Children and dogs: are they speaking the same language?

By Adele Buxton

As parents we fully appreciate just how important it is that our children and dogs get along with each other. Surprisingly, however, statistics show the majority of dog bites inflictedupon children are done so by a dog familiar to them, for example by their own dog or that of a friend or relative, rather than as often envisioned, by a dog in the park or on the street.

We are frequently and indeed well advised by our family elders never to leave children and dogs together unsupervised, and for example, never to allow children to pull the dog’s tail – if only life was so simple! Anyone with more than one child will know how distracting each can be and how it is inevitable that we will fail miserably in our attempt to heed this sound advice as we whirringly attempt to follow the principles of quantum mechanics and be be in two places at once!

Having observed the complexity of the interactions between my own children and our dogs, it has become apparent that there is, more often than not, an unintentional but nevertheless distinct communication impediment which has the potential to undermine the harmonious relations we so eagerly pursue. I have noted some common examples from my own household where, by simply following their own interpretation of the world, my children’s actions have caused the dogs to feel somewhat uneasy.

  • Children may mistakenly believe that a dog which is trying to run away or avoid them, is ‘playing chase’. The child may continue to pursue the unfortunate dog as it attempts to escape, believing that it is enjoying a ‘great game’. The child is unwittingly causing the dog a great deal of stress as it unable to convey the message that it doesn’t want to be chased.
  • If a dog ‘ignores’ a child when they are talking to it or trying to get it to do something, the child will often put their face close to the dog’s and look it in the eye in an attempt to gain its attention – after all, this is how they successfully gain the attention of an adult! However, many dogs will feel very uneasy with such close facial contact, as in their terms it is emphatically most impolite.
  • Children will often hug a dog in a display of affection. Whilst we humans, by and large, enjoy this type of interaction with people we know, dogs generally do not! Children may not realise this, as hugging comes so naturally to them.
  • Children may want to kiss or stroke a dog whilst it is asleep, after all they looks so cute! This can of course, take the dog by surprise and in some instances, cause it to snap as a reflexive response to being disturbed. (Some humans in our household are just the same too – but not so cute!)
  • Children may not recognise the signs when a dog has ‘had enough’. For example, if a dog is particularly hot or tired it may not want to play or be fussed over but just left alone. Indeed, we all need our own space sometimes – mmmm, I wish!
  • Children may try to imitate the way in which adults in the household manage their dogs such as moving them by taking hold of their collar. Sometimes, however, children may do this in an overly forceful or clumsy manner or in an inappropriate context, making the dog the feel uncomfortable or defensive.
  • Children may not always recognise a tooth display as a sign that the dog is not very happy with the situation. Instead, they may see this as the dog smiling at them – after all, we show our teeth when we are happy (mainly)!

Although, like parents, many dogs have almost boundless patience and tolerance where children are concerned, it must be remembered that some dogs may be much more sensitive to various situations than others. What makes one dog feel just a tad uneasy could possibly make another afraid. When a dog is frightened, the possibility of aggression arising increases – something that we really do want to avoid!

Some of the best advice for families with dogs, is for everyone to familiarise themselves with the body language that dogs use to express their feelings and desires, and in particular that they are ill at ease. Early intervention may well prevent an undesirable situation occurring. Explaining to even young children that a dog is not happy with a particular situation can go a long way to developing an awareness in the child that a dog has feelings too! As the adage goes ‘prevention is better than cure’ .

Breed specific behaviour: (Ever heard of a Shih Tzu herding sheep? )

Lyn Fleet What do you really have at the end of your lead? If you don’t know what your dog was originally bred to do, you won’t be able to tell what is perfectly normal behaviour or what is out of the ordinary. Sadly, many people do more research when they are buying a new car, TV or even vertical blinds, than when they are choosing a dog. It doesn’t take long before they discover that they’ve bought more than they bargained for.  

