Reading a Dog

We’ve all read about cases of children being bitten by dogs. Invariably the parents of the child then clamour for the dog to be put down, claiming that it’s a “dangerous dog”. Most times, more often than not, the courts decide in favour of the humans, and a perfectly good dog is euthanized. The child’s family feel exonerated, though the child itself might not have learnt any lesson apart from “All Dogs Are Dangerous”. The poor dog’s owners feel immense grief and sadness because they just lost their beloved family pet.

All of this could be easily prevented. It’s really very simple:

Stay Away From Strange Dogs
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Don’t Touch Dogs You Don’t Know
Let The Dog Eat Its Food In Peace
Don’t Take The Dog’s Toy Away

Basically, if you wouldn’t do it to a human being, don’t do it to a dog, either. You wouldn’t appreciate it if total strangers rushed up to you, eyeballed you and tried to pat you on the head, would you? Or if you were just sitting down to eat your dinner, and someone took your plate away? How about when you’re tired and just falling asleep and someone kept prodding you in the ribs?

When my own son Jack was just 4 we were living in a tiny hamlet in Asturias, in the North of Spain. My neighbours were Ramon and Angela, an elderly couple, their daughter Helena and her 2 children around Jack’s age – Ignacio and Diana, and, on the other side of the road, dairy farmer Juan, his wife Belen and their 3 teenage children.

One afternoon, Jack was playing with Ignacio and Diana outside their grandparents’ house. I heard crying, then Ramon brought Jack over to me. It turned out that Jack had seen Ramon’s German Shepherd dog, Jacob (pronounced “Yakob” the Spanish way) eating, and had made the mistake of trying to touch his food. Jacob had growled a warning, which Jack had ignored. So Jacob whipped his head round and bit Jack on the cheek. It was only a tiny nip, but the shock and suddenness of it had Jack in tears.

Yes, it could have been worse. Jacob could have mauled Jack badly. But I knew him to be a well mannered, polite dog who faithfully trotted alongside Ramon when he went cycling down the lane. Jacob would stand guard where the children played in the yard. He would bark when strangers approached, yet become almost submissive towards anyone he knew, myself included.

I took Jack to the A&E, in case he needed shots or stitches. He needed neither. That evening, I brought Jack over to Ramon’s house. Ramon was most apologetic about Jacob’s behaviour, but I said to him it hadn’t been Jacob’s fault but Jack’s, for being ignorant about how to read a dog’s body language and warning signals, and for trying to touch Jacob’s food while he was eating. Ramon whistled for Jacob, who came into the house and sat at Ramon’s feet.

Jack tentatively patted Jacob and then stroked his back. Jacob extended his paw and Jack shook it. And that was the end of the matter. I needn’t have worried about any long-term effects, for that very same weekend Jack was back outside playing in Ramon’s front yard with Ignacio and Diana, with Jacob on patrolling duty again.

There are any number of infographics out there about how to read a dog’s body language. Feel free to pick your own favourite. I found these on Google Images, which are succint and pertinent to today’s topic: dogs and children.

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