May I Pet Your Dog?
Tips on Keeping Your Kids Safe Around Man's Best Friend
As the weather warms, children spend more time outdoors, and so do dogs. Dogs and children are likely to be found at many of the same places—parks, outdoor festivals, flea markets, and just going for a walk around the neighborhood. Dogs and puppies attract kids like moths to the flame. Even families who don’t have a furry member of the family are likely to encounter dogs almost daily.
Because many children will run right up to a dog, hug and kiss him without once considering the dangers, parents must ensure that any interaction between our children and dogs is as safe as possible. With the right attitude and education, parents can do much to control the situation.
“Man’s best friend bites more than 4.7 million people a year, and key experts believe that public education can help prevent these bites,” advise the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). “As many as 800,000 people, more than half of them children, require medical attention for dog bites each year and about a dozen people die from dog bite injuries each year,” said Sue Binder, CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control director. The AVMA estimates that these dog attacks “cost society $1 billion annually,” including medical bills, insurance claims, and legal fees.
Many of these bites can be prevented by obeying a few rules. “There are many reasons why a dog bites. Dogs bite out of fear or to protect their territory or to establish their dominance over the person bitten. Some owners mistakenly teach their dogs that biting is an acceptable form of play behavior,” notes the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Understanding this is the first step to preventing dog bites.
Children can be raised to love and respect animals or, sadly, to fear them. The best way to raise a child with a healthy attitude towards dogs is to teach respect for animals, and for you as a parent to control the encounters your children have with dogs–both your own furry family members and dogs you meet as you go about your lives.
When teaching your child about approaching dogs, start with a basic, commonsense rule: tell him to never approach a strange stray or unattended dog, no matter how cute, no matter what breed—and this includes puppies. Do not consider a dog who is tied up or fenced to be any safer; if anything, it is more likely to be protective and on edge about your approach. Remember, you know nothing about this animal and he knows nothing about you. A dog can respond to stress and fear in two ways—fight or flight. A dog that is tied or caged doesn’t have the option to run away. Why take chances?
What do you do when you see a stray dog? “Never turn your back to a dog and run away,” advises the HSUS. “A dog’s natural instinct will be to chase and catch you.” Instead, back away slowly, eyes on the dog.
May I Pet Your Dog?
Approaching dogs that are accompanied by their humans is a more complex situation. Start by remembering to approach slowly. Well before you are within reach of the animal, either you or your child should ask its owner that most vital of questions, “Is it OK if I pet your dog?”
If the dog owner says that it is not a good idea, respect that, thank them, and step back. Remind your child that sometimes dogs do not want to be petted. Be grateful to the owner for the honest answer. Certainly never try and talk the dog owner into it or cajole them by saying that your child is gentle or knows dogs. You and your child do not know this dog, and the owner does.
Even if the owner says “yes,” you need to make your own evaluation. “Think about what you are asking this person,” advises professional dog trainer Jen Shryock of Family Paws in Cary, North Carolina. “You’ve just asked them if their baby is well behaved, and while I am not suggesting that they’re deliberately lying to you, their answer may not reflect an accurate assessment of the situation.” Imagine someone is asking you if your child is friendly and well behaved. You are going to say yes, even though, like all humans, your child has those little moments of misbehavior from time to time. Don’t just assume that this dog, which may be very well behaved most of the time, is ready for attention from your child right this moment.
“There is a certain amount of ego you are asking the dog owner to set aside. Dog owners, like parents, have that deep down feeling that the behavior of their canine children is a reflection of them as owners.” Just as many parents feel disapproval aimed at them if their toddler has a meltdown in public, dog owners fear disapproval if they have a dog who misbehaves. Rather than openly admit that their dog may not be up to a social encounter, many dog owners give an almost automatic positive response when asked, “Can I pet your dog?”
“We expect dogs to be friendly all the time,” points out Jen, “and realistically, that is too much to ask of any living creature.” Owners feel the weight of that expectation.
“Remember also”, advises Jen, herself a mother of three, “That dog owners may actually not know their dogs and their dogs’ signals as well as they think they do. You are trusting a person, probably a stranger, to know their animal and give an accurate assessment. You are literally basing your child’s safety on this person’s opinions.” Even if the dog is almost always friendly, the encounter is very likely to be taking place in a location outside, with many distractions. “The key to safety,” says Jen, “Is the right attitude. Respect the environment and most importantly, respect the dog.”
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