Monday, December 28, 2015

Keeping Kids and Dogs Safe Together

I've recently had several families with children approach me with questions about kids and dogs, and how to keep their children from getting bitten by the family dog.  

So, I figured it was time to pool all of my information and write about this oh-so-important topic!

The FACTS:  Kids don't have good boundaries, and they also don't read dog body language signals...which is why they get bit.

The Language Barrier:  The number one problem in dog/human interactions in a lack of understanding.

Usually by the time I hear from parents of small kids that there is a problem, the dog has been saying very politely (but very clearly) for a long time, "I am uncomfortable about this child."  

But the kids don't see it (and often the adults don't, either).  So the dog has to 'raise his voice.'  

By the time we have growling, snapping, or barking, the dog has usually given 100 or more small canine body signals about how stressed he is.  And he may have been giving those signs for a long time - weeks, months, or years.  But if we've missed the signals, it's not the dog's fault, right?  

First off, more adults and kids need to learn to read canine body language, so we can intervene in stressful child to dog interactions long before the dog feels the need to bite.

Here are two awesome body language videos we regularly recommend at Front Range K9 Academy.  They are just the tip of the iceberg in regards to the amount of good information you can find on the internet about canine body language.  We invite you to explore the vast internet resources about dog body language even more, but these will get you started:

RIGHT & WRONG:   The next step is teaching kids how they should - and should NOT- interact with pets is imperative.  

Some things should be obvious - no yanking of tails, poking of eyes, pulling of fur, etc.  But other things are more subtle - like teaching toddlers to 'let sleeping dogs lie.'

These two posters from the late Dr. Sophia Yin are perfect for most families to explore together:

But parents, beware!  Simply telling a child under the age of about 5 to 7 years old these things is not really going to help the situation. 

Before the child has developed the appropriate neurological links that lead to consequential learning skills, they are not able to process this information enough for it to affect their behavior.  Even when children can parrot back that they should 'be nice to doggy,' it doesn't always mean they understand what they are saying.

So, it is still up to the parents to keep both the dog and the child safe.

So, what should YOU be doing to keep your dog and children safe?  

My rule to new parents (or anyone with kids under 15 around) is that during any time dogs and kids are together, one adult must be in charge of watching dog-kid interactions 100% of the time.  

That means that you can't watch the dog and the kids and cook dinner, and watch a movie, and respond to emails, and talk on the phone, and.....  The person in charge of the dog has ONLY that job.  

I know.  I know.... But you're busy!  Or you want to relax and enjoy the family!   You can't watch the dog and the child 24/7, right?

Sometimes in today's busy world we really do need to be multi-tasking.  So, I also recommend giving the dog a space that is truly 100% off limits to the child.  

Get creative! You can use simple barriers like these small, adjustable pet pens, to section off areas in rooms so that the dog is not banished to a crate, etc. and is still part of the family, but is protected.  Make training to go to a bed in his 'special space' fun for the dog - providing lots of chew toys, treats, and attention to him while he is there.

BUT, the supervision rule still applies, even with a dog in his 'special, off-limits' spot.  If there isn't an adult able to supervise the child to make sure he's not breaking through the boundaries or barriers -  then the dog must be kenneled.  This includes dinner prep, quick trips to the bathroom, catnaps, etc.

Our job as adults is to protect our child AND our dog.  While this may seem extreme, the alternative - which involves direct and present danger to both the dog and the child - are unthinkable.

Another great resource for parents with pooches is Barbara Shumannfang's book: Happy Kids, Happy Dogs.  It's loaded with great training tips and ideas on getting through parenthood with dogs - from infants to teens!

That's it from this end of the leash.

Jennifer Hime is a dog trainer and behaviorist, the owner of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Do You Know Your Dog's Emotional Age?

The Seven Year Rule and Your Dog’s Emotional/Behavioral Age

When I was a child, I remember hearing our family veterinarian telling my father about the ‘Seven Year Rule’ for calculating our dog’s age. The idea is that a dog will age seven years to every one of our human years.   

My first dog, Mugsy, was a spunky Jack Russel Terrier mix who lived to the ripe old age of 15 – which would have made him 105 in human years!

Of course in recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how the 7 year rule doesn’t really apply in all cases.

It’s probably more like 5 human years to 1 dog year for smaller dogs like Mugsy; and more like 10 human years to 1 dog year for large and giant breeds, with the 7 year rule holding somewhat steady for most medium sized dogs.   

Here's a handy chart for calculating your dog's age in human years:

But what interests me more is that the ‘7 human years to 1 dog year rule’ has always been thought of in terms of physical age of the dog.

What about mental age?  Or social age?  Emotional age?

Have you ever thought about how your dog changes mentally, socially, and emotionally over time?  Most of us notice the (blissful) differences between a 6 month old puppy and a mature dog.  But have you ever stopped to think about how those changes come about? 

