Ask the Dog
So you've asked the dog owner, and he or she has said yes, and now you wonder if the owner has given you an answer you can trust. What do you do now? Well, the answer is quite simple—ask the dog. Dogs may not be able to say, "Yes, I know I am adorable, but I am not sure about you touching me, and that Dalmatian over there is distracting me, so, no, please don't pet me," but that dog can still communicate these messages to you if you know how to receive them.
Here are some common signals a dog gives when stressed or nervous. "Don't look for one or two, look at the whole picture the dog presents," advises Jen. "Any of these signals alone may not mean much, but put together they mean a lot about how safe you are in approaching this particular dog at this particular moment."
Be aware if the dog is:
- licking his lips
- turning his head or backing away
- lowering his head
- holding up a paw
- tucking in his tail
- putting his ears back
- growling, whimpering or producing other vocalizations
Look to see if the dog's attention is elsewhere. Is he staring at the squirrel across the park? Is he distracted by other dogs or children in the area?
Assess the Environment
What is going on around you? Are there other dogs? Lots of noises, smells, and/or activities going on? Is there food nearby? Does the dog have a ball or toy he might feel the need to defend, or does your child have a ball or toy the dog might consider taking away? What's the weather like? Dogs are affected by everything around them, have keener senses than humans and can suffer sensory overload.
Jen cautions parents to not make assumptions. Puppies may look cute and innocent, but they have sharp teeth and little discipline. Don't rely on breed knowledge either. While it's probably a good idea not to run up to every pitbull you see, don't make the reverse error and assume that an individual dog is friendly just because its breed happens to have a reputation for being kid friendly. Jen quickly points to her own canine companions; gentle giant Moose, a shepherd with a booming voice, and bright eyed Carin, another large shepherd, are far less likely to bite than their sometimes nervous retriever pal, Jazzy. Each dog is unique and has its own comfort levels where social encounters are concerned.
How to Say Hello
After you've assessed the environment, the dog, and received permission from the owner, there is one last, very important participant in this situation—your child. Children should be taught to approach dogs slowly, hand out in a non-threatening manner for the dog to sniff. Have them make a fist and let the dog sniff the back of their hand. This is the dog's way of assessing the danger to him. It's also his way of saying hello.
Children should be told not to yell, make loud noises, or quick movements. Scaring the dog is NOT a good idea. If you have more than one child, do not let them crowd the dog, but rather approach one by one, allowing the dog space. Parents should remain at hand. Parents should even hold their child's hand during the first encounters with a dog to show just how gentle you must be.
It goes without saying that children should not be allowed to strike the animal, pull fur or otherwise harm the dog. Hugs are also not a good idea as many dogs are uncomfortable with such a close interaction around their neck area. Parents should consider encounters with known dogs, perhaps even in a training class with a professional trainer. This is a great opportunity to safety demonstrate appropriate interaction with dogs in a controlled environment.
Never force a child to approach a dog. Understand that socialization may be appropriate for helping your child overcome fears, but that there is a time and place for everything, and the proper place for an encounter between a fearful child and a dog is not during a casual encounter in the park. Practice with a well-known, friendly dog, or even better, with a professional and an extremely well-trained dog. Forcing a fearful child to encounter a strange dog is a clear recipe for disaster. "Pressuring children to pet a dog when they are fearful sets both child and dog up for a potentially dangerous outcome; we want to encourage a successful interaction for both," warns Jen.
Respect, Don't Expect
The best way to prevent dog bite injury is simply this: "Respect, don't expect, and never assume," says Jen. "Most dogs are friendly and social, but it only takes one unfortunate encounter to leave a bad memory for all."
Dog Bite Prevention Resources and Related Information