A Jack Russell Terrier will clear your garden of rats! Photo by Lyn Fleet

If you have chosen a dog for the way it looks you could be in for a big surprise. For instance, a Husky is a hard working sled dog with stamina and endurance qualities. If you just wanted an attractive and cuddly couch potato, you are in for a huge reality check! A Jack Russell on the other hand has hair trigger reaction times and is a natural born killer; ideal if you have rats in the garden. How embarrassing would it be, if your terrier dashed into the lounge shaking something in its mouth and presented your visitor with your ‘dead bra’? Dogs have been selectively bred over generations to perform specific jobs. These days, the majority of dogs are bought as pets but they still have the instincts to carry out those tasks. This can mean that you have a highly qualified dog without hope of gainful employment! Many behaviours that are thought of as ‘naughty’ are actually hard wired into the dog and it is impossible for him to change; without an suitable outlet for his skills, he can become very frustrated and thoroughly miserable. Some breeds are very tactile and love nothing more than a cuddle. Other breeds are not ‘touchy feely’ and show disinterest at the offer of close physical contact. Some owners take this as a personal slight and they think their dog doesn’t love them. Just as some couples will walk down the street hand in hand while other couples feel uncomfortable with public displays of affection. If you haven’t already done so, you must spend some time at the local library or on the internet researching what you dog was bred to do. It will give you some amazing insights into why they are behaving as they do. And now for some shameless anthropomorphising!!

Terriers (e.g. West Highland White Terrier & Jack Russell Terrier)

Westie Photograph by Cheryl Murphy

Love squeaky toys to ‘kill ‘and they hate to be treated like babies. They are a big dog in a little parcel! They can be vocal especially when they get excited. If they were people they would… enjoy a pint with their mates down the pub and be ready to square up to someone who is ten times their height and weight!

Guarding breeds (e.g. Rottweiler) 

Rottweiler by Alex Wightman

Need somewhere to guard! In other words, a place to call home. If they were people they would be… security guards with a heavy torch and a massive bunch of keys dangling from their belt. They love meeting up with other security guards and boast how many thugs they have put in hospital this week. They know the dirtiest jokes and are terrible for wolf whistling.

Herding breeds (e.g. German Shepherd &  Border Collie)

German Shepherd Dog Photograph by Cheryl Murphy

Love to be involved in everything the family does and it is imperative they are kept mentally active as well as physically fit. They have a tendency to be worriers. If they were people they would be… a friend in need, always ready to help at a moment’s notice. They would keep an eye on their elderly neighbours and expect nothing in return other than feeling they’ve made a positive difference. They could turn their hand to anything: make a fabulous spag bol, do a spot of DIY, change a fuse or assemble flat pack furniture.

Retrievers & Spaniels (e.g. Labrador Retriever & Cocker Spaniel)

Labrador retriever Photograph by Cheryl Murphy

Love anything and everything, especially getting dirty and carrying things in their mouths. They love being part of the family. If they were people they would be… the retired Colonel who sits with a pipe and a newspaper. He has a twinkle in his eye and a wicked chuckle. He’ll regale you with horrific tales of war and death but still make you think it was the best time he ever had. However, they mustn’t be allowed to go first in the queue for the free buffet or everyone else will go hungry.

Asian breeds (e.g. Japanese Akita & Chinese Shar Pei)

  They should be respected and appreciated. They have a tendency to seem aloof and self-important and don’t enjoy too much physical contact. They are fearlessly loyal but not demonstrative in their affection. The strong and silent type. If they were people they would be… senior management. They would not be prepared to get out of bed for less than a top salary, an office overlooking the river and their own car parking space. They’ll be firm but fair but they do not suffer fools gladly.

Toys breeds – companion dogs (e.g. Bichon Frise, Pug & Chihuahua)

Pug Photograph by Cheryl Murphy

They need a loving owner who dotes on them as much as they dote on their owner. If they have taught their owners to give them attention on demand, they can be yappy if ignored. If they were people they would be… ‘dumb blondes’ with a PhD in particle physics. They would never dream of setting foot in charity shop and they wouldn’t be seen dead in last year’s diamante necklace. They pretend to be very fragile but really they are as tough as old boots.

