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Reading your dog's body language

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Before baby is born, it is imperative you learn to read your dog's body language so that you can interpret the often subtle signs that mean a dog is unhappy or uncomfortable.

"The better you become at reading your dog's body language, the better you will be at avoiding accidents," said Gina DiNardo Lash, assistant vice president of the American Kennel Club. "My main rule is to never leave a dog alone with an infant or toddler."

In the meantime, it is helpful to crate-train your dog if you haven't done so already, Lash said. A crate provides a cozy and secure place for the dog to rest and take a time-out from all the new sights, sounds and smells of the baby. When the dog becomes uncomfortable, it will appreciate having its own special place to recuperate.

Too much of a good thing

Many dogs will tolerate being hugged while giving very clear signals they are unhappy or uncomfortable. Often a dog will bite after giving signals that it wants the hugging to stop.

"Dogs don't like hugs, believe it or not," said Kellyann Conway, director of animal training and behavior for Animal Pet Video and Petfinder.com. "Dogs don't greet each other with hugs when they meet. When one dog places himself over the shoulder and neck area of another dog, he is seeking status over the dog."

According to the American Kennel Club:

  • Dogs feel vulnerable when hugged by someone taller than them, and must mentally become submissive.
  • Some dogs take a hug as an act of dominance or aggression.
  • Children should be taught to pet the dog on the head and neck, across its back and on its sides.
  • If a child is interacting with a dog, place your hands on the dog as well.
  • Reinforce your dog's proper behavior around your child with treats and praise so it associates the child with positive experiences.

Interpreting meaning

Recognizing warning signs in a dog's body language will help tremendously in improving the relationship between dog and child, Lash said. While all dogs are individuals, some gestures are considered universal:

  • When a dog leans or turns away, or quickly gets up to move, the dog does not want to be there.
  • If the eyes are showing whites or looking away, or giving you a pleading look, the dog is in a state of discomfort.
  • If the dog is suddenly panting or yawning or licking its face, the dog is in a state of anxiety.
  • If the dog is growling or has its hair raised on its back with its tail up, or its lips are tight, these are definite signs the dog is upset, and you should remove the child from the dog or instruct the child to back off the dog immediately.

Members of the pack

Dogs may believe that children are members of the pack, and a pack leader may lean heavily on a toddler, paw at the child roughly, or hurt the child by accident.

"It's important that toddlers understand the pet isn't a toy, that in fact it's very delicate," Conway said. "Make it clear there can be no tail or ear pulling, chasing, jumping on, hitting, teasing, yelling, or any other behavior that could frighten or hurt your pet."

Here are some more tips for ensuring a safe interaction between pets and children:

  • Running and screaming can cause some herding breeds to chase the child, nipping in play. Encourage calm, quiet activities between toddlers and pets.
  • Teach children to leave the dog alone while its eating, sleeping, or chewing on a toy or bone.
  • Never let children stick their face right into the dog's face.
  • In general, large dogs may be better suited to toddlers than small dogs because they are sturdier and better tolerate the pushes and pulls of an enthusiastic child.

The best dogs to be around children are those owned by responsible adults. Take the time to learn dog body language and teach your child the proper way to behave around a dog.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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