Ayella Grossman of Oracle Australian Shepherds and BauHound Haus in Milton, ON, is an accomplished breeder and trainer. This is her second blog entry with Mindful Behaviors, this time on how people were approaching dogs at Milton Street Festival.
This year at the Street Festival, we shared our booth with the businesses that share our space, Mirkka of Mindful Behaviours and her dog Forbes, an almost two year old Australian Shepherd, Tara of Thank Dog! Bootcamp and her dog Hero, a six month old Australian Shepherd and we also brought our dogs Jackpot a 4 year old Australian Shepherd and Sojo, a 3 year old Australian Shepherd. The dogs did basic obedience demos and were there to meet and greet people. A group of adorable dogs got a lot of attention from a lot of kids and their parents were dragged over to get a closer look. To our surprise too many kids were not aware and not instructed by their parents on how to greet the dogs. Many kids politely asked, “can I pet your dog?” but for the most part that is where the safety knowledge stopped. All of our dogs are good-natured, if we didn’t think so they would not have been in that environment. Just because our dogs are accepting does not mean we could let the kids practice behaviours that were unsafe.
We quickly went from meet and greet mode to taking the many opportunities to teach the kids that a safe way to greet a strange dog goes far beyond asking first. There are some things your child should know never to do to a strange dog, no matter how accepting or friendly the dog looks. The most common thing that kids do wrong is squealing excited sounds and jumping up and down. This is not “normal” behaviour that most dogs are used to and this type of excited energy can be unnerving for a dog who is already nervous or stressed. If your child is nervous around dogs, do not force them into the dog’s space, their nervous energy and fearful behaviour can be a trigger for many dogs. If they do not want to, let them observe from what they feel is a safe distance. We saw a lot of parents pushing kids towards the dogs and this is not going to help them get over a fear and their flailing hands, fearful screeches or whining make the dogs nervous. Have your child approach a dog calmly, quietly and just put their hand out for the dog to investigate. Only if the dog appears comfortable with that should your child pet them dog. If you are not aware of how to read if a dog is comfortable, then take the time to learn before supervising your child with dogs.
Please make sure your kids know never to hug a dog, even one they see on a regular basis. This is a breach of a dog’s personal space and confining. In this situation a dog may feel trapped because the child is holding them and they may bite to tell them kid to back off. This is not usually about aggression on the dog’s part , but a dog’s only way to communicate they are uncomfortable when their more subtle signs have been ignored (usually if a child is already hugging a dog, then they have ignored the dog’s signs of discomfort). It is just as much the parent’s job as it is the dog owner’s job to make sure the dog and child is never put in this situation. We saw attempts at hugs several times and stepped in to stop thee kids. The biggest shocker this weekend was a little boy who, with mom standing over and watching, took Forbes’s face in his hands and preceded to attempt to kiss Forbes on the lips – direct eye contact, face to face. I quickly put the my hand on the boy’s chest to stop him and was very thankful that Forbes is such a tolerant and gentle soul. In dog language, getting in their personal space, staring into their eyes are all signs of aggression. So to a nervous or insecure dog, this little boy’s adorable gesture would have been read as aggression. Again, it was my job as the handler to step in and prevent it, but if I were that boy’s mom, I would have been in there before the dog’s handler. In fact, if I had a young child who was meeting a strange dog, I would be right next to my child dictating their every gesture, so that it was clear what was acceptable and what was not.
The dogs were smacked, yanked and grabbed too many times to count and often that behaviour happens to quickly to stop it, but if you have a stuffed animal at home practice safe and gentle petting at home with the stuffed animal, so your child understands how to pet a dog safely.
There were a few examples of parents who were really clear with their kids about what was acceptable and there was also some adorable kids who were instinctively great with the dogs. One little boy hung out for almost an hour getting Sojo to do tricks for treats and having fun in a safe way with the dogs. We had parents who got down right next to their child and took their hand in their hand and showed them where and how to stroke the dog. There were lots of parents who chimed after their kid to “ask first”, but sometimes that is not enough instruction and a parent needs to monitor the interactions.
If you are a parent, please take the time to educate yourself about safe dog and child interactions and then teach your kids what not to do around dogs. Here is a useful link to a series of drawings to make it clear for your kids as well as a poster to download and study with them.
After this year, we decided next year’s booth will be about safety and bite prevention. If you have any ideas for what would help you educate your child and keep them safe, please make a suggestion.