Friday, May 18, 2012

Dogs and Babies: A Refreshing Wake Up

WARNING: Long, but informative, post alert. Take the time to read it if you have a dog and a baby (or are expecting a baby!).

I'm sure this comes as no surprise to those of you who follow this blog that I am completely obsessed with my pitbull mix, Moe. I've said it before, and I'll say it now (and I'll say it again!): he is one of the true loves of my life. He is everything a good dog should be: sweet, kind, gentle, playful when the time calls for it, mellow when he needs to be.

It should also come as no surprise then that I am incredibly defensive of my dog and his pitbull heritage (my friend Trav is rolling his eyes at this I'm sure; incredibly defensive doesn't even BEGIN to cover it).

I feel the plight of the pitbull owner is one of defensive education. No, my dog is not inherently bad. Yes, I trust him and he trusts me. No, he will not try to eat my child when we bring him home from the hospital (by the way, I know most people are joking when they say things like this, but I don't find it funny; I actually find it completely rude... Yup, wasn't lying about being defensive; I should probably calm down a bit).

So, on Tuesday, when I attended a class offered by our hospital (aptly titled, "Dogs and Babies: Play It Safe"), I went in with my protective attitude. Having worked with and spent time with children AND my dog simultaneously, I can honestly say Moe likes kids. Thus, I was surprised when the following happened.

Our instructor, Madeline Gabriel: "How many of you here believe your dog is capable of biting a child?" Two hands out of almost 20 went up. Only two (and mine was not one of them). Her response: "By the end of this class, I am hoping that every hand in this room, no matter your dog's personality or breed, goes up. Because EVERY dog is capable of biting a child."

I should mention that she gave us some stats at the beginning about dog bites and maulings, and it should be mentioned that when it comes to "family dogs" mauling or killing the children in their families, it is very RARE for it to actually be a true "family dog." Unfortunately, in the media, when these stories are reported, they use that term, but many of them are dogs that are not socialized with family members; they're kept in the garage or outside, essentially removed from the lives of their "owners." I feel it's also important to know that 50% of all children in the U.S. will be bit by a dog before they turn 18 and that (quoting directly here) "because young children under age five present their faces to dogs, when they get bitten, 77% of the time it is to the face or head, leaving little margin for error."

The most interesting thing she said, however, was, "We care about dog bites to children because children are vulnerable and dogs pay with their lives." We live in a society where cute dog and baby interactions are rewarded, but it's setting both parties up for possible failure.

The following is a bulleted rundown of some of the things she covered. I'm probably going to do a horrible job of it, but I cannot recommend her wisdom, training, website and blog enough. If you live in the San Diego area, are delivering a baby at Sharp Mary Birch and love your dog, take this course! 

Avoid the "Curse of the Good Dog."  
I am probably the most guilty of this, but as I mentioned, I am constantly trying to convince people that my dog is a good dog. However, one thing Madeline mentioned is that if you are completely, 100% convinced that your dog would NEVER bite a child, you can be blinded to their possible warning signs that they are uncomfortable. To quote her directly, "Children who grow up with a 'good dog' are often allowed to take more liberties with that good dog." And at the end of the day, as much as we want to convince ourselves that are dogs are like us, they are DOGS. They are animals. Some dogs are much more tolerant than others, but that does not mean they do not have a tipping point. She put it in this perspective: Imagine you're at the grocery store and someone is standing directly behind you in line, thus violating your personal space. At first you might turn to them and shoot them a "what the hell are you doing?" kind of look. If they continue to stand their and don't catch the signal you're giving them, you might say, "excuse me" in a rather firm tone. If at that point, they still haven't moved, you're probably gonna yell something like, "Hey, back the fuck off, you are right up on me!" Dogs do this too when they're uncomfortable in a situation, but they do not have the gift of language to communicate it directly and succinctly. As their owner, you're the best person to know if they are relaxed or on edge. 

