The Problem with 'Common Sense' and Dogs - McCann Professional Dog Trainers

The Problem with 'Common Sense' and Dogs

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I had an entirely different blog post planned for this week, but the old saying should be, "the best-laid plans of mice, men and bloggers often go astray." This week was on par with that as the point of derailment for my plans became obvious early on. My planned post will have to wait until next week as the contained topic is nagging at me far too much to talk about anything else.

Early last week, a little girl was attacked by a dog in a Mississauga dog park (link to CTV News Article). Her name is Georgia and she is an adorable, pig-tail wearing 3-year-old. She was visiting a leash-free park with her Grandfather and her brother. I'm sure the Grandfather thought it would be a harmless and fun adventure - after all, it's just dogs playing, right?

As the family was leaving the park, Georgia was attacked from behind by a "black and white husky". She was running down a hill approximately 30 yards from the dog. The dog grabbed her by the neck and the back of her head and dragged her approximately 25 feet down a hill. The owner of the dog fled the scene, grabbing his dog and running after just a brief word with the Grandfather. The little girl was rushed to Emergency and later transferred to Sick Kids Hospital with severe lacerations and injuries. She was listed as stable and should make a full recovery. Those are the facts as reported by CTV News.

This week, the story was making the rounds on Social Media and the comments, as always, ran the gambit - from crying for young Georgia to lambasting the Grandfather to sympathizing with the dog owner and everything in between. Many of the opinions were about who is to blame. Finding someone or something to blame for an incident seems to return order to the world and make us feel better. I think it makes us feel safer to lay blame solely on one entity - then, if we just avoid that one entity, it won't happen to us. Well, let me tell you something... blame doesn't help, because truly - there are so many factors at work, all of the oversimplification in the world won't prevent the repeat of this horror story. 

One of the common themes in the commenting was about the lack of common sense the Grandfather showed. Why would he take a child to a leash free park and then let the child run! Well, hindsight, as they say is always perfect. My response in these situations is almost always empathy for the error maker. After all, you don't know what you don't know! We are all products of our lives, environments and experiences. If you've never had a particular experience, you rely on the opinions of the masses and form a sort of 'common sense'. The actual definition of Common sense is "sound practical judgment concerning everyday matters, or a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge that is shared by ("common to") nearly all people." When I read this definition, it occurred to me that in this case, common sense really should shoulder the majority of the blame. That is because common sense is doing what it is apt to do and that is to shift with the masses as our associations change. It seems when it comes to dogs, the 'common sense' is getting further and further from reality.

We're on a slippery slope that's being dictated by what I call the "Disney model." In the wonderful world of a Disney movie, dogs are all safe and cuddly with our kids and even ready, at the drop of a hat, to spring to their protection should danger arise. If the Disney model for dogs was real life, we'd never hear of a child being bitten by a dog anywhere, EVER! Rude awakenings, such as 3-year-old Georgia recovering from an incident where she was "dragged her like a rag doll" prove that common sense is leading us astray when it comes to dogs.

Yes, dogs are amazing. Dogs are brilliant. Dogs are capable of incredible things. We LOVE our dogs, without question and sometimes, more than words could ever describe. Life would be worse and in some cases, unliveable without our dogs, however - they are DOGS! They are members of our family, but they are NOT fur-kids and labelling them as such sets us up for dangerous times. Dogs have power, speed and a mouth full of razor blades that should be respected. They have the ability to do major damage in an instant with very little effort. They have instincts and prey drives that differ from ours, yet they are asked to navigate our world, a human world, and live peacefully in our society. They are asked to ignore their instincts and often, with no training to give them coping skills expected to ignore their prey drives. 

This is where we're failing as a society and feeding the current shift in "common sense" that surrounds dogs. There is a general lack of education and well-fuelled misunderstandings around dogs in general, but especially surrounding kids and dogs. Videos of kids crawling on, riding, hugging, tugging on and pestering dog abound on Social Media. With a small amount of knowledge, one can clearly identify stress signals that the dog is giving off, but the videographer continues to capture the video of the "adorable scene", never intervening to teach the child or take the pressure off of the dog. I used one of these videos to create a previous blog post entitled, "Stress and Calming Signals: Visual Breakdown of a Dog Bite."

