Reading Your Dog – Episode 2

It’s been awhile since I posted Episode 1 in this series.  I thought this time I’d focus on interactions between dogs and kids.

Test Yourself

Rate the scenarios below as red light (need to intervene right away), yellow light (might be okay, should be ready to quickly intervene if needed) and green light (totally fine – both the kid and the dog are clearly happy and/or comfortable).  I’ll share my opinions down below.

Example 2
Example 1


Example 1
Example 2
Example 3
Example 3
Girl hugs dog
Example 4
Example 5
Example 5

My thoughts


 Example 1 – Red light!

Example 2

First, consider what the baby is actually doing here – this could quickly and easily turn into a very painful experience for the dog.  It’s our job to make sure the dog isn’t harassed by children.  This is important for the dog’s welfare, but also because if the dog learns to associate a child with pain, then the likelihood for future aggression increases.

I will never forget a client I had many years ago.  They hired me for basic training for their new golden retriever puppy.  She was a lovely dog, and very good with the kids.  So good, that they could literally lay on top of her while she was chewing on a bone or toy.  They also could put their faces in her face while she was eating, play with her ears and do all kinds of generally unpleasant things that she tolerated with no sign of aggression.  This went on with almost no break for most of the session.  I told the parents that they needed to set firm rules for their children about how to interact with the dog, because even though she was tolerating their behavior now, it didn’t mean she would always be alright with it.  Even so called “bomb proof” dogs need to have their own personal space respected.

Unfortunately, the family did not follow through on my recommendations.  Several month later, I got a call from them saying that she was starting to growl at the children over bones.  I suggested that they do behavior modification immediately to address the problem before it progressed.  They choose to “wait and see”.  Another several months after that they called because one of their children had walked into the kitchen and the dog had launched herself from several feet away and bitten at the child’s face.  Although I would take on a case like this now, at the time I was not experienced enough, so I referred them to a veterinary behaviorist.  I do not know the ultimate fate of that dog, but I assume she was rehomed, or possibly even euthanized.  Protect your dog from your kids!  And if you do see issues, please, please, please address them early!

Second, observe the dog’s body language here.  Although the dog doesn’t look terribly distressed, his (or her) ears are back, and she’s showing a “crescent eye” – the white of her right eye (our left) is showing in a crescent shape because she’s looking away from the child.  The way her eyebrows are lifted also suggests she’s worried.  Also note that she’s leaning away from the baby.

 Example 2 – Red light!

Example 1

This is very similar to the first example.  Again the dog doesn’t look terribly upset, but the baby has at least one fistful of skin.  Also note the dog’s ear position – back – and the fact that I think he (or she) is closing her eyes.  It’s a little hard to say from a snapshot, but it’s possible she’s squinting because she’s flinching away from the pain.  Regardless – kids should not be allowed to grab onto dogs like this.  Obviously, this is a baby, so he is too young to understand the rules, but instead of taking a photo, the adult here should have gently rescued the dog.

Example 3 – Green light!

Example 3

Both the boy and the dog appear to be very happy in this picture.  Note that the boy is not holding onto or restraining the dog in anyway, which suggests that she wants to be where she is (and they she can move away if she wants).  Her ears are back and her eyes are closed, but this is almost certainly because of the water!  Her mouth is open (a sign that she is relaxed) and her body appears relaxed as well.  Also note that her body is “curvy”  – her tail and spinal cord are not aligned in one straight line.  If you were looking at her from above, her tail and spinal cord would make a ‘J’ shape, instead of a lower case ‘l’ shape.  This is another indication that she is relaxed (as would a ‘C’ or ‘S’ shaped alignment).

Example 4  – Green light (maybe yellow?)

Girl hugs dog

If this girl and dog have had many, many positive interactions and there have never been any signs of fear or aggression from this dog, I would say this is “green”.  The dog’s mouth is open, he looks relaxed and his tail/spine alignment is curvy.  His ears are to the side, which can mean fear or uncertainty, but it could also indicate that he’s listening to something behind him.  Given the whole picture here, I would say he’s comfortable and relaxed.

Why did I say maybe yellow?  If you don’t know this dog very well and/or the dog doesn’t know the girl very well, I would still observe carefully.  In general, dog’s don’t like to be hugged or restrained, which is what she’s doing.  I would want to make sure this was a fairly brief hug and that she would immediately let go if he started to struggle or pull away.

Example 5 – Yellow light (maybe red)

Example 5

This dog is clearly concerned.  Her mouth is closed, there is tension in her face and body, her ears are back and her body alignment is straight.  For these reasons, I would say yellow.  However, there are a few factors that could make this red.  How has the dog behaved around the child in the past?  Again, if there is a history of fear, discomfort or aggression around the child, I would intervene right away.  In addition, if the interaction is anything but brief, I would intervene (unless the dog visibly relaxes).

Final notes

There were two things I noticed as I was discussing these photos that I think are worth pointing out.

1)  It’s important to pay attention to the whole picture.  Particular behaviors could occur in more than one context.  For example, putting ears back because they are worried, or because they are listening to something behind them.  Look at the overall picture to make an assessment of how the dog is feeling.  Still confused?  It’s possible the dog is confused too – they will often show mixed signals if they are experiencing conflicting feelings.  In this case, the dog is still uncertain at the very least, so I would change the context to try to make them more comfortable.

2)  Context matters!  In the last two photos, it was hard to give an exact reading, because it depends on the context.  Keep in mind the dog’s history, the behavior of the child, how well the dog and child know each other and any other relevant factors when assessing a situation.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution!  Your dog will thank you for it and your child and your dog will have a better relationship as a result!

Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding

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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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