This week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week. I know, it’s not as fun and feel good as National Puppy Day, but in my opinion, dog bite prevention is a critically important topic that is sorely overlooked in our popular culture. As much as we all love dogs, it’s so important to remember that any dog can bite if they are put in a position where they don’t feel they have another option.
So often we hear that a dog bite “came out of the blue,” but in reality, a bite is at the far end of the spectrum of dog communication. If we make the choice to bring a dog into our home, family, or into public places, it is also our responsibility to learn and understand dog communication and to do our best to prevent situations where a bite could occur. Not just for our own safety, but also for the emotional and physical well being of the dogs we share our lives with.
I was so fortunate to be able to chat recently with Tania Lanfer, owner of Cannon Dog Training in Oakland, California. Tania is an experienced positive reinforcement trainer with a specialty (among many) of working with issues around dogs and babies/children. Since most bites occur in the home, and often involve babies and children, I thought this would be a great topic to explore in more depth with Tania. We’ll also be chatting live on my Instagram page @hightailhikes at 2 pm PDT on Thursday, April 15th, to explore these topics in more depth and answer questions. Please join us, or check out the talk on my Instagram page at a later date.
Enjoy the interview!
Tania with her Golden Retriever, Pira.
Hi Tania! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Can you share a little bit about your background and what led you to having an interest in dog training?
I have lived in the US for over a decade now but came here from Brazil, São Paulo, to study classical music. It's interesting that many dog trainers started doing something else. That's my case too! I had another career before I became a dog trainer. I was finishing up my PhD in music composition and just passed my qualification exams when my teenager field golden retriever started exhibiting lots of behavior problems that I could not manage on my own. I am the kind of person that likes to dig in deep to understand the world and...well, that's what I did. I read every book and watched many DVDs on dog training. I started volunteering at a dog shelter that had a lot of interest in positive reinforcement training. After a while I became an intern at the San Francisco SPCA and eventually got hired as a shelter dog trainer. When I moved to Oakland, CA, I started my own private business, Cannon Dog Training.
What type of formal education/training do you have in your field?
Dog training is not a regulated business and anyone can say they are a dog trainer. I bet it must be very hard for dog owners to choose a trainer. All owners have are flashy websites to decide who to hire. That's why I try my best to take as many courses, workshops, and webinars as I can. I graduated from the Internship Program at the SF SPCA, did my CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), participated in numerous continuing education courses like KPA Clicker Expos, the Bob Bailey Operant Conditioning workshop that uses chickens as behavior models, Susan Friedman's Living and Learning with Animals, Trish King’s Canine Behavior Academy, and many conferences and workshops on Aggression in Dogs.
What are your training specialties + areas of focus in your career currently?
A lot of my cases are what we call "reactivity" cases. Dogs that bark and lunge at other people or at other dogs because they are frustrated they cannot go there and say hi, because of aggression, or because they have some fear-aggression, for example. Many people also find me because I have had lots of success with teaching dogs to be active participants in their own grooming care. I love training cooperative care: nail trims, brushing fur, teeth brushing, etc. Lots of dogs that would bite with these activities learned to love it instead. I also love teaching recall, basic obedience, and scent sports for dogs! And…because I have two toddlers, I know quite a bit about dogs and babies too!
Do you consider yourself to have a training philosophy and if so, what is it?
Absolutely! My logo is a dog being shot out of a cannon while wearing a helmet and doggles in the middle of an explosion of tennis balls! My dog has always been an explosive one; I wanted to find a way to allow for “controlled explosions” that are fun and safe. My philosophy is, I don't want to shut dogs down and crush their spirit. Instead, I would like them to still be dogs, with all their vivacity and zest for life, but I would like to channel that in a way that works for both humans and canines. We have to live in harmony for this to work, both species. It needs to work for the family, the dog, and society. Things need to be safe for everybody, but also fun and exciting. I focus on being kind to people and dogs, I love bettering the relationship of the participants with positive reinforcement training.
What are your favorite types of training cases to work on?
For me it’s less about the type of case and more about the family dynamics I have to work with. I love working in cases (of whatever kind) in which the family is committed and communicative with me, families that care about the mental well being of their pooch but also understand the need for safety for all involved.
You have an area of focus on babies + dogs. What led you to this area of focus and why does it interest you?
