If you are reading this column, I’ll bet you have a companion animal (or a houseful!). You know your pets — their personalities, what they like, and what they don’t like. It can be easy to forget that animals are individuals with different temperaments and not every animal will interact with you the way yours do. No matter if you are out and about and want to say hi to dog being walked, trying to help a stray, or encounter an animal that may be aggressive, there are things you can do to keep yourself safe.
Claren Mulhall is head dog trainer and a certified dog bite prevention educator at Cloud K-9 Dog training services (www.cloudk9nm.com). She also is a longtime volunteer at the ASCMV, the mandatory dog walking workshop for new volunteers as well as more advanced workshops.
When it comes to safety around dogs — whether you know them or not — Claren emphasizes two important factors: giving a dog space and recognizing and respecting basic dog body language.
Give a dog space
Giving a dog space and obtaining consent to touch are important concepts, especially for children to understand, Claren notes. If a person is walking their dog and you would like to say hello, first ask permission of the owner to pet the dog — and wait to hear the answer before you approach. Maybe the dog isn’t good with strangers, or maybe the person is in a hurry. Maybe the dog is being trained. Respect what person says and don’t take it personally if the answer is no. If that’s the case, Claren suggests saying “ok, you have a nice-looking dog!” and moving on.
If the answer is yes, consent is still needed — but from the dog! According to Claren, “Put your hand out and let the dog come to you rather than going into the dog’s space. Interact for a few seconds, and the dog will let you know if he wants more. Allow the dog the choice to move away.” Even if it wants more attention, continue to respect its space. Pet or scratch under the chin or along the side — but avoid bending over the dog or reaching over the top of its head.
To teach kids how to respect a dog’s space when the dog is sleeping, eating, playing or otherwise doing its own thing, Claren suggests using an example children can relate to. “When teaching kids about respecting space, I ask how they’d feel if they were eating the most delicious chocolate cupcake and someone came over and tried to pull them away and get them to do something else other than enjoy their cupcake.” With older kids, the example might be video games or a TV show — whatever gets the point across best that animals deserve the choice of whether they interact with people.
Recognizing a dog’s body language
Equally important is recognizing a dog’s body language. A stressed dog will exhibit certain body language, described in “Shepherd’s Ladder of Aggression” (named for the researcher Dr. Kendal Shepherd, not the dog!) that can help us decode a dog’s level of stress. Body language is how they communicate that they want a situation to change.
According to Claren, if we don’t read the signs right, choose to ignore them, and/or punish the dog for exhibiting for lower-level signs of stress (in other words, ignoring the dog’s reason for being stressed instead of correcting what’s stressing it out), the dog’s aggression will escalate. If the stress is removed, the dog realizes it has been understood and will not feel the need to continue up the ladder of aggression.
When you are out and about, Claren recommends carrying a small air horn to keep unfamiliar dogs away, and she also recommends citronella spray instead of pepper spray for close-up protection (in case the wind blows spray back in your face). Citronella overwhelms a dog — 60% of a dog’s brain is assigned to smell — so it can be useful in breaking up a dog fight or giving you time to get away from an aggressive dog.
What if you can’t prevent an unfamiliar dog from approaching you? Claren says if you can, ignore the dog — don’t look at it and don’t run. Most dogs will sniff and move on. She suggests teaching children to “be a tree” (it works for grownups, too): stop, fold your “branches” (hands) in and “look at your roots” (your feet). If you are knocked down, you want to “be a rock”: kneel close to the ground with your hands laced behind your neck. (See doggonesafe.com for more dog bite safety tips and the Be a Tree program.) A future column will address protecting yourself from dogs when you are on a bike.
Unfamiliar dogs are like unfamiliar people! You want to respect their space and understand and pay attention to what their body language and actions are telling you. Love dogs — but be safe!
Notes from the ASCMV:
Elaine Stachera Simon writes for the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley. Follow on Facebook (facebook.com/ASCMV), check out ascmv.org or call 575-382-0018.
The canine “ladder of aggression”: How a dog reacts to stress
Dr. Kendal Shepherd (2004) identified 11 escalating canine reactions to stress. From the lowest to highest levels:
- Yawning, blinking, or nose licking
- Turning its head away
- Turning its body away and sitting and pawing
- Walking away
- Creeping and tucking its ears back
- Standing crouched with a tucked-under tail
- Lying down with a leg up
- Stiffening and/or staring