Know and help your dog. 
She encourages dog owners (before their babies arrive) to really know their dog's body language, because each one is going to be unique. They're going to have their own experiences, tolerate different noises, behaviors and situations... it is very important to remember that one dog's relaxation behavior might be another's worried behavior! You can tell when your dog is happy and relaxed, and when they're unhappy or worried. In recognizing these signals that they're displaying, you can help train your dog to have a wider range of relaxed expectations. Example, maybe your dog startles easily. Before you have a baby, it's not too big of a deal, but think about how much noise a baby makes. A baby throws things on the ground, screams, cries, acts wild; it's what children do! Thus, knowing this about your dog can help you train them to be more relaxed with the situation before it actually happens.

Know and help your baby.
Babies and children are curious about the world around them (as they should be)! Knowing this, realize that you can help your child avoid being mesmerized or fixated on your family dog. Have you ever been at the park or walking down the street and seen that kid who is all about your dog? "Doggie! Doggie!" is their usual calling card. Personally, I do adore this kid. I was this kid. You cannot fault a child for wanting to get close to some cute, fuzzy animal. However, take a step back from the adorable child and the dog you love, and look at the possibilities. This child is most likely going to come at your dog the way they would another person: head on. Face to face. In the animal kingdom, that sort of approach is actually a threatening behavior, so you're putting your dog in a situation that he or she is unsure of and your setting up this sweet, innocent child for a good (or very bad) experience. Here's another thing about babies and toddlers: they're tactile beings. They want to feel and touch and experience everything with their hands and feet. They're also gaining more muscle control by the second. Ever held a baby and had them suddenly grab onto your hair with the force of a kung fu master? I know I have. Now imagine you're a dog and being pet by a baby and that baby is petting you gently... until it decides to grab your fur with all its "holy hell, how is it possible you're this strong" strength. Some dogs have a higher tolerance for this behavior, but others don't and why should they be subjected to the whims of a baby who is innocently doing what babies do. Essentially, don't set your child up to be able to engage in this kind of behavior with dogs and instill respect in a dog's personal space from the get-go.

Understand that most dogs simply tolerate babies and toddlers until the age of 5.
Your dog loves you. Your dog may or may not love your baby the way you think or hope they will, and that's OK! Madeline was saying that until a child turns 5, it is difficult for them to fully participate in the kinds of scenarios that make your dog love you (feeding, playing, walking, etc.). Also, take into account what a dog goes through when a new baby is introduced to the family. You're sleep deprived? Well, so is your dog. I find I'm much more cranky when I haven't gotten a full night's sleep, and people should realize that the same things apply to their dog. Another thing I'd like to point out is that we were shown a diagram of the rate that "issues" between babies and dogs occur. There's initially a "what is going on" period at the onset, but for the first couple months, babies and dogs get in a good routine. It's around the time that crawling and walking start to happen that these issues spike, due to the fact that it's unfamiliar territory for both the child and the animal.

Ok... Anyone still there? Honestly, I have not even begun to cover a quarter of the stuff I learned in this Dog's and Babies class, and I feel I may have done a horrible job of succinctly conveying what I did. If you're reading along and some "a ha!" moments are happening for you like they did for me, please check out Dogs and Babies Learning for all the accurate, informative and amazing deets.

You may commence with your weekend.


  1. One of the things that has always stuck in my head, and it's from Madeline Gabriel's gifted mind, is the notion of "magnetizing." I've seen parents point out doggies, "Look Billy, look at that cute doggie," and I've seen parents show Billy how to reach out and let that cute doggie come sniff.

    Let's not magnetize our children to dogs. The dog will tell you if you are being appropriate (body language of each specific dog or pup), or if they even care to meet you.

    I've seen parents super protective of their children to the point of putting harnesses and long leashes on them. Why are people so un-thinking about dogs?

    Deb Manheim CPDT-KA, CDBC
    Happy Tails Family Dog Training
    Las Vegas, NV

    1. Deb, thank you for your comment!

      I should definitely add on a section about "magnetizing" your children to dogs. All her points on the subject were something I had never considered and definitely worthwhile to anyone with or expecting children.

      Now that I've been shared this insight, I certainly want to spread the word for happy babies, happy dogs, happy family dynamics and NO avoidable incidents!

    2. You are one smart lady. :-)


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