"Is your dog friendly?" my daughter asked from the back of our golf cart; we were vacationing off a remote island in central Florida.
This is undoubtedly the best one liner for anyone approaching an unfamiliar dog -- particularly if the anyone asking is under three feet tall.
The answer flowed freely: "Oh yes -- he loves kids!" which resulted in both of mine bounding from the back of the cart. My nine-year-old daughter led the brigade, but stopped short to ask all the necessary questions about his name, age and breed. My four-year-old son, however, ran straight for the dog, eager for a face-to-face introduction.
Anyone who knows dogs knows that a face-to-face encounter is as natural to a dog as a person walking up and sniffing your backside. Before I could yell "Stop!" Trevor the dog leapt up and bit my son just under his eye. There were tears and apologies, and a lion's share of shame on my part.
After all, I know dogs.
As an applied animal behaviorist and a dog trainer, I've spent my life translating dogs' postures into words. I've lectured to kids and adults about dog safety and yet, in that moment, I was simply a mom kneeling beneath the blazing Florida sun, embracing my son as he cried out in fear and confusion.
Later that night, I revisited the scene as though it was televised; I held the power to hit the pause button at the moment my son and Trevor locked eyes. The freeze frame would show that Trevor was already in distress. His owners were facing our golf cart, completely unaware that Trevor had repelled to the end of his six-foot tether and was straining on his neck collar. His toes dug into the sand as shoulder muscles tensed in an attempted to break free, and if you zoomed in even closer you'd find a tiny crescent moon shape in the corner of each eye -- a telltale sign of canine panic. Unless immediately soothed, Trevor would bite, as we discovered -- not out of any aggressive tendencies per se, but simply as a response to fear. Fortunately in our case, it was a tiny tooth mark, a bloodless warning from an otherwise kind animal.
Could I have prevented the incident? Well, yes. Could you have prevented this incident? Yup -- you, too. How? It's pretty easy. No matter what a dog person says about their dog, check with the dog first before you approach them. A quick eye scan will tell you all you need to know, as dogs talk in postures, not words. If you strive to be a good dog Samaritan, listen with your eyes, and respect a dog -- no matter what their people might tell you. Here are a few quick tips:
A raised posture (tail, ears, shoulders) can mean concentration or confrontation. When it's your dog, you can distinguish the subtleties of their reaction, but if it's a stranger's dog leaning towards you or your children intently, it's best to avoid the situation altogether. A friendly dog might jump on you, while a not-so-friendly dog will be more assertive.
A lowered posture (tail curved under, ears flattened, rear end dropped) signals wariness and concern. This dog needs reassurance from familiar people who will offer positive diversions like treats or toys to redirect his thinking. It's best to avoid this dog too. If I had done my eye scan with Trevor that fateful morning, his posture would have quickly revealed his distress. And while I'm sure Trevor loves familiar children in his familiar home, he obviously fears them when ensnared on a leash.
Are dogs always tense around strangers? Should we, as good dog Samaritans, avoid all social interactions with unfamiliar dogs? Well, no -- not necessarily. Dogs are lovely creatures and many long for social interactions with people of all ages. When dogs are socialized to people during puppyhood -- which I recommend using treats and toys to encourage a positive association to outstretched hands -- they often develop a life long affinity for greeting people while out for a walk.
How can you tell if a dog is welcoming? His posture is relaxed; his head is lowered, lips often parted, as his tail sweeps back and forth across his rump as if signaling friendship. He will approach you at a slight angle, neither leaning away from you in fear nor racing head long towards you.
Though I feel shame that I didn't prevent this circumstance, the truth is most dog bites occur in a split second while people are unaware or distracted. Forty-two percent of all reported dog bites occur with children under the age of 11, for the reasons similar to the case I've reported. Though I hardly feel qualified to talk, I'm pulling my head out of the sand to remind you not to approach another person's dog without permission. And even then, check in with the dog. Though dogs don't speak in words, they've got plenty to say!
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