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Taking a Bite Out of Dog Bites: Talking Kids and Dogs with Joan Orr

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Did you know that 50% of all children in the United States will be bitten by a dog before their 12th birthday? While this statistic may conjure up visions of wild, vicious dogs on the loose preying on small, unsuspecting children, you may be surprised to learn that most bites are from the family dog or from another dog known to the child.

two girls and their dog

Experts agree that public education plays a vital role in empowering children to make safe choices, which is why non-profit Doggone Safe’s mission is to teach children the importance of dog safety. The company’s flagship program, Be a Tree, teaches children how to interact safely with dogs and to read a dog’s body language. The program is delivered by Doggone Safe presenters, veterinary technicians, dog trainers, dog behaviorists, public health nurses, emergency medical services personnel, animal control officers, police officers, teachers and humane educators. More than 500,000 children worldwide have participated in and benefited from Doggone Safe’s Be a Tree program, and this year Doggone Safe hopes to increase that total.

In honor of International Dog Bite Prevention Week May 15-21, 2011, Doggone Safe is conducting an international dog-bite prevention challenge for schoolchildren. Presenters in 17 countries, 11 Canadian provinces, and 43 US states will aim to educate 50,000 children in a single week about dog safety and the Be a Tree concept. Here, Doggone Safe co-founder and president and ClickerExpo faculty member Joan Orr tells us more about her plans for International Dog Bite Prevention Week and what we can do as pet owners, trainers, and parents to help take a bite out of dog bites.

Why are most dog-bite victims children?

Joan Orr: Children are bitten because they tend to act in ways that dogs find threatening: hugging, kissing, taking things away, and invading the dog’s space. Kids do not recognize warning signs and may push a dog beyond its limits of tolerance without realizing that the dog is not happy. They also may act like prey, running, screaming, and moving in ways that excite a dog and cause the dog to want to chase. Children can be noisy and boisterous, and some dogs are frightened by them. Children are lower to the ground, and their faces can be at just the right level for many dogs. Finally, their skin is very tender. What might be a scratch on the leg to an adult could be a severe bite to the face of a child.

You say that when a dog bites we interpret this in human terms. What does this mean? Do you think that dog bites are misunderstood?

JO: Dog owners tend to think that if a dog bites, the dog does it out of some kind of malice. Conversely, dog owners often believe that their own dogs will not bite them or their children because the dog loves them, or because the family is part of the dog’s pack.

People think that aggression in dogs can be equated to aggression in humans:

Kids do not recognize warning signs and may push a dog beyond its limits of tolerance.

“He doesn’t like me.”

“He’s jealous.”

“He’s angry with me.”

Most likely, that is not the case with a biting dog. The dog does not think a bite through, nor does the dog decide to punish you for some transgression or other. The dog bites because it has exhausted all other resources at its command. The dog has reached the point where it feels it has no choice; teeth are the only means of defense. This has nothing to do with whether or not a dog likes a person. If a person pushes a dog too far, and ignores all the subtle warning signs that the dog has sent out about reaching tolerance limits, the dog will bite.

Some dogs are more tolerant than others and never reach the point of biting. Most dog bites are single “bite and release” bites as opposed to an attack and mauling. To put it in human terms, when a dog bites it is the equivalent of a parent losing her cool with a child and shouting, “Stop that now!”. It has nothing to do with whether the parent loves the child, and everything to do with how far that child has pushed the tolerance limits on that occasion.

What do you think is the most important key in dog-bite prevention?

JO: I think there are two important elements, and these are education and supervision. Parents, children, and dog owners need to know how to read dog body language and to understand the subtle signs that come long before the last resort of a bite. Adults need to supervise and advocate for both dogs and children to keep them safe around each other.

Demonstrating Be A Tree

Tell us about the Be a Tree Program.

JO: The Be a Tree program is a fun and interactive seminar for schoolchildren that teaches them to read dog body language and have empathy for dogs. It also teaches children how to be safe around dogs and to stand still like a tree if a strange dog comes near or if any dog is bothering them. Over half a million children have learned from the program, which is delivered by Doggone Safe presenters and a variety of other adult professionals whose jobs with child and/or animal safety lend themselves to this program. Presenters use a teacher kit that contains large photographs showing dog body language signs, games, and activities.

