“Invisible” Signals – Why Parental Supervision Isn’t Enough

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So often when dogs attack, we hear clueless family members say, “It came out of nowhere.”  Well, that’s simply not true.  Dogs ALWAYS give warning.  We know our fans are smarter than the average bear, but here are some tips to share with people who might not recognize their children’s dangerous behavior and their dogs’ subtle distress signals.


Guest Blog by The Pawfectionist, originally posted on Dogshare


When attending consults for families with a dog that has bitten their child, I often hear the expected words flow out of the parents’ mouth, “it came out of nowhere.” I can usually tell in that moment alone by the dog that the behaviour did not come out of nowhere without warning.


You hear over and over again, “Supervise your dogs around your children,” from animal professionals as well as the media. So why is this not stopping the incidence of bites? It is one thing to supervise, but to understand what you are seeing is something completely different. Herein lies the issue. We are all told to supervise but not taught how to recognise the potential threat and prevent a bite.


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Like people, dogs have many different ways of communicating through body language. Sometimes these signals can be seemingly insignificant to the untrained eye. We are attuned to human body language because we are the same species. We are taught human body language and have an innate understanding from the moment we open our eyes. Dogs are not humans and while some of the body language is similar, it is quite naive to think that any person could recognise and interpret all the signals a dog projects at any moment. Perhaps it is our history with dogs that leads us to have an inflated sense of understanding of our four-legged companion. After all, we don’t pretend to understand other less domesticated animals such as foxes, kangaroos or possums. We just allow them the space they need because we don’t know nor can we predict how they will react.


Parents need to understand that dogs, as with all other animals, have a non-domesticated history and will react to protect themselves as you would as a human. In order to prevent bite incidents, parents need to learn to read dog body language and act accordingly in each situation.


Here are a few tips to help you supervise your children with dogs a little more effectively:


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Play Area – Keep children and dogs in an open area where the dog has the option to move away if it feels uncomfortable. If a dog is relaxing near a couch or in a corner, make sure the children are kept away. Dogs that feel cornered are more likely to exhibit a fight response as they are unable to flee the situation should they need to.


General Body Language – Keep it loose. Dogs that have a loose tail, back, eyes and mouth are exhibiting a more relaxed body posture. Dogs that have a tight mouth and stiff body posture are telling you and your children that they are uncomfortable and you must step in by calling the dog away or telling the children to give the dog space.


Stress Signals – These signals are usually missed by most parents. These are the “invisible” signals, as they can be misinterpreted as something else.


– Yawning
– Licking lips
– Turning away
– Quick and shallow panting
– Moon eye (demonstrated below)


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If your dog is showing these signals, ask the children to give the dog space.


Children’s Body Language – If the children are behaving inappropriately or showing intimidating body language, the dog can become stressed. An innocent example of this was just yesterday at the park with my dog Luke. There were children at the park who wanted to do tricks with Luke. I showed them bang (play dead). A simple quiet “bang” with a finger point from a distance was Luke’s command. The command given by the child was a loud guttural “BANG” with a finger point and intimidating body posture close to Luke’s face. Luke flinched from this and it was clear that, while he did perform the bang, he was uncomfortable and I took steps to lessen the interaction with Luke to give him the space he needed. While I don’t think Luke would have bitten the child, I would not take this risk.


Other behaviours, such as pulling at a dog’s ears or tail, or sitting or lying on a dog, are not appropriate. If you wouldn’t do it to a human, don’t do it to a dog. If a child is doing any of these, it is important to cease interaction immediately until the child is taught to play nicely.


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Growling and Showing of Teeth – While I would hope most of you would recognise these two signals, it is important to note them in this list. Many people will discipline a dog for growling or showing “aggression” toward a child, but these signals are important, as they are the signals that are used in place of a bite, and should not be discouraged at any point. If your dog is showing either of these signs, you need to remove the dog from the situation and give them some space to relax away from the children.


As well as recognising and responding to your dog’s body language, it is also important to teach these same things to your child so they can keep themselves safe. For more information on safety with children and dogs, please read our original blog, Living Harmoniously with Kids and Dogs.


