Supervision is only as good as your knowledge of body language and behavior
Everyone says that kids and dogs should never be left unsupervised. That's good advice as far as it goes. But supervision is only effective when you know what to look for and when to intervene.
Most people don't. Even people who have lived with dogs their whole lives frequently miss the meaning of dog body language.
Fortunately it's not hard to learn. To truly supervise kids and dogs, you need to know about kid behavior (most parents have this one down pat) and dog behavior (that's where I can help). Once you know how to read what you are seeing, you'll be able to set your kids and dogs up for a happy, healthy, safe, and fun relationship.
Let's get started ...
It's helpful to think of behavior as a continuum. No one is happy all the time, not even the Dalai Lama or the giddiest golden retriever. For each of us, there will be good moments and bad moments.
Behavior deteriorates under stress. None of us is at our best all the time.
Your job is to pay attention to everyone's emotional state--your child's, your dog's, and your own--so that you can play an active role in setting everyone up for success. That's not always easy, but it is doable.
To make things simple, I use a green, yellow, and red traffic light analogy. Look at your child's behavior and at your dog's behavior and compare them to the descriptions below.
Their color codes may not match. If you see anything other than green, that's your signal to take action.
Things are going well. Continue supervising, but there's no need to intervene at this moment.
Things are a bit tense. See what you can do to improve the situation. You may need to end the interaction.
Intervene immediately. Give everyone some time to relax and unwind before interacting again.
Happy Home Tip
The yellow zone, Tolerance, is where wise parental guidance really improves kids and dogs' relationships!
There are many different signals dogs use to communicate. I particularly like these six because they are common and easy for kids and adults to recognize. When you notice your dog using stress signals more frequently, take that as a call to action.
Ask yourself, "What can I do to make this interaction better or shorter?" Those really are the only two choices.
Behavior in Action
Test yourself. How many of the six common stress signals do you see in this 45-second video?
Background: This is my dog, Edzo. My son was standing on a coffee table and recording the view from above. Edzo was confused. Notice how many times he checks in.
Teach your dog that you are paying attention. When there's a stressful situation and your dog looks toward you, consider it a polite request for assistance.
Do something to make the situation better ... or shorter.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE RED ZONE
Growling, snarling, nipping, snapping, and biting are all red zone behaviors.
So are all forms of escape and avoidance.
Whether politely or rudely expressed, the red zone is when the dog wants the interaction to end.
Red zone behaviors mean we missed the earlier signs. They are a failure of management and supervision. When you see red zone signals, intervene immediately and give everyone some down time.
Do not punish red zone behaviors. They are the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. Make a plan for preventing similar stressful situations in the future. What can you do differently? Not sure what to do? Find a good dog trainer to help. These sites can help you get started.