Dogs are extraordinary creatures and excellent members of the family. Loved well and trained properly, they’ll likely show families endless affection. And yet, many dog owners may unknowingly harbor some bad habits that are making their pets’ lives miserable — and in turn put kids in a potentially dangerous position.
“There’s almost never an intention to hurt a dog.” says Linda Case, a dog trainer and animal scientist who runs the AutumnGold Consulting and Dog Training Center in Central Illinois. “It has more to do with making wrong assumptions than any sort of malicious intent.”
Case has a B.S. in Animal Science from Cornell University, an M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition earned at the University of Illinois, and, before making her way into the full time training business, spent 15 years teaching Animal Science at the University of Illinois. And, for what it’s worth, she also owns four dogs that she absolutely adores. Fatherly spoke with Case, who offered up her best tips for understanding and treating the family pet with the care it deserves.
Understand That Dogs Aren’t Toys
This sounds obvious, but you have to remember that kids, especially young ones, often have a hard time with empathy. And that empathy is especially tough when it comes to animals. Your kid may have trouble thinking of your dog as more than a fun thing they get to play with, and that can cause a lot of mistreatment.
Case insists as a parent, it’s your job to teach them that “dogs are not toys. They are living, breathing creatures.” Make sure your kid understands that dogs have feelings just like they do, and that will help curve a lot of the more rough behavior kids can sometimes have towards dogs.
Stop Making Assumptions About What Your Dog Likes
One of Case’s biggest pet peeves with pet owners is that they assume that if they like doing something with their dog, their dog likes it too. This is often wrong.
“Parents love pulling out their phones and filming their kid adorably sat on their dog, and the dog clearly looks miserable.” Case says. “The dog is trying as hard as they can to maintain composure, but that is really testing their limits. It’s a projection.” Pulling on ears, grabbing tails, and even hugging too tight can be behavior that upsets dogs — which heightens the risk of an aggressive response.
If you find yourself bragging about how your “easy going” dog is happy no matter what you do to them, there is a good chance your dog is low key unhappy. And nobody likes a sad dog.
When In Doubt, Be Gentle
There is no universal playbook for how to make sure your kid never gets bit by a dog, but the best rule is just being careful and respectful.
Whether your kid is meeting a dog for the first time or petting the family dog for eight straight hours, teach them to always be gentle. “Dogs are like humans. Some enjoy a lack of personal space, some hate it. You can’t always tell, so be respectful either way and you are greatly lowering the risk of anything going wrong.”
This, of course, won’t guarantee that nothing bad happens, but it does make sure your kid is not doing anything to irritate the dog.
Always Understand That Dogs Have Bad Days Too
According to Case, the most dangerous assumption parents when it comes to pets is that “their sweet, wonderful dog could never be aggressive towards anyone. Including their kid,” she says. “But the vast majority of animal bites for kids come from animals that the kid knows.”
Dogs may be cheerful, loyal pets that will do anything to make you happy, but even the happiest dog will have rough days. In order to understand, when your dog should be left alone, Case recommends looking out for the three S’s: Stiff, Still, and Staring.
“If a dog freezes up, it’s letting you know ‘please get away from me.’ And if they are staring off into space instead of looking at you, that means they aren’t interested in engaging.”