Should you have any questions or concerns about your situation at home, please feel free to contact our guest blogger, The Pawfectionist, by visiting their website.


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158 thoughts on ““Invisible” Signals – Why Parental Supervision Isn’t Enough”

  1. Unfortunately, I can claim this story as untrue I lived through 2 violent dog attacks and remember the events like they happened just yesterday, the rain was coming down in sheets, the wind was howling it was a cold, miserable day outside. My family and I came up with a plan that we were going to couch it under blankets and watch movies all day and so that’s exactly what we did, we were all lying on the couch including our dog Rocky , No one was physically moving, everyone’s attention was focused on the movie we were watching. I just happened to look up and noticed our Maltese, Rocky, lying on my daughters friends lap, I noticed him lying down with his head tilted staring up at her and suddenly his little body jolted forward to her face, I reached out with my arm in an attempt to stop the contact of the Rocky lunging into Arilyn’s face, I thought I had succeeded, and then I looked over and Arilyn, she was holding her cheek with her hand and blood was pouring from her under her hand. The attack literally came out of nowhere, there was no sudden movements by Arilyn, she was a young teenager and was not provoking this dog in any manner, she was lying on a couch, under blankets, not even talking, just simply watching T.V.

    To make dishonest claims that dogs wont attack for no reason is a bold face lie, my daughters friend Arilynn has the scar on her cheek to prove it.

    I’ve experienced 2 violent encounters with unprovoked dogs attacking children the other experience I lived through the dog officer put the dog down because of the nature of such a violent attack.

    • Dogs always give warnings, you didn’t pay attention. I’ve lived around dogs my whole life. I’m 41 and was never bite by a dog. I always had respect for dogs & always knew the warning signs. They are there, you just have to know how to interpret them.

      • I’ve always had dogs, these days we have 3 rescued dogs: 1 large ‘guardian’ German Shepherd / Pitbull mix, 1 docile medium lab mix, and 1 submissive small chihuahua. You almost always have some signs a dog is irritated, or fearful, and may attack, but not always. Some dogs, often the exceptions are toy breeds and pitbulls, may bite first and ask questions second. Small dogs are usually just pre-emptively defending themselves as they remember a pattern that led to pain so seek to avoid it by bitting if necessary. My human toddler has been bitten by my chihuahua because she was scared he would hurt her by playing rough. Now, we keep them separate, my son is a big toddler and a 9 lb dog is no match. My larger German Shepherd / Pit mix was much more difficult to manage, she’s 80 lbs of teeth and muscle and can easily overpower my toddler. Shortly after we got her from the shelter, she would growl and bite us, and she bit hard, often it was to tell us she wanted to be left alone or that we were too close to her while she was feeding, she also attacked our other dogs over toys, etc… It took months of rehabbing her to get rid of her growling and biting but eventually she learned to respect her humans and fellow dog roommates. Now, my toddler even rides her like a horse, wrestles with her, pulls her ears and tail, and feeds her kibble by hand, etc… She’s a young dog and eventually learned to be less ‘on guard’ and territorial. We still closely supervise her and my son because it just takes an instant and my son can be in a world of hurt. My lab mix is a total coward, he’s never bitten anyone or anything, he has been beat up by my son, growled at on walks and startled by strangers and all he does to defend himself is pee/soil himself. Labs are great family dogs but make terrible guard dogs.

  2. Dogs do NOT always give warning signs before biting. I’ve never seen a dog attack for no reason at all, but I’ve definitely seen them attack without giving any warning first. We had a very skittish dachsund mix who would snap when she was startled, especially by a loud noise. There was no time delay whatsoever between the scary noise and the bite. Since she was small and unaggressive it never went beyond a single nip, but we still always had to be careful with having people around her because she could go from relaxed and content to panicked in an instant. Every year at July 4th we would put her in the basement with music playing all night to try and protect her from the firework sounds. She really was a wonderful dog but if dogs are suddenly frightened they do not necessarily give you a warning at all.

