“Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around us in awareness.” ― James Thurber
2014’s National Dog Bite Prevention Week is wrapping up. It’s been a tremendously positive week with so many great messages about safety, prevention, and dog awareness being spread across the nation and world.
The goal that we educators and dog trainers are trying to reach this week is simple, but profound: educate the masses so we can change the statistics. We can do this by teaching dog lovers to become more “Dog Aware” as Jennifer Shryock, Founder of Family Paws Parent Education, explains here. We can change these statistics by changing the way we individually interact with, and think about dogs. We teach our future leaders how to safely interact with dogs, and before we know it, they are teaching their community about dogs. Change begins with educating our youth.
The goal of this week is not to instill fear, to judge, or to place blame on people who unknowingly put their dog or children in precarious scenarios. Rather, it is to help all of us become more aware of our dog, others’ dogs, children and family members, guests in our homes, people and dogs on the streets, and anywhere else you can think of that involves a dog. This week is about educating people on how to be a more “dog aware”, and a responsible Conscious Companion to dogs everywhere, every day of the year.
Dogs are part of our families. They are our companions, our friends. To many, they are our furry kids. But we must remember that dogs are hardwired to be dogs! It’s in their DNA. We must honor this fact buy allowing them to Be a Dog. When we anthropomorphize them, and when we put them on a pedestal and expect perfect, angelic behavior, we do them a great disservice. We aren’t allowing them to be who they are – a dog, with flaws and all.
Instead of assuming that our dog is incapable of inflicting harm to another person or animal, let’s assume for a minute that they are capable of out-of-the-ordinary behavior. What would that mean for you and your dog? Would you begin to take more precautions around kids, other dogs, other people, and other animals? Or would you continue to convince yourself that “my dog would never…”?
Any dog, of any breed, of any age is capable of biting. Anything with a mouth is capable of biting! Acknowledging this fact can only help. It’s merely something to recognize and be proactive about. We prevent dog bites through compassionate, science-based education.
If you or a family member has been bitten by a dog, it’s not something to be ashamed of, or embarrassed about. If you have a dog that lunges at people or other dogs, don’t be ashamed or pretend that it’s not an issue. Ask for help. Find a qualified force-free trainer that understands your needs, and your dog’s specific needs. There’s no need to hide and be embarrassed. We learn from these experiences. Sometimes our worst experiences help others. There is a compassionate community that does care, who will not judge and condemn, and who wants to help parents and families in need, without blame and judgement. But this does come with individual responsibility.
It’s our duty as dog guardians and parents to recognize when we need help. We must also learn how to recognize our dog’s specific canine needs, understand their subtle behaviors, know their thresholds, recognize when they have had enough, set them up for success, and to be their advocates every day. We all “love” our dogs, but true, selfless love is doing what might not be easy or convenient to us. We may have to move out of our comfort zone. We show love to our dogs when we take the time to educate ourselves, so we can truly understanding their nature and their needs. We show love to our dogs by learning how to read them, respecting their boundaries, training them without punishment and fear, being their advocate, and honoring them as dogs.
Dogs can be some of our greatest teachers if we allow them to be. But we have to be willing to learn. When we set aside fears, judgement, and blame, and we choose to focus on creating and participating in fun, compassionate education, we create a safe place for people to come and share their stories. We create a prevention-focused, educated community.
“Over the years I’ve come to appreciate how animals enter our lives prepared to teach and far from being burdened by an inability to speak they have many different ways to communicate. It is up to us to listen more than hear, to look into more than past.” ― Nick Trout, Love Is the Best Medicine: What Two Dogs Taught One Veterinarian about Hope, Humility, and Everyday Miracles
It’s National Hug Your Dog Day! Let’s dig deep into the science of hugs!
I will be the first to admit: Sometimes I want to hug our dog and cats (and other animals) like the Abominable Snowman in the bit from “Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters” cartoon. But I don’t. I know they don’t enjoy receiving hugs as much as I love giving them. And frankly, I would not enjoy it if someone did that to me without my consent.
Been there; had that.
This might sound crazy, but sometimes a hug to our animal companion is more like holding them hostage. Obviously they aren’t really our “hostages”, but we may be unknowingly forcing them to interact with us in a way they would not choose on their own.
Don’t just take my word for it. Do some dog-behavior-digging for yourself:
Have someone take a picture of you holding your animal hostage (I mean, hugging and squeezing them). Then look carefully at the expression on their face.
If I found out that a person I loved to hug only tolerated my touches and squeezes, I would put an end to it. Mainly because I would feel weird now, but I also wouldn’t want to push myself onto someone that didn’t want my affection in that form.
