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.
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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.