How to tell if your dog is stressed around children

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Do you know the signs of stress in your dog?

Whenever school holidays come round, and during the Covid-19 lockdown, social media is awash with pictures of children and pets. It should be just the thing to lift the spirits, yet dog professionals are often left feeling very anxious about the images displayed.

What looks like a photo of a dog and a toddler having a great time often contains warning signs that the dog is not at all happy with the situation. Sometimes it may just be a poor choice of photograph which doesn’t reflect the true events, but it is vitally important to know the warning signs that a dog has had enough to prevent bites.

Most bites to children are from the family pet, or a dog well known to the child. Labradors are responsible for the most bites, but maybe this shouldn’t be surprising as they are the most popular breed in the UK. Parents often say, “the bite just came out of the blue”, but vets and behaviourists know that biting is usually the last resort.

What are the signs my dog is stressed around children?

Children should never be unsupervised with pets, especially dogs. How closely the parent is involved will depend on the age of the child, the size of the dog, and the activity being engaged in.

Children must be taught that the pet should not be grabbed, poked, punched, or teased, and should be free to move away at any time.

With dogs, watch closely for signs that they are becoming uncomfortable. Yawning, blinking, and lip licking are the first signs that the dog might want to be left alone. Next, they may turn their head away, followed by turning the whole body (which often results in a paw lifting off the ground).

Walking away or crawling with the ears back and the tail tucked under are more serious signals that the dog wants to be left alone. If these signs are seen the child and dog should be separated, and the dog encouraged to relax in a safe and quiet place.

What happens if early stress signals from my dog are missed?

If these early signals are missed the dog may try showing the belly. The difference between this belly display and the one shown by a happy dog wanting a belly rub is that the dog will seem stiff. The dog may display the white of the eye (called a ‘whale eye’), and there may be tense ‘smile’ lines around the corners of the mouth.

Standing very stiff and staring can be misinterpreted as a dog accepting what is being done to him but are signs that the dog is very uncomfortable and close to snapping.

Growling is the final warning sign! Growling must never be punished. Punishing a dog for growling doesn’t change how the dog feels about a situation (like being sat on by a child), it just makes it less likely that the dog will growl in the future.

Now there is a dog who is just as unhappy, but not giving a warning growl. If a dog growls when a child is interacting separate them immediately and try to find out what was making the dog feel uncomfortable.

Again, the dog needs time to calm down and relax away from children. Ignore the growl and the dog might snap. When dogs interact, the snap is only a warning shot: it isn’t meant to make contact. But humans, especially small children, do not react as quickly as other dogs so warning snaps often cause bites. When a dog is pushed to make a deliberate bite, injuries can be severe, even life-threatening.

Brown Labrador sat under a rocking chair

Tips to reduce stress around dogs and children

As well as supervising children and pets, there are other ways to reduce the likelihood of snapping and biting.

  • Dogs like to sleep for 12-14 hours a day. Puppies and older dogs may need even more sleep. During school holidays and lockdown many dogs have been unable to find a quiet space to rest which may cause them to be less tolerant than normal.
  • Creating a safe, quiet place for the dog to relax, and limiting the amount of time children and adults are playing with the dog can help.
  • Games which hype dogs up (like repeated ball throwing) can be swapped for calmer and more mentally challenging games like hunting for balls.
  • Search games can be played on a harness and lead with children hiding the toys and adults helping to hold the lead.
  • Dogs should be out of the way during back yard picnics unless they have exceptional food manners!
  • They can enjoy a puzzle toy in their quiet place instead of begging for a sausage.
  • Children should be taught never to disturb the dog in his quiet place, and never to approach a dog who has a toy or food.
  • Finally, the ‘be a tree’ game is a great way for children to stay safe if approached by a strange dog, or if the family dog starts getting rowdy! By standing still, folding their arms in, closing their eyes, and calling a grown up in a calm voice, the child becomes less interesting to the dog who will usually lose interest and walk away.

Remember, dogs need their own space and time out in busy households at times when the family are all at home, just like the current Coronavirus pandemic. Understanding your dog’s range of behaviour signals is important – especially signs of stress – so you are able to improve the situation by removing the dog or child.

Implementing our stress reducing tips can help improve dog-family relationships and ensure everyone is enjoying time with each other!

Is your dog showing signs of stress?

Breakthrough’s unique formula works to ensure all of the vital amino acids and vitamins that are needed to synthesise the key feel-good neurotransmitters (such as serotonin) reach the brain in a way no other dog food is formulated to do.

This can help to improve your dog’s behaviour, support learning, and help your dog maintain optimal emotional balance to allow him to overcome the stresses and strains of everyday life.

Do you need further advice

If you need any further advice, please contact the Breakthrough Helpline Team on our freephone number 0808 168 3344 or by email hello@breakthrough.co.uk.