Q: Cleo, my pit bull mix, nipped my niece recently. While she didn’t break skin or draw blood, my brother-in-law is understandably upset. Cleo likes rough play and we indulge. What can I do to make sure that my dog peacefully coexists with the people I love?
A: As the owner of a pit bull named Lulu who thinks she's a 7-pound lap dog, I can appreciate your desire to be a responsible dog owner. It’s even more important since Cleo nipped your niece. Recently my inbox has been flooded with news of one awful attack after another from various breeds, particularly pit bulls. Proper training and socialization is vital to ensuring a good relationship between all pets and people.
Amber Burckhalter, a certified professional dog trainer and owner of K-9 Coach and Bed & Bark in metro Atlanta, offered some great tips to help avoid dog bites. I got to see Burckhalter in action through the Humane Society of the United States’ End Dogfighting campaign, which offers free training classes for pit bull owners. Burckhalter skillfully keeps the peace each week like a middle school band director guiding a bunch of unruly teens. Trust me, it is no easy feat when the dogs are still intact.
As a mother and the owner of an energetic boxer, she offers advice to help maintain the peace between pets and pint-size people in your home.
Never leave children and dogs unattended. “People often forget that their family dog is an animal and animals do not have a moral compass,” she said. Kids should never touch a sleeping, sick, eating, strange or mommy dog. Parents often expect dogs to simply deal with kids pulling their ears and tails or taunting them. Children should be taught to respect the dog and give it space.
Create kid-free zones: Family dogs should have a kid-free zone to go to if they want space. Crates provide a separate area for the dog to be alone. Don't view it as punishment. The crate is a safe refuge, especially when the house is filled with relatives and strange noises.
Establish house rules: The family should never allow rough play with the dog. Burckhalter also suggests distributing food and treats away from the child. Do not allow the dog to eat from the child's plate or play with the child's toys. Kids also should not play with pet toys; they lack the same safety standards.
Train and socialize the dog: Burckhalter shared a terrible tragedy that occurred in her neighborhood. A child was mauled by a dog that had spent its life tied up outside. Children screaming and running past had caused years of pent-up frustration in a dog that already lacked proper social skills. When the chain finally broke, Burckhalter said, frustration turned into attack. The dog was euthanized and the child spent months in the hospital. All dogs should be trained to handle various distractions such as children, small animals and bicycles. During the weekly pit bull training sessions, Burckhalter uses an air horn, funny hats and other distractions to test dogs’ concentration. Enroll your dog in obedience training and make it a family affair. The American Kennel Club also offers a Canine Good Citizen certification program for well-behaved dogs. It can be a valuable asset for dogs and owners, who qualify for lower homeowners’ insurance rates. Also, involve children in positive training methods as much as possible.
Make sure the breed fits your lifestyle: Research the type of dog you have and respect those instincts, she said. Understanding the traits of Cleo’s breed will help you become a better pet owner. I know that Lulu is a high-energy pit bull. Without long daily walks to help burn all that extra energy, she becomes bored, destructive and a threat to my shoes. The AKC has helpful descriptions of most breeds on its site. Be honest with yourself about Cleo’s needs and whether you can meet them.
Get your dog spayed or neutered: Most dog attacks come from unaltered males, Burckhalter said. Get your dog spayed as soon as possible. The ASPCA offers a database of free or low-cost spay/neuter options around the country. Simply enter your ZIP code to get started.
Teach kids to ignore stray dogs: Remind kids that every dog is not friendly. If a dog approaches while they are walking to school, kids should not make eye contact or try to run. Instead, they should stand still (like a tree) until the dog loses interest and walks away. If kids are on the ground when a stray approaches, they should curl up into a ball and cover their head until the dog passes.
New parents, help dogs prepare for the baby
Before my nephew was born, I hired a trainer to help my dog and my sister’s dog get acclimated to new baby scents and sounds. (A crying baby sounds a lot like Lulu’s favorite squeaky toy.) Burckhalter has this advice for those who need help preparing furry babies for the arrival of a real baby.
- Make any lifestyle changes before the baby arrives. If your dog requires long walks, start doggie daycare as an outlet for exercise. Establish a no-furniture rule and enforce it. Install baby gates well before duty calls and you have to stumble out of bed at 2 a.m. for a diaper change.
- Get the dog acclimated to baby sounds and scents