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Thursday 20 June 2019

You can prevent problems arising by learning to understand dog language

Children often don’t realise when dogs feel uncomfortable
Children often don’t realise when dogs feel uncomfortable

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Anne was desperately upset. 'Finn has never done anything like this before. It's so unlike him!' Her five year old Black Labrador had just snapped at her three year old son.

Finn had been the 'baby before a baby', a common syndrome with young couples who don't yet feel ready to have a baby together, and who decide to get a pet. Myself and my wife did this pre-children: we even went so far as calling our new kitten 'Baby' because he was a tiny, vulnerable, baby-like creature. If anyone at the time had told us that he was some sort of baby surrogate, we'd have scoffed at them. Yet two years later, we had our first child. There was definitely something going on there that we weren't fully aware of.

Anyway, Anne and her husband Jim adored Finn: he was a classic Black Labrador, intelligent, friendly, good-looking and good-natured. He had become the centre of their lives, until, of course, their first baby arrived a couple of years later.

They took the usual precautionary steps to make sure that Finn adapted to the new situation. In the weeks leading up to the birth, they played the sound of a baby crying on their sound system at home , they introduced Finn to babies belonging to friends, and they tweaked his daily routine to make it more like it would be when the baby was born. He went for fewer walks, he was given a bit less attention, and his daily activities were less one-on-one than they had been before. Finn didn't seem to mind this: he ambled through his life, happy with his lot.

And when the baby was born, Jim came home before Anne, with some bedding that had been in contact with the baby, to let Finn sniff it. This allowed him to get used to the scent before actually meeting the baby, and it reduced the risk of him reacting in any negative way.

Everything went very smoothly: as they'd hoped Finn accepted the baby boy into their home, wagging his tail in pleasure whenever Anne came into the room carrying the baby, and never reacting in any negative way to the presence of the small bundle. The perfect family set up seemed to have developed, just what Anne and Jim had hoped for. They went on to have a second baby, eighteen months later. Life was busier than ever, and Finn had become a safe, reliable part of that contented picture.

And now this. Suddenly, Finn had caused a commotion. Their three year old son had been playing in their kitchen/dining area, the baby had been in a cot close by, while Finn had been lying near the patio door. Anne had been preparing dinner, when suddenly, she'd heard a loud 'yip' from Finn, and their son was clutching his hands to his face, screaming. Finn had snapped, catching the boy on the side of his face, causing a visible mark. It didn't need medical attention, but Anne and Jim were filled with horror: what if the snap had been a couple of centimetres deeper? Their son could have been badly injured. Or what, even, if Finn had been even more aggressive: they had seen the stories in the papers about dogs savaging young children. How could they ever trust Finn again?

When I asked Anne what, specifically, had happened, she couldn't answer. She hadn't been looking across at the time that Finn snapped. The boy had been tottering around, close to Finn, but that's all she knew. The boy was too young to explain, but anything could have happened: he could have grabbed Finn's ear, stood on his tail, or even just tried to give him a big hug. Young children can't understand dog body language, and they tend to move very close to an animal when the dog is really uncomfortable. Dogs never snap randomly: something must have happened that pushed Finn to a place where he felt that he had to do something to defend himself.

This incident highlights a common issue that the Dogs Trust charity is currently trying to address: they take a 'prevention is better than cure' approach to responsible dog ownership. A dog's body language can give people an insight into how a dog is feeling and could potentially prevent an unfortunate incident arising. If humans learn to read this canine body language more effectively, problems can be prevented.

Dogs Trust runs a specific workshop on how to help ensure their children are safe around dogs both indoor and out and about. Parents and guardians, and expectant parents and guardians are all invited to attend. In particular, the charity warns parents to always supervise play time between children and dogs. The charity also runs classes for children, teaching them to be gentle when playing with dogs, and showing them the warning signs that a dog might display if they are unhappy.

Anne and Jim went to one of the workshops, and they now have a new understanding of how to integrate Finn into their family. They have new routines, with new precautions. They know that life with this lovely dog and their gorgeous children is now far safer than it had been before.

Around 40% of Irish homes have dogs, so most children will encounter dogs at some stage. It makes sense that all children should be taught how to understand them.

Visit www.learnwithdogstrust.ie to learn more about Dogs Trust workshops.

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