    • Dogs always give a warning. It’s body may have stiffened due to tension and that was it’s sign. Its easy to miss that one when you can’t feel it’s body tense. Just need to learn their body language don’t rely on just the teeth and growling. KNOW YOUR DOG

  3. It seems like a lot of people are mixing up provoked attacks with warning signs of an attack. I do not believe that an attack is always necessarily “provoked” Certain breeds of dogs can view small children as “prey like” and so without any real provocation, attack. However there are always signs, although some are hard to read. It comes down to knowing the dog or dogs your children are going to be around. We have a great pyr now who is three. He is a gentle giant who is always relaxed and calm, even with a child or two tripping over him once in a while. However, when a stranger comes into our house you can see the tension in the way his ears are drawn back and the stiff jerry movements of his body. I know my dog and all of the dogs my children are around well enough to know the warning signs. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook because you’ve had your dog for x amount of years and nothing even remotely close has ever happened. You aren’t automatically programmed to read the signs because of the security that the dog has always been a good dog. I had a shepherd who had never hurt a soul. He dutifully allowed my children to love and trip all over him with nothing but patience and love. However, one day my nephew came over and Kaedon was laying on his bed. He was being very withdrawn and quiet that day. I thought nothing of it because here was this amazing dog who has never had any issue with children. As usual though I told my sister (she was watching my kids while I went out) to keep an eye on the kids and make sure they weren’t intentionally climbing all over kaedon 🙂 (he was getting old) but thought nothing of it. It was a robotic line i had used over the years. While I was gone my young nephew had gone over to our kaedon while my sister wasn’t looking and tripped over one of his massive paws. On his way down he accidently grabbed for kaedon’s ear to try and stop himself from falling. Our dog reacted and snapped at my nephew leaving a huge deep gash above his lip. I was in shock. I didn’t read the signs of kaedon’s withdrawal like I should have. I should’ve known that not being up and about with our kids was unusual for him. Thankfully my nephew was OK and we never had an instance like that again. It was a huge wake up call though for us.

  4. This is essential information to get across to parents. It is true that dogs can be quite unpredictable, and this type of article can be extremely helpful It is not the first such article I’ve read on the subject; there are many safety issues right at home that have encouraged people to write helpful articles about how to prevent injury or death. Issues such as swimming pools, window blind cords, cleaning water buckets, household cleaning chemicals and medicine cabinets full of prescription drugs have all been covered extensively over the years. Hundreds of articles are written in the proper use of seat belts, and child seat and baby carrier regulations are bordering on the absurd with new guidelines published every single year. Unfortunately, I have seen not a single such article concerning guns in the home. Oh there have been mentions containing a sentence or two, usually related to a report of a child being killed by one, but never has space been dedicated to the issue of keeping children safe from guns, that has even approached the volume of warnings and information about these other safety issues.,
    Why are children dying at such appalling rates from guns they “accidentally got ahold of”, and they are always dismissed as a “tragic accident” and no one is held accountable It seems there is some sort of stigma against really doing some honest research, writing and publishing about the danger of having a gun in the house with children?
    The issue of child seats alone is utterly fanatical. It is illegal to resell a car seat, which, even if used, could save a child’s life, yet there are no regulations whatsoever regarding guns in the house. A parent can lose custody of their children (for their safety) and go to jail for using prescription-allowed medical marijuana, but that same house can contain a loaded gun, and no one bats an eye.
    When are people going to start caring about the danger of a gun in a home with children to anywhere near the degree they care about a dog in the home?

  5. Anyone who thinks it is necessary to have a dog just because it is kind of fun sometimes, is an idiot.

  6. This is THE most important information I have read on child/dog safety! Thank you so much for putting this out there. Many, Many people and children love dogs, but don’t understand their body language. Children should be taught these ques as well.

  7. I was raised a free range parent and I raise my kids as free range children. There is no sense being all up in my children s butt hole, all up in their tisk for tat sibling rivalries, they can work that crap out between themselves without my help, why should I get upset over that. I am far from a helicopter mom, and dont want to be.

    • If parents don’t referee sibling rivalry battles, children often suffer terrible bullying and the relationship between the siblings is never the same. You are a lazy parent.


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