Most people don’t want to hear this, but animals are no different in that way. A lot of animals really don’t want to be manhandled and coddled. Most of them will offer and solicit affection on their terms. And every species has their own unique way of displaying affection. And within each species, each individual as their own preference for affection.
As Conscious Companions, we need to be aware of this.
Let’s look at two dogs receiving hugs from a human. One dog is not enjoying the hug and one is cool it. Spend a few minutes carefully reviewing the two photos below. See if you can identify the emotional state of the dog in each pic.
In the top photo, the dog is leaning (or at least trying to lean) away from the human. His ears are held tightly back, his eyes are more tense with a slightly furrowed brow, and his mouth is closed. While there isn’t anything about the dog’s body language that says he will lash out, it is abundantly clear that the hug is not comfortable or appreciated.
In the bottom photo, the golden retriever is not leaning away from the hugger. His ears are relaxed, his eyes are soft, his mouth is open and lips are not tense, and the tongue is draped out in a relaxed pant. (Yes, even the way a dog holds his tongue is potentially a clue!)
“It takes a lot of experience, it turns out, to be good at reading signs of fear or stress or discomfort on the face of a dog.” —McConnell.
When you take your dog to the dog park, or even just to a friend’s house where she can play with another dog, how do the dogs greet one another? There are myriad ways dogs say hello depending on if they know each other and are reforming old bonds, or are meeting for the first time and feeling each other out as they establish the pecking order. There is face smelling, rump smelling, tail wagging, play bowing… but there is never hugging. Even among the best of friends. In fact, the closest approximation dogs have to a hug as we know it actually means something other than friendship. —Dr. Patricia McConnell, certified applied animal behaviorist,
If you discovered that your animal companion really didn’t enjoy your hug-a-palooza, would you continue to force it on them? I hope not. But what if you learned how your particular pup enjoys receiving and offering affection? That would be a game changer!
The hard truth is simple. It’s not in a dog’s nature to show affection by hugging. Many dogs don’t really enjoy being petted or hugged. They tolerate it.
Many very tolerant dogs, who allow the “kidnap cuddle”, can go from tolerant to intolerant very quickly under “the perfect storm” conditions. We must become dog aware and teach others how to do this as well, especially children.
Children are, by far, the most common victims of dog bites and are far more likely to be severely injured. Most dog bites affecting young children occur during everyday activities and while interacting with familiar dogs. Many bites happen when children are hugging their dog and holding him/her “hostage”.
Studies have shown that dogs who bite children involved familiar children, who were most commonly bitten in relation to food or resource guarding and “benign” interactions such as petting, hugging, bending over, or speaking to the dog.
Although some dogs are not reactive about being kissed and hugged, these types of interactions are potentially provocative, leading to bites. In a study we published in a journal called Injury Prevention, we looked at dogs that had bitten children and found that most children had been bitten by dogs that had no history of biting. Most important here, familiar children were bitten most often in the contexts of ‘nice’ interactions — such as kissing and hugging with their own dogs, or dogs that they knew. ~ Dr. Reisner, Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services
Different Strokes for Different Species
One of the biggest hangups with hugs is how hard it is for many pet parents to admit to themselves that their dog doesn’t enjoy their hugs. I see this resistance and disappointment with new clients a lot. But here’s the human-doggie deal: Hugs are a natural and primary way for most of the human species to show affection.
Research on primates, especially chimpanzees and bonobos to whom we are most closely related, reveals that hugging is an integral part in giving and seeking out comfort and affection. But it’s not in a dog’s nature to show affection by hugging.
If you watch little kids, tiny little kids who are just barely able to stand on their legs, they wrap their arms around another to express affection, empathy and love by hugging. It’s just so hard-wired into who we are and what we do. And so I think when we tell people that dogs don’t like hugging, it’s like some primal, limbic part of our brain says, ‘You mean my dog doesn’t love me?!’ — Dr. Patricia McConnell, certified applied animal behaviorist
Languages of Love
Just because your pup might not enjoy receiving your hugs as much as you enjoy giving them, does not mean your canine companion doesn’t love you with all of his/her heart. Dogs love us (and their animal companion friends) in their brilliant and beautiful Canid way, while we, as their humans, love them in our primate way.
Dogs and humans are two incredibly different species. But, through the centuries, we have become intimately connected. But thousands of years of co-evolution doesn’t erase millions of years of separate-species evolution.
This is why it’s important to look at the social science of what a hug really means to dogs.
