New Mexico's Pet ResourceWINTER 2006



by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

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Q. My children are 4 and 6 years old. They love dogs! Whenever we go for a walk, they want to cuddle every dog we meet. With so many dog bites and attacks in the news, I am concerned about them getting hurt. Is there a safe way to pet a strange dog?

Good question! The key to safety with strange dogs lies with a responsible parent. You need to educate your children about dogs and the best ways to interact with them. While no method is foolproof, teaching your children some basic rules about dog safety will go a long way toward helping them develop a happy and safe relationship with dogs.

The first rule is to teach your children never to approach strange dogs without you (or another responsible adult) being present. The second rule for you and your children is never approach dogs who are off leash, alone and unaccompanied by a person. If you and your children do encounter a strange dog that is walking alone, the children should not attempt to pet the dog.  Rather, you and the children should slowly turn and walk away. Your children should never run away. To some dogs, a child running can mimic fleeing prey. This can set off a chase and attack response in the dog.

The following is a good protocol for positive close encounters with dogs:

1. ASK PERMISSION from the person with the dog. Say something like, “May I pet your dog?” Remember, if there is no person with the dog, do not attempt to pet her.

2. HAND SNIFF. If the person says yes, then show the dog the back of your hand with your fingers curled under, and let the dog sniff your hand. If your fingers are extended, the dog may think that you are offering her food and she might nip. Curling the fingers under offers some protection from nips. If fingers aren’t easy targets, they won’t get nipped.

3. WATCH THE DOG’S REACTION. Watch the dog’s reaction to your hand. Respect what the dog “tells” you. If the dog folds her ears back, tucks her tail in, growls or moves away from you – DO NOT PET THE DOG. The dog is telling you she does not want to be petted. If the dog licks your hand and wags her tail, she is letting you know that it is all right to pet her.

4. GENTLE! Pet the dog gently. Stroking the back from the head end toward the tail is usually agreeable to most dogs. Listen to suggestions from the dog’s person as to what the dog does or does not like. Do not pick the dog up, pull the dog’s tail or ears, poke the dog, grab the dog, pull the dog’s fur, or pet the dog harshly. Stay away from the dog’s face and eyes. Do not put your face near the dog’s face. You can frighten or overwhelm her by getting too close. Speaking softly to the dog while you pet her is often reassuring. If at any time the dog gives indication that she does not want to be petted anymore, stop immediately and move away.

The quality of the relationship that your children will have with dogs depends on what you as a parent teach them. If you do nothing, your children may get severely hurt and develop a fear of dogs which may never go way. If you teach your children some basic safety rules that are based on respect and care, you can help foster a positive relationship with dogs that will last a lifetime.

For more information on preventing dog bites, visit: w

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator who worked at the Boston Zoos for 15 years. She lives in Cerrillos with her husband, five rescued dogs (three greyhounds, two Corgi terriers) and three horses.

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