 Nordic breeds (e.g. Husky & Malamute)

Husky Photograph by Cheryl Murphy

You need to be a fit owner that can walk and walk and walk. Come back when called? Walk nicely on a lead? Of course they can, if you are prepared to put in the time and effort required. If you aren’t why did you buy one? If they were people they would be… the joker in the pack. They won’t understand why you didn’t find their little wheeze funny. They have their own agenda and hope you share it; if you don’t, that’s fine by them.

Scent Hounds (e.g. Beagle & Bassett Hound)

Beagle Photograph by Cheryl Murphy

They love long walks with lots of scents to follow. They know what they want and go for it, no matter what. Once their nose is in gear their ears shut down. If they were people they would be… quantum physicists who are incredibly cerebral until something more basic attracts their attention. They can enjoy very deep discussions until someone suggests a game of cards and you’ll get no more sense out of them until they’ve won every hand and cleared the table of money.

Bull Breeds (e.g. Staffordshire Bull Terrier & Bull Mastiff)

Staffie Photograph by Cheryl Murphy

They love tug of war and any other games at pits them physically against the challenger. They were bred to be physically and mentally determined which is why using the macho ‘show ‘em who’s boss approach is completely counterproductive as it stores up problems for later which will be entirely you own fault. If they were people they would be… slow to anger but terrible once roused. The might be thought of as easy-going and a bit of a push-over until someone pushes them too far; then their retribution is swift and extreme.

Sight hounds (e.g. Saluki, Greyhound & Lurcher)

Lurcher Photograph by Cheryl Murphy

They crave warmth and comfort; a sofa near a burning log fire. They have incredible short bursts of energy, but don’t expect stamina. If they were people they would be… cat walk models. Very aware of their image and self worth. Would call an acquaintance ‘dahling’ and promise to ‘do lunch one day ‘and then forget all about calling them. With their own family they are intensely loyal. ****** In summary, find out what your dog was bred to do. Use your imagination and find ways of working with their breed characteristics, not trying to squash their talents and enthusiasm. I’m a loyal friend, good cook and enjoy writing. Whereas you may excel at sport, sing in a rock band and make you own clothes. It doesn’t mean I am a lesser person; I am just different when compared to you!

A walk in the park

By Sue Lefevre with photographs by Cheryl Murphy

In an ideal world, a walk in the park with your dog would be wonderful and relaxing.  All the dogs would be friendly, play with each other and interact socially.  Importantly, they would all return to their owners when called first time. Unfortunately, as we all know too well, we don’t live in a world that is ideal.

For those of you who own sensitive/reactive dogs, a walk in the park can be incredibly stressful for both of you.  I have known owners to walk their dogs at midnight or very early in the morning to avoid other dog owners, however this sometimes defeats the object because most dogs out at that time are reactive – so they will only meet unfriendly dogs!

There are four words that an owner of a reactive dog dreads when walking in the park, words that send shivers down their spine.  “Don’t worry he’s friendly!,” they exclaim, as you are wrestling to not only keep your own dog under control but someone else’s as well!  I’m sure we have all been there, I certainly have.  So, what’s the solution?

There is one thing that owners of friendly dogs can do to make a walk in the park a lot more relaxed for everyone. If you see a dog on a lead please call your dog back to you and either put your dog on a lead (only until the other dog is out of the way), or keep their attention on you. There will be a very good reason for that dog to be on a lead and there are a number possible reasons:

  • they may be reactive to other dogs
  • they may be in training
  • they may have just had surgery or be poorly and need gentle lead-restricted exercise
  • they may have lead frustration
  • they may have just been adopted and are getting used to their new surroundings
  • they may be fearful of other dogs and need space.
  • the dog on the lead may be perfectly friendly but their recall is not up to scratch.

If you have a friendly dog, always ask another owner if their dog is friendly.  If they say, “no” please respect their wishes and give them space.  If they say, “yes” then ask if their dog would like to meet your friendly dog.

Just one simple action of calling your dog away from a dog on the lead and one simple question of enquiring about the other dog’s friendliness, can make the world of difference. And we can all then enjoy a relaxing walk in the park!