Life With Dogs
Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 05:18PM
Lindsay Cohn

My blog is not topic-specific, which means I can write about whatever I think is important. So today, the topic is: why everyone should learn how to understand dog body language and how to behave around dogs.

Today, I took my two large, friendly dogs out for a quick afternoon spin while the rain had stopped. There is a middle school (6-9th grade?) in the block next to mine. I was walking the dogs by the front of this school, one was sniffing a tree, and the other had sat down to wait, when a man approached me from the school and said "I'm going to have to ask you to take those dogs away from the school. We're having dismissal right now, and I don't want any of my students bitten. Please move along."

My initial outrage was selfish and unjustified, since it revolved mostly around the fact that this dude was just assuming my dogs were going to bite someone. I did, of course, cross the street, since I was still rational enough to realize that, while he was rude, the request was not entirely unreasonable. It still bothered me, though, and it's not because I'm silly enough to claim that "my dogs would never bite anyone". Any dog may bite someone, if provoked. What bothers me is the attitude implied in the request, and the fear I see everywhere here: when people see my dogs and jump, or scream, or run into a driveway, or look at me like I'm some kind of assailant and angrily wave at me to move away from them, or grab their friends to put them bodily between themselves and my dogs, or tell me to get away, because ... the children.

The United States is full of dogs. About 75 million of them, just counting pets. The vast majority of dogs - even strays - are not dangerous to people, but the few that are will be triply dangerous if you are afraid of them. So this is a public service announcement: if you have children, do them a huge favor, and teach them how to behave properly around animals. Teach them not to be afraid, and how to behave if they encounter a strange dog. If you yourself are afraid of dogs, find a way to try to overcome it (try going to a local shelter and asking the staff there to help you interact with some of the quieter dogs, or ask a friend with a dog to help you get used to being around a quiet dog).

Teach your children always to ask a dog's owner if it's okay to pet the dog before approaching it. Teach them not to try to approach a dog from behind, or to try to pet a dog's head from above. Not to scream, or jump, or make sudden moves. Teach them never EVER to run from a dog, and how to recognize aggressive body language. Teach them not to turn their backs on a possibly aggressive dog.

If you own a dog, make sure you give it proper socialization with plenty of people and dogs, and children, if possible (supervised). Spay or neuter your dog. Do not leave the dog alone for long periods, and do not chain your dog outside (tied-out dogs are three times more likely to bite because they are frustrated).

See the ASPCA's excellent pages on the topics of dog aggression, dog body language, and bite prevention.

I cannot stress this enough: fear of dogs is likely to make you or your child engage in behavior that INCREASES the likelihood of an attack. You don't have to like dogs, but just as you would learn how to behave if you were heading into bear country, you should know how to behave around the most ubiquitous predator animal in human society.

P.S. Here is where I put in a heartfelt plea that law enforcement be trained - specifically trained - on how to recognize and understand canid body language and how to deal properly with animals. There have been far too many stories in the last several years of police officers killing family pets because they (the police officers) "felt threatened", often when the dog was simply coming around a corner to see who was there, or acting distressed because of its owner's distress (e.g. the particularly disturbing shooting of Max the Rottweiler). I should not have to be afraid to call the police to my house in an emergency for fear that they will come in and shoot my dogs. I understand that the officers must have a way to protect themselves from harm, but there should be some reasonable standard of determining whether there is in fact any threat of harm.

Article originally appeared on lpcohn (http://lpcohn.squarespace.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.