What are some of the most common behaviors/signs a dog will exhibit when it is unhappy?

JO: Lip-licking, yawning, showing a half moon of white in its eye, lifting one paw, turning away, or moving away are all signs. In the context of a child approaching or interacting with a dog, these signs indicate that the dog is not comfortable with the interaction and wants to be left alone. When these signs occur, parents should intervene, redirect the child to another activity, and/or remove the dog to a safe place away from the child.

What would you recommend that parents do to ensure safety around their own dog and other people’s dogs?

JO: Train the dog with non-confrontational, non-aggressive methods (like clicker training). Condition the dog to enjoy the presence and activities of children. Teach children to respect the dog and interact appropriately. Include children in the care and training of the dog. Again, clicker training is our method of choice for children because it is hands-off training and does not require any strength or force. Learn about dog body language and teach your children. Leave the dog alone when it shows signs of anxiety. Supervise at all times. If you have a baby or toddler, your hands must be on the dog if the child is near or touching the dog.

What should someone consider before getting a dog? Does breed matter?

JO: The main consideration in getting a dog is whether the family has enough time to care for and exercise the dog properly. We do not recommend that an inexperienced dog owner get a dog if there are children under age five in the house. If the dog will be left alone all day, it is better not to get a dog.

Breed matters in terms of the family expectations and limitations. For example, if you are a family that spends the weekends hiking miles through the woods, you would want an active dog that can keep up and would enjoy this. If you live in a hot climate, you might not get a northern breed with a heavy coat, as that dog will suffer in the heat. If you have energetic, busy young children who do not always do as you ask, then a high-energy, excitable dog that likes to chase and nip will not be a good addition.

Condition the dog to enjoy the presence and activities of children.

Consider the needs and characteristics of the breed and make sure that they fit in with your family and its expectations. Different breeds have different characteristics that make them more or less suitable for families, depending on each family's tolerance, lifestyle, and the ages and number of children in the group. While some dog breeds tend to be more tolerant than others, it is not safe, fair, or reasonable to expect a dog to tolerate abuse from children just because of the breed’s reputation. You cannot relax supervision or make assumptions about what a dog may or may not do just because the dog is of one breed or another.

If you are considering a rescue dog, be sure you know the dog’s history before bringing the dog into a home with children. If you are considering a puppy, be sure to evaluate the puppy’s parents to ensure that they have nice temperaments before bringing the puppy into a home with children.

What about after you get a dog?

JO: Take the new dog or puppy to classes right away and be sure to involve the children in training. Clicker training is the safest and most effective method for children because it is hands-off training. Kids can just drop the treats on the ground, there is no risk of finger nipping, and the dog gains respect quickly for the child who does the training. Clicker training builds empathy for the dog in children. It’s fun for both child and dog and results in a strong bond of trust.

Clicker training is our method of choice for children because it is hands-off training and does not require any strength or force.

Condition the dog to accept the types of things children might do: making noise, pulling tails, etc. Get a trainer to help with this. Don't have children try these bothersome behaviors on the dog as part of the training! Rather, the adults should work with the dog so that the dog comes to enjoy all types of touching. The goal is that the dog will not be surprised and turn and snap if a toddler comes up and pulls its tail.

Condition the dog to accept and welcome people approaching the dog’s food bowl, toys, bones, and resting place. Always give the dog a better treat than what it already has, and always trade, never take something from the dog. Be sure to teach children to never take from the dog. Older children can offer a trade for something better; younger children must go to a parent to tell if the dog has something it shouldn’t have. There are several articles on this topic at our blog.

What is the International Dog Bite Challenge, and how can people get involved?

JO: During Dog Bite Prevention Week, Doggone Safe is challenging its members and Be a Tree presenters to use the Be a Tree program to educate 50,000 children about safety around dogs. To become a Be a Tree presenter, all you need is a Be a Tree teacher kit. Schools looking for a presenter can search our online directory for a presenter in their area. Check our website for more information about becoming a presenter or finding a presenter for your school.

Thank you, Joan! We commend you for the great work you do with dog-bite prevention, and hope that the International Dog Bite Challenge sets a new world record!

About the author

Julie Gordon is the Content & Communications Manager at Karen Pryor Clicker Training. She oversees editorial development and content management for the company’s websites, and regularly contributes articles and blogs.