Blog for more upcoming posts about children & dogs.
Tamsin Peachey is a Clinical Animal Behaviourist living in Hurley, Atherstone. Tamsin is passionate about dog safety and debunking the current myths surrounding animal behaviour training.