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There’s nothing more adorable than a sweet photo of your dog and your child. But when you’re pulling out your cell phone to capture that precious moment, it’s important to keep one thing in mind: Dogs can be dangerous. As a mother and an animal trainer, I worry when I see “cute” pictures and videos of dogs and children together where the child is being put at risk of a dog bite.
You’ve seen the pictures I’m talking about: a baby reaching her hand into the dog’s food bowl or laying on top of the dog, or a toddler stepping or sitting on a dog, often with her face right next to the dog’s mouth. In every image, the dog’s personal space is being invaded; in many, his food, sleeping area or toys are also being taken over by the child.
The dogs in these images are often exhibiting stress or fear. An anxious or scared dog is more likely to bite, which seems like a pretty big price to pay for a cute photo or video. I can’t help imagining my 3-year-old daughter, Reagan, in the same situation with our dogs, and I cringe every time. It’s a big risk for a parent to take just to get an adorable shot to post on Facebook.
I’ve started a Pinterest board of dog and kid images called “NOT Cute,” with notes about why these photos seem inappropriate to me. Some parents have called me a party pooper because I can’t overlook the dangers I see in these photos, but I don’t think there’s anything adorable about a baby with a dog bite. I’m sure these parents have their child’s — and their pet’s — health and safety at heart, but these photos are still problematic. The disagreement about what’s cute and what’s dangerous seems to stem from an inability to read a dog’s body language.
Dogs exhibit many subtle signals of discomfort: A stressed-out dog may lick his lips, close his mouth tightly, lower his tail or turn his head away. Many pet owners aren’t familiar with these signals, though, and only recognize the dog’s discomfort when it escalates to a growl, a snap or even a bite. Far too often, parents will say that a dog bit “without warning,” when in reality the dog was exhibiting warning signs all along. Misunderstanding these cues can lead to a serious injury, particularly if it’s a small child who gets bitten.
Even if a dog tolerates inappropriate and rough behavior from children, in most situations this type of treatment is not fun for the dog. Every interaction with a pet is a “teachable moment,” for the child and the pet. Allowing a child to roughhouse with a dog teaches the dog that children are unpredictable and rather scary. At the same time, the child learns that teasing dogs is acceptable and harmless. Allowing this kind of interaction makes it more likely that your dog will be skittish around children; it may also teach your child that it’s OK to sit on or hug an unfamiliar dog. In both situations, the end result can be a bite.
As pet owners, we are intolerant of unwanted behavior from our dogs, whether it be barking, jumping up or digging. On the other hand, we think it’s cute when our children do things to our dogs that cause the dogs to be upset and afraid. Dogs are expected to tolerate our behavior and that of our children, without any negative reaction. I find this total disregard for the hard-wiring Mother Nature gave our dogs both sad and upsetting. Dogs aren’t small people in fur coats; they’re a species bred and born for specific tasks, roles and behaviors. It is the dog owner’s responsibility to make sure that the dog is treated with respect and kindness, especially by children too young to know better.
Instead of laughing at these pictures and videos of kids and dogs in dangerous situations, it’s important to think objectively about the situation and decide if it involves an interaction that’s appropriate for children and dogs together; it is also important to note if the dog’s body language is showing enjoyment or discomfort. Take the time to read up on canine body language to learn what your dog is trying to tell you. Once you learn to recognize the signs of stress in your own dog, teach your children to see them too. And stop encouraging dangerous behavior by recording it and sharing it on Facebook just because you think it’s cute.
The safety and well-being of our children and our dogs should be our top priority in every situation. You can still get adorable photos of your child and your dog, without compromising anyone’s safety. In the end, those are the moments you’ll really want to remember and record.
Read more Vetstreet articles about dog bite risks:
Why Your Vet Doesn't Trust You When You Promise That Your Dog Won't Bite
Don't Become a Statistic: What You Need to Know About Preventing Dog Bites
How Common Are Dog Bites? Ask the 4.7 Million People Who Are Bitten Each Year
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