With my own dogs, I frequently find myself educating parents and children when they approach. I would say at least 50% of kids haven't been taught to ask before approaching and touching dogs. On average as I'm walking my dogs, I would say at least 25% of adults make the same mistake. On more than one occasion, I've had to stop kids from trying to hug my dogs. One such occasion, it was after a child asked their parent for permission and the parent said "yes." I immediately had to say 'no' and then explain to the mother why that should have been her response too. It was very awkward, but I felt it so important for that child's safety that I had to try my best to convey my concern.

If I could adjust the common sense, I would insist on the following 4 basic rules:

Rule #1 - Respect dogs as dogs

If you are going to interact with a dog on any level, you need to respect that they are a dog. They will not react as humans do. They may not be a dog who can sit calmly watching children running and squealing. They may be great with kids or they may not have been exposed to kids. They may be perfectly trained and understand how to have great bite inhibition or they may have never had any such lesson in their life. Never assume any dog will be safe with your kids. Just don't. EVER! It's not worth the risk. Always assume that as a dog, they may act on traits that we deem as undesirable, like biting and causing harm.

Rule #2 - Teach your kids to be calm around dogs

A calm child has the best chance of being safe around a strange dog. Take the time to ensure your kids understand that they are to be calm around dogs, especially ones they don't know. With appropriate supervision, your family dog may play beautifully with your kids, which often leads kids to believe that ALL dogs will be their friends or will be safe. They need to know that the way they behave with their own dogs is unique. Give them the skills to keep themselves safe. Imagine if Georgia had said, 'Mom says we have to watch the dogs calmly, Grandpa.' This dog was not likely a bad dog, he was just a dog who was behaving like a dog using his base instinct as a predatory creature. 

Rule #3 - First ask the human and then the dog

In any interaction with a strange dog, be sure to ask first. If either the human or the dog say no, respect that! There have been situations where I've been asked, I've said no and yet a person proceeds to try to pet my dog anyway. It's so engrained in our psyche (and our collective sense) that dogs should all be friendly that people often ask and don't hear to the answer. If the human says yes, next ask the dog. With a bit of education, it's fairly simple to read whether the dog is happy to say hello or not. Everyone should educate themselves and their children to read basic signals from dogs and learn how to say hello safely.

Rule #4 - Know your dog

We all want our dogs to be outgoing and friendly, but we don't get to make that decision. Some dogs are and some aren't. That's a fact! If you know your dog will not be happy saying hello, don't force it. Say NO! Advocate for your dog. If you know you're in a situation where your dog may get stimulated and their prey drive may fire up, remove them from the situation. If you don't know your dog enough yet, don't risk it. For example, bringing a rescue dog you've only owned for a week to a leash free park could end up as your worst nightmare. 

I feel horrible for the Grandfather in this situation. After all, we all make mistakes. We all have regrets. May we all be blessed enough to never have a regret as large or impactful as this man's will be. He learned his lesson in one of the hardest ways possible. This mistake, fuelled by the common sense surrounding him, will be with him forever.

So I took to my keyboard this week to continue to do all I can to spread the word. I wish to remind everyone willing to listen that dogs are not humans and we should never treat them like or expect them to behave as such. You'll likely be able to go to a park and allow your child to play with another child without safety concerns, but allowing them to play with strange dogs in an anonymous situation could spell disaster.  

This is just the beginning for Georgia and her family. There will be months, years and even possibly decades of fallout for her and her entire family. This is the type of experience that not only changes your perspective, but also has you clambering for a new 'normal'. After all, this was just another normal day until it wasn't. My heart goes out to the family as they search for a way to move forward. It is for Georgia and kids like her that I will continue to do my part, as repetitive as I may be at times and as awkward as it may feel.

Love your dogs and make them part of your family, but never forget that they are a different species. Respect that and take the time to train them, do your part to educate others and be the best advocate you can for the cause of redefining common sense. 

Everyone be safe!

Hi! I'm Shannon Viljasoo and I joined the McCann team in 1999 while training Quincey, my wonderful and spirited Rottweiler, to have good listening skills. I'm the Director of Online Training and Content for McCann Professional Dog Trainers and I enjoy writing about dogs and dog training for the McCann blog. I currently share my life with 2 Tollers (Reggie & Ned) and I love helping people develop the best possible relationship with their 4-legged family members.

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