I had my own babies, now toddlers, and that opened up my eyes to a niche that was being severely underserved. I remember taking cases where things were always a little "too late.” The dog had snapped, the dog no longer felt safe at home and would aggress. I decided that I wanted to focus on preventing families from having to make the heartbreaking decision to rehome their pets for things that were easily avoidable. The typical “dogs and babies” pictures you can find on the internet are supposed to be cute, but actually showcase situations that are far from safe. In fact when you look at most pictures or videos, the family is happy, the toddler hugging the dog is smiling, the background music is cheerful. But when you take a close look at the dog's body language, they are asking for help. People who are not yet aware of the subtle signs of stress in dogs miss those requests for space, and the dog has to cope with it alone. When a dog growls, that is usually when people first notice something is wrong. But for the dog, that growl was one of later steps in a ladder of aggression, since all of the dog’s earlier warnings were ignored. I love dogs and babies cases because for many families, when they learn the subtle signs of stress in their dogs, they can no longer unsee them. And that makes everyone safer.
Can you share just a few basic tips that new parents should think about when preparing their home for dog and baby to live together successfully?
Yes! It's very important to know YOUR dog. What does stress look like in your dog? What are their defaults? Some dogs exhibit very nuanced sets of behaviors to tell us they are uncomfortable before they growl, show teeth, or snap. Did you notice that little tongue flick? The yawning out of context? The side eye with a tense neck? It's a great idea to hire a trainer to assess your dog's specific signs and what seems to trigger them. Now, parents are busy, and tired. I didn't sleep for a year! When I cannot watch my baby and my dog, I always separate them. But I taught my dog beforehand, before babies were born, to accept being separated from us during hectic parts of the day. If I had waited until the baby was born to teach that I would have more gray hairs than I do now. Caring for a crying infant and a barking dog at the same time is no fun. You can be proactive and teach barriers, teach mat work, teach the dog to move from point A to point B. Those are all very useful tools to have when the baby finally is home.
Similarly, once baby comes home, what do you think are the most important considerations that parents should have to keep both dogs and babies safe?
In the first months the dog will get used to a brand new routine with busy parents and a set of new sounds in the house. This can be stressful for a dog. I have the help of a machine that spits out treats (Treat and Train machine with a remote control) to help me with creating good associations when the baby cries. Baby cries, I press that remote control button so my dog receives a cookie. Do you need a machine like that? No, but it helps and it is not that expensive! This has helped my own dog tremendously in the beginning. But there is one thing that to me is the most important topic. A thing that will last from mobile babies (before when they even crawl, when they start dragging their bodies) throughout the whole toddlerhood is to teach the baby dogs are not meant to be approached and petted. Simply like that. After your toddler has understood some rules later on, we can certainly incorporate more physical interactions. But in the beginning, just teaching your baby not to be magnetized toward the dog will prevent tons of problems. I am a big proponent of not allowing mobile babies and very young toddlers to pet or approach the dog. Love and connection can be formed in other ways, without touching. At this very young age, allowing the baby to crawl towards the dog triggers lots of problems, and unsurprisingly that's the moment when I receive the most calls. Dogs feel cornered and they perceive danger, even if the child is just being curious.
This week is Dog Bite Prevention Week. It's a big topic, so perhaps we should focus on preventing bites with babies and small children in the home. What are some of the most important dog bite prevention tips that all families should be aware of?
Dogs survived before they were brought into our homes because they were able to protect their food from competitors. That food bowl down in the middle of the kitchen? No more! :) It must be a rule that dogs are fed behind a gate or door. Yes, even your fantastic dog who would never hurt a fly. Resource guarding is a huge reason why dogs bite kids. Even when the kid was just passing by behind the dog, minding their own business. The other scary thing is that very young toddlers usually interpret a dog showing teeth as…SMILING. Mind blowing, right? Dogs can resource guard other things too like chewies, toys, their bed (especially if they are sleeping!), a lap if they are lying down in one, etc. This could potentially include your baby’s toys. It would be smart of dogs that are toy grabbers to divide your space with baby gates and wide gates dividing the living room in two, for example. I know, I know, it’s not forever though. Another reason dogs bite is because they are being approached straight on by a baby or toddler. Dogs feel cornered and might snap or bite. Even if they are not “literally” cornered. The feeling of being trapped and the prospect of having tiny grabby grabby hands approaching might be a trigger. Now, at this point you probably guessed: no fur grabbing, no riding the dog as a pony, and so on.