Have you considered your dog’s ‘behavioral age?’

Through the years, I’ve worked with and trained dogs ranging in age from 8 weeks old to 16 years, and I’ve come to believe that the good old “7 to 1” rule applies very much to the behavioral age of most dogs.

My whippet, Trinity; pictured at 24 hours old, 4 weeks, and 9 months.

Additionally, as my dog training career heads into its 26 year, I am more and more convinced that dogs and humans share the same basic emotional and social developmental stages.  This probably goes a long way towards explaining why dogs have been domesticated for so long, and why we still get along with them so well!

So – what does this mean for you and your dog?  Well, let’s first take a look at the 7 to 1 rule in regards to dogs’ emotional, social, mental and behavioral development.

This little mud lover is named Bailey, a Golden Retriever puppy at 6 months oldSay you have a 6 month old pup – if we do the 7 to 1 rule math, your pup would be the equivalent of a three and a half year old child.  Anyone who has spent time with a rambunctious pup and a 3 year old toddler can probably readily see the similarities!  The pup is aching to be a big dog – exploring its entire world with its nose and new teeth – itching to try out its newly found coordination and strength.  

Likewise, the toddler is walking, talking and mastering her independence with that shudder-inducing phrase, “NO!”

Both the pup and the toddler are exploring new levels of independence and confidence.  And we look at them both and know they are far from the ‘finished’ adult products they each think they are.

Fast forward to the 2 year old dog.  Compared to our human toddler, he’s maturing exponentially faster.  Using our 7 to 1 rule, our dog is now 14 in human years – a young teenager.  

And again, anyone watching the painfully awkward stages of a human teenager can often suddenly relate to the same social ineptitude and struggles of a 2 year old dog – if they stop to think about.

To read more about ‘The Terrible Two’s’ for dogs, check out our earlier blog post:  "The Terrible Twos"

Now let’s move forward in time again.  Our canine friend has just hit 4 years old.  Using our 7 to 1 rule, our dog is (finally) officially an adult; probably around 28 years old. 

At this age, he’s established where he belongs in his family.  His social circles are pretty well defined and fixed He has set social circles of intimate friends and family; and while he can still make new friends, he takes a bit longer to warm up to strangers.  He may be less tolerant of new dogs or people who are socially inept and get in his space.  Like most humans of the equivalent age, he’s begun to be somewhat more selective about who he hangs out with.  

This is all assuming our 4 year old dog has had mostly positive experiences throughout his social development.  Dogs, just like humans, carry memories of traumatic (or even just annoying) interactions with them through their lives.  Imagine a 28 year old human who had less than ideal childhood, teenage, and young adult experiences.  That 28 year old human may be less socially developed than another human with different, more positive life experiences.

How about a 6 year old dog?  If our 7 to 1 rule holds, this dog is now around 42 human years – a fully mature adult, who most likely still feels quite spritely and ready for life, but who is even more set in behavior patterns and routines.  Even more than our 4 year old dog, this dog has a very clear idea of who he wants to be friends with, and who he doesn’t. 

So often, I have clients with dogs between the ages of 5 and 8 or so who are surprised their dogs are not itching to meet and play with every single dog they see.  Owners are caught off guard when their mature dog snaps or growls at a puppy who has just jumped on its shoulders. 

This adult Rottie is hardly amused with the younger, smaller dog's antics.
But again – if we think about the emotional and behavioral age of the 5 to 8 year old dog (35 to 56 human years), I think we’d be hard pressed to find many humans in that age range who are fans of having toddlers or teenagers jump all over them exuberantly and inappropriately. 

Even worse, imagine going to a party for people your own age, and suddenly being surrounded by adults who are not acting their age, but are behaving like toddlers or teenagers.  This is generally disconcerting to even the easiest-going of folks, be they dogs or humans.

Of course, as we fast forward to the ‘golden years’, our dogs continue on the fast track of the 7 to 1 rule.  The 10 year old dog is emotionally equivalent to a human at age 70. The 12 year old dog is a sage 84, and so on.

Often, it’s only as our dogs age that we begin to really pay attention to their changing social, emotional, and behavioral needs.  As hearing and sight begin to fail, arthritis kicks in, and sometimes cognitive function declines, owners are often caught suddenly by how rapidly their canine friend has aged.

It may seem quite sudden, and certainly 7 years of advancement to each year of ours is quite rapid.  But if we pay attention to the 7 to 1 rule throughout our dogs’ lives, we can be much better owners – more in tune with changes in social, emotional, behavioral, and physical changes in our dogs.  

Where your dog is on the 7 to 1 behavioral development scale should play a part in your daily decisions about your dog’s overall health and care – from how much mental and physical exercise your dog needs, to whether or not it’s the right time to add a new puppy, and everything in between.

That's it from this end of the leash.

Jennifer Hime is a dog trainer and behaviorist, the owner of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.