—>Please take a moment to check out this brief and insightful post, “You’re Making Me Uncomfortable!” to understand how uninvited hugs can adversely affect both dogs AND people!<—
Check out this video about Dog Body Language:
Next time, you go in for that monster love hug, ask yourself: Is this dog (or cat) really enjoying the hug? Or is he/she just enduring/tolerating it because they know it will be over soon?
Consider asking them to come over to you, instead of coming into their space.
Next time you see your child (or someone else’s child) going in for the monster hug to the family dog (or cat), please stop the child and show them safer ways to love an animal.
Let’s encourage our pets and other companion animals to offer affection and attention (that we so deeply appreciate), on their own terms.
Below are some great examples of happy hugs, where both dog and human are enjoying the interaction as a consensual canine team 😉
This is a judgement free zone! All comments and feedback are welcome! I deeply understand that most parents and guardians are doing the best with what they have, and what they know how to do. This post is meant to help and educate families living with pets. We would Love to hear from you!
What has been your experience with hugs?
“Recognizing our own mistakes helps us to empathise non-judgmentally with others and helps enable us to understand their issues.” ― Jay Woodman
If you are expecting a certified letter or a package to be delivered to your front door, place your dog(s) in a separate room, and securely close that door before you open your front door. Dogs have been known to break through screen doors and even plate-glass windows to get to the “Stranger Danger”.
Education is the key to many things, including safety and wellbeing in our homes. This week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week. It’s the perfect time to reflect on how we can better understand our canine companions, educate and guide children of all ages, and share what we have learned over the years with everyone we know. It’s also important to set aside judgement and focus on compassionate education.
There is an estimated population of 70 million dogs living in U.S. households right now.
Nearly 5 million (reported) dog bites occur in the United States each year.
Most of these bites involve children.
Children love to kiss and hug dogs, even though these expressions of affection do not translate well in the dog world.
Fast movements can stimulate a dog’s prey drive and/or chase instinct.
Higher pitched voices can sometimes startle a dog and make it fearful.
A dog can be frustrated through rough play or by teasing and a child can inadvertently inflict pain with the pull of a tail or a poke in the eye.
It is also hard for a child to read and understand a dog’s body language, therefore missing vital signals that can put them in harm’s way.
Children are most likely to be bitten in the face as they are closer to a dog’s eye level making it easier for a dog to feel threatened by eye to eye contact.
The majority of reported dog bites occur between the family dog and a family member.
It is unlikely that you will be injured by a dog you do not know.
Dog breed does not predict behavior.
Any resource that lists dogs who are “most likely to bite” by breed are a distraction from preventions that actually work. Visual breed identification is notoriously unreliable, breed does not predict behavior, and there is no standard reporting system for reporting or recording dog bites (nor is there a need for a system). Articles focused on breed are an easy way to get “clicks”. It’s fear mongering, not fact-based reporting. ~Animal Farm Foundation
Check out this graphic from the National Canine Research Council. This graphic puts (reported) national dog bites into perspective. We need to focus on facts, not fear when educating. In rare occasions (0.01%) dog bites result in an incredible amount of physical damage. However, this still means that we need to understand what happened, so we can prevent it! You can read more about this here.
Here’s the GOOD News:We can change those statistics! The majority of dog bites, if not all, are preventable. That’s where YOU come in.
It’s our duty as dog guardians, parents, educators, and family members to teach children how to understand and respect our canine companions. Kids are great imitators; let’s show them what we want them to imitate!
If we want to become serious about preventing dog bites, and rehoming family dogs, we need to encourage and teach appropriate supervision habits at home. This excellent video from Family Paws Parent Education explains the 5 Types of Supervision that we recommend:
Below are a few common questions we often hear from parents with kids:
How do we know when a dog is the right fit for our family?
Does the breed of dog matter?
Are some dog breeds better for some kids?
What should we do to ensure we set everyone up for success?
So often we interpret dog behavior through our human thoughts and experiences. But dogs do not communicate using our language. Canine language consists of a large variety of signals using body, face, ears, tail, sounds, movement, and complex expression. If we study the signals dogs use with each other, we increase our ability to communicate with, and understand dogs.
This picture is an excellent example of a dog that is stressed and very uncomfortable. How can we tell? Well, the dog is displaying at least 4 very important behaviors:
1. Licking lips 2. Showing the whites of eyes 3. Panting when not overheated 4. Turning head away
I would even dare to say that the dog might be thinking something along the lines of, “I am not enjoying this! Please make it stop!”.
It’s not just enough to make sure your dog is never left alone with a child; as the dog’s guardian, you must be able to recognize when the dog is uncomfortable or stressed and remove the dog from the child’s presence. This is how we can be a conscious companion.