The internet is full of "cute" pictures and videos of dogs and kids. Unfortunately, oftentimes the dogs in these photos and videos are displaying clear signs of stress or discomfort. If these signs are ignored, it could lead to a bite. What are some of the signs that parents and children can look for to see if their dog feels comfortable in a situation?
What a great question. Most parents know some signs! Parents can recognize teeth showing, growling, snapping. Now some of the signs dogs show are sometimes misinterpreted. For example: often I see dogs that overly lick the toddler or baby: that is usually more often a “kiss to dismiss” versus a sign of affection. Parents tend to interpret those as the dog “loving the baby”.
Let’s go over some other ones! Think about an escalation of a ladder of aggression. Not all dogs show them in this order, but many of the signs include: yawning, nose flick or lip lick, head turning, closing the mouth, panting, ears back, raising paw, walking away, tucked tail, stiffening of the spine, growling, freezing, snapping, bitting. There are tons of other signs, and you have to watch them in context. Also you have to observe what your natural dog’s ears is to be able to observe when they are pinned back. Or a dog that is breathing normally, and starts panting. You have to watch for changes. For example: when my dog gets stressed with a toy shopping cart coming at her, she is initially blinking normally and breathing with her mouth slightly open. One of the first signs I usually see on her is that she closes her mouth. She is a mouth breather so I pay attention when she does that. Then she starts panting, so she intercalates between closed mouth with tense muscles around her mouth and panting with mouth open but commissures pulled back. Then she would lip lick, her ear would go back and I usually notice that her neck is not moving much. I never let things go too far, so I would typically intervene in the very first steps. All those changes happen in seconds. I would ask her to do a hand touch (she touches my hand with her nose) so I move her away from the thing that scares her. She gets a cookie for that. Now, if I were to leave her there and not help her, fortunately she tends to move away on her own. She would probably stand up and leave, escape. Now.. key word here is.. probably. What if she has had enough? Any dog can bite. I am not taking the chance.
What are some guidelines for parents who want to teach their children a safe way to pet or interact with a dog - either their own dog or a dog they meet?
If you have an older kid that loves dogs, going on parallel walks is a great way of getting them used to one another. All walking in one direction is a great way for them not to overly focus on each other. When the toddler is a bit older they can start to be included in training! Check my toddler interacting with my dog: https://youtu.be/x8mpwJMOObY Or if you kid would like to greet one, there are some safety measures you can implement! Think about 3 questions: 1) Hey kid, it looks like you would love to say hi to Fido, would you like that? 2) Hey dog owner, may my kid say hi to your dog? 3) Hey dog would you like to say hi to my kid? Number 3 is the one that most people do not follow. How can you ask a dog if they are ok to be greeted? Have the kid stay sideways and not approach the dog. Kid talks to the dog and invites the dog over. If the dog does not approach, please don’t insist. Dog said no. If the dog did come over, have the kid get the dog maybe on the chest (not head), and pet for a few seconds with one hand only (not hugging or grabbing the dog). Teach your kid to stop petting every few seconds to see if the dog has changed their mind. An initial yes from the dog doesn’t always mean the dog will continue enjoying too many seconds of petting. Keep it short and teach your kid the concept of consent little by little as they grow. Isn’t this a wonderful opportunity to teach our young about consent when touching another being?
Do you have any resources available on your website, or other resources that you recommend, for dog + baby and kid safety?
A) A short blog post: https://cannondogtraining.com/blog/2018/10/23/5-steps-to-living-with-babies-and-dogs
B) A list with my preferred gear and why: https://cannondogtraining.com/recommended-products
(Liz’s beautiful long line is in there, go take a look at her gear!)
C) My webinar for new parents and caregivers: https://cannondogtraining.com/online-classes/new-baby-and-dog
If a family is interested in working with a trainer to help with dog + kid safety, where should they look to find a certified professional, what are some of the things they should ask a potential trainer?
Find a trainer that focuses on positive reinforcement training and can teach management tools. Be aware of trainers that promise too-good-to-be-true miracles. Family Paws certifies trainers for this specific topic, or people who have done their KPA, for example. I would ask what experience they have with families with young kiddos, if this is a specialty and passion for them. Good luck in your search and I hope we can all coexist safely! :)
Thank you so much Tania! Please check out all of the resources on Tania’s website!