Understanding dogs’ communication can help keep kids safe

Many dog owners can attest to the magnetic charm a dog has, especially for children. Kids get excited at the prospect of petting Fido and can forget that some dogs just aren’t as easy going as others. The results of this attraction can create some scary moments for both child and dog owner.

Jodi Cantafio, program director for Clever Canines — a professional dog training organization in Calgary — says that dogs of all sizes can bite, so it’s important for kids and puppies to be socialized with each other from the start. 

“Sufficiently socializing the dog is making them bombproof so if they are startled they won’t respond with their teeth,” she says.

When meeting an unknown dog, Cantafio says kids should always get permission from the owner before touching the dog. She adds that parents should coach kids to never approach an unattended dog.

“If I could tell parents one thing, it’s that a wagging tail does not mean a dog is happy and should be pet,” she says.

She says the wagging tail represents a higher energy level and a willingness to interact, but adds this does not always a good thing or guarantees a nice interaction.

She suggests parents teach children to wait for the okay from the owner and then to stand beside and not in front of the dog. This side-by-side position eliminates the chance to lean over from the front, which can be a very threatening posture for the dog. She adds that hugging is very unnatural for a dog and leaning in for a kiss can be seen as aggressive.

“Most importantly (children should) never ever run or scream.”—Bill Bruce

She says if the owner gives the go-ahead, the child can offer a closed fist to the dog to sniff as this reduces the chance for finger-biting.

Cantafio likens it to an infant grabbing at keys dangling above them, while a dog will grab at wiggly fingers – but a dog grabs with its mouth.

She says parents should coach their kids to never make direct eye contact with a new dog, and to avoid squealing and shouting as this can mimic prey and increase excitement in the dog.This graphic that Clever Canines gives to clients tells kids not to lean over a dog, or grab or hug it as this is a very threatening posture for dogs.Graphic courtesy of Clever Canines

Bill Bruce — a chief bylaw officer for The City of Calgary’s Animal and Bylaw Services — says that bite prevention programs offered by the City’s bylaw officers teach kids what to do if approached by an unattended dog.

He says children should “stand like a tree” and freeze with their arms tucked into their chest and try to look uninterested in the dog.

“Most importantly (children should) never ever run or scream,” Bruce warns, as this could provoke the prey instinct in an unknown dog.

He says if the dog knocks the child over, the child should “lay like a log” on their stomach with hands locked together behind the neck, protecting the skin from being bitten.

“If a dog is biting or aggressive, never hesitate to call 9-1-1. Otherwise call 3-1-1,” Bruce says.

The Calgary Humane Society offers two classes that are similar to the bite prevention programs offered by Animal and Bylaw Services.

Christine Landry from the humane society says kids get excited when they see a dog and when they run and squeal, the dog can get excited and thinks it’s playtime. Landry echoes the importance of teaching children to never approach an unattended dog.

She emphasizes teaching children how to understand the way that dogs communicate with humans as a preventative measure for attacks or aggressive behavior.