Please educate others by sharing this with your friends and family! You can learn more about how to understand dog language here.
The Ladder of Aggression: What every dog guardian needs to know
Do you know the subtle signals that dogs give when they are stressed? Did you know that if you don’t help your dog, they can escalate? Here’s a great way to see how your dog’s behavior can escalate into aggression. Think of a ladder with many steps. Each step represents a behavior that dogs will display when they are becoming more and more anxious, stressed and fearful. If the dog continues to reach a maximum level of stress, aggression can result. Aggression is the top rung of the ladder. Since all dogs are individuals, every dog has a different way that he/she responds to stress, so we need to be aware of their individual behavior clues.
How a dog reacts to stress or a threat can be represented as a series of ascending steps on a ladder. These gestures are responses to an escalation of perceived threat only and are NOT expressions of a ‘submissive’ or ‘dominant’ state. The choice of strategy (whether to escalate to a bite or not) will depend on the circumstances (time, target, interactions, previous experience) and on the severity of any underlying physical disease. Pain frequently converts a ‘flight’ response to ‘fight’. – Ladder of Aggression by Kendal Shepherd
The behaviors on the lower rungs of the ladder (yawning, blinking, nose licking, turning head away, etc.) communicate in dog language, “I am feeling worried”, or “please calm down”. The behaviors on the higher rungs of the ladder (growling, air snapping, biting) mean “Stop! Leave me alone right now! Go Away!”
Understanding what dogs are trying to communicate when they are stressed is how we become Conscious Companions, and prevent our dogs from moving up the Ladder of Aggression. This included our felines, too!
I would like to share something else with you: A dog bite NEVER happens out of the blue. Let me repeat that; a dog bite never happens out of the blue.
Why is this important to know? Well, it means that all dog bites can be prevented ifwe learn to recognize the stressors and behaviors that a dog exhibits as they are becoming stressed. Dogs will display specific behaviors (listed above in the image) well before they lunge or bite.
Make no mistake about it; it’s our job, our role, and our responsibility as their guardians to learn these behaviors and recognize these stages. Prevention and safety begins with you! Setting ourselves up for success is how we do this.
Set yourself and your dog up for success! You Are Your Dog’s Advocate!
Avoid situations that you feel might upset your dog.
Avoid people, dogs, and places that have created any of these behaviors in your dog in the past (until you can find a qualified dog behaviorist to help you and your pup)!
Truth: Animal bites are provoked in some form, and they can be prevented.
When I think of common animal bites, three companion animals first come to mind: dogs, parrots, and cats. All three of these are social animals. Why does this fact matter? Well, social animals use very clear cues to communicate with each other and they know how to read and respond to these very subtle cues within their groups.
Now let’s look at humans. We are very demonstrative when we are speaking with each other and even when thinking silently to ourselves. We flail our arms around, we grandly gesture, and the more animated characters in our species have very expressive features on our faces. Now think about a cat, a horse, a rabbit, a parrot, a fish, a tortoise, or even a snake. Their facial expressions are not designed the ways ours are. They appear to not be as expressive as humans, but they are quote communicative. And their species’ form of communication is exceptional amongst themselves.
Each animal’s body language is explicitly clear within the individual species. Each species has evolved to learn how to communicate with exquisite precision, each in their own unique way, without having to be loud and demonstrative. As humans, we often fail to understand their communication.
Communication is Key.
Many of the species that I studied, bred, and trained at The Audubon Nature Institute were the same way. They used very subtle communication with each other and with the people who cared for them. When I first started working at Audubon I quickly learned about a common saying that I still practice and believe: “If you get bitten, it’s always your fault”. That was a tough truth pill to swallow when I first started began my career there. I didn’t understand how that could be true. There were so many animals and so many different behaviors to learn! How could I learn them all and prevent getting bitten? Two words: Education and Observation. I had to learn how to speak their language by observing them.
Over the decade that I was there I was fortunate to have worked with some of the most amazing and incredibly intelligent species on the planet. Many of these animals could bite, scratch, stomp, kick, or gore you, if they were having a bad day.
It was our job as zoo keepers and public educators to keep ourselves safe, the animals safe, and the public that was interacting with the animal safe. We did this by educating ourselves about each species that was under our supervision and care. We took the time to learn about their natural behaviors in the wild. We learned how they tend to behave in captive environments. We learned how they reacted in certain situations, and with certain people. We knew their limits. We knew their individual triggers. We knew their boundaries. Knowing all of this was vital to keeping everyone safe. It was the responsible and ethical thing to do.
