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One of the most important things that parents can do to ensure that their children grow up with a positive and respectful attitude towards dogs in general is to make sure that the first few experiences that the child has with a dog are positive. This means carefully selecting what dog and what owner you are going to have your child interact with if you don't have your own dog at home. Even children that are raised with a dog need to be taught how to correctly interact with someone else's dog since not all dogs are friendly or not all dogs will tolerate children.
Often children are very comfortable with their own dog and may even fall into bad habits when interacting with the family pet. For example, dogs that are used to kids tend to not worry if the child suddenly jumps up and yells or starts to make fire engine sounds at the top of their lungs. Dogs that aren't used to children may respond with aggression or sheer terror at these types of sudden outbursts. Kids may also be used to tugging or pulling at the good old family dog with no problem. They may find that if they do that with someone else's dog they get barked at or in a worse case scenario they get seriously bitten and hurt.
Teaching your child to carefully observe a dog before making an approach and to know what to do in the event that the dog appears fearful or aggressive is essential. To do this parents themselves have to be aware of what a dog is trying to communicated, then be able to show or explain this to the child or children. Parents also have to be careful to not make the child afraid of other dogs but simply to allow the child to understand that not all dogs are the same type of pet that they are used to.
Kids often respond best to these types of training or explanation when parents tell the child the reasons for their concern, not just the "do this because I said so" attitude. Kids need to know that well trained dogs are great companions but that not all dogs are well trained and some are trained to be guard dogs. Kids also need to learn that size is not always relevant or relative when it comes to aggressive dogs. There are toy breeds that are far more aggressive than some of the largest Mastiffs so kids have to learn to read each individual dog, not just go by size or breed.
Dog Body LanguageMaking a game out of trying to "read" dog body language is a terrific way to encourage your children to watch and observe dogs in different environments and surroundings. All children should be taught to never approach a strange dog without first observing the dog and then only approaching if they feel confident that the dog is in a non-threatening or non-aggressive posture. Likewise children have to be taught not to approach a dog that is showing signs of being timid or fearful since these dogs may become aggressive to protect themselves if they feel they are being cornered or threatened.
Some of the basic body language postures for dogs include:
Happy – tail wagging, head lowered, ears back, slightly alert or closer to the head, eyes open and alert and a slightly lowered approach to the person. The body is typically in a straight line and the motion of the dog is fluid and easy as he or she moves towards the person. The tongue is often out and the mouth may be slightly open.
Cautious – the tail is usually held stiff or rather high in the air, definitely not wagging in greeting. The head is high off the shoulder and is typically up rather than forward. The ears are very alert and upright or forward, depending on the type of ears. The eyes are directly watching the person, often not moving or appearing to blink. The mouth is usually closed and the dog often puts his or her head or muzzle up into the air to scent the person approaching. The legs are stiff and the dog is making its body look as big as possible. Often the movement is in a semi-circle around the person.
Aggressive – the dog makes a short dash towards the person, often from a side perspective. The ears are often very tight against the head and the head may be either lowered or raised, often pushed far forward on the neck. The dog may be barking, growling or showing his or her teeth. The hackles may be raised and the tail may be held either close to the hocks or body or straight out from the rump. The dog may be in a crouching position or may be standing very aggressively defending his or her space or territory. They eyes are often narrowed and highly focused on the individual the dog is approaching.
Timid or Fearful – the dog is trying to be as small as possible, crouching down, often rolling over to show their belly or even possibly submissive urination is occurring. The dog often has the head lowered, mouth closed, and is circling away from the person, trying to flee or keep their distance. The tail is carried very close to the hindquarters or even tucked up towards the abdomen. The dog may turn his or her head away and make no eye contact.
Children can learn to watch dogs and talk to their parents about what the dog's body language is saying. Parents then need to help the children decide if it is safe to approach the dog, but only if the dog's owner is present. Generally parents need to instill in their children to never approach a stray dog or an ownerless dog unless an adult is there to supervise. Children should also be taught not to try to handle or interact with an injured or hurt dog, rather they need to learn to immediately get help from an adult. Injured or hurt dogs often bite at those that are trying to help since they are in such extreme pain and may not understand what the person is trying to do.
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