Safety in Your Home
I truly believe that this kind of education should not end at at a professional animal care facility. This should be happening in every home that has an animal and especially in homes with multiple pets or children. I find it incredible that so many people love all sorts of companion animals, but they invite them into their home without doing research first. Many people love their animals but don’t understand how to read the subtle signals and behaviors of their animal companions. When this happens, scratches, bites, and severe injuries occur.
At a recent dog safety workshop someone asked me, “But don’t some of these animal “attacks” happen out of the blue?” My answer was simply,”no.”
And here is why: It’s very dangerous to our community to say that bites are random occurrences. If there isn’t an actual stimulus triggering the aggressive behavior, then how can we prevent it? We can prevent bites, because animal bites happen in response to something that triggered the bite; knowing and understanding this is what helps us understand animal behavior.
Awareness Facilitates Understanding about Aggression.
It’s helpful to know that most forms of aggression, except for predation, are distance-increasing behaviors (the animal is attempting to actively increase the distance between itself and the stimulus/stressor). Think about when an animal lunges at you, this behavior will increase the distance between you and the animal nearly 100 percent of the time. Animals do this because they know it works.
Very often, bites are a last resort for animals. Bites often happen when all of the other cues the animal has given are unknowingly ignored. The Ladder of Aggression helps to explain how aggression can stem from various stressors.
Bites Do Not Occur “Out of the Blue”.
Animal bites are never a random occurrence. Often there are conditions in the animal’s environment that have continued to “stack up” and set the scene for a bite to occur. This is known as Trigger Stacking.
This happens when multiple “triggers” (stressors unique to the individual animal) happen close together, or at the same time. When these triggers stack up they can have a cumulative negative effect on the animal. Stress hormones can create a cluster effect of reactivity, causing the animal to behave in a way that he/she normally would not. This can quickly escalate into a dangerous situation.
Prevention and Awareness Are Necessary.
Make no mistake about it. Bites can be prevented. It’s up to each of us to learn the unique signals and respect the boundaries of our animal companions, or the animals that we are working with.
Assuming that animal bites are random can lead to more unfortunate and often fatal incidences, as we are sadly seeing in the news. The cat that “bit for no reason” probably gave the person at least 6 different signals that a bite would happen if they continued doing what they were doing. That parrot that “randomly bit” also gave a clear warning. The dog that bit a person or another dog “out of the blue” gave off a number of red flags well before the bite happened, or they were neck deep in their own personal nightmare of stress hormones and Trigger Stacking!
There ARE signals. There are ample warnings. They may be subtle, but they are there. I assure you.
Every species is unique and has a unique way of communicating. Every animal within that species has its personal boundaries and individual triggers (just like we do), so it’s up to us as animal guardians to know these individual boundaries and signals. It’s how we keep them safe, keep ourselves safe, and keep other people and animals safe.
Despite what we often may think, animals are pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t.
Respect Their Boundaries.
Being safe around animals is not something that comes naturally to most animal lovers. It’s natural to want to give love and affection to them, and to receive it from them, but doing this safely has to be taught and learned. I had to learn how to practice restraint, while recognizing the animals’ clear boundaries. Over the decade that I worked at the zoo, I worked with crocodiles that would love to add you to their menu, king cobras that could outwit you, feisty donkeys that patiently waited to chomp you, lions that would love to maim you, and hormonal parrots that enjoyed taunting you.
Out of the countless encounters that I had with hundreds of exotic animals, I was bitten five times. Each of them was a nasty bite, but I never blamed the animal; each one of those bites was my fault. Three of the bites were food related (I got in the way of their food, or they confused me for food). One bite was a defensive bite during breeding (they were getting their groove on and I accidentally intruded). The other bite was redirected aggression at another animal and my hand was in direct-line-of-bite. I can create all the excuses that I want, but I could have prevented ALL of them.
Learn and Grow.
Taking responsibility for these kind of common mistakes can only make us better animal guardians, animal trainers, and animal stewards. There’s no need to feel bad or guilty about it; we just have to learn from the bite so we can help to educate our friends, family, and colleagues on how to prevent it! Judgement and guilt have no part in learning from our mistakes. We live and learn. We then teach others.
Becoming a Conscious Companion
If you are reading this, I can assume that you love the animals that you share your life with enough to be inspired or learn more to improve their lives. I encourage you to take that love and funnel it into educating yourself, and your family and friends about the basic behavior of the species that you work with, live with, and adore. Every day I challenge myself to learn something new about the animals I love and live with. I hope you do the same.
“I am who I am today because of the mistakes I made yesterday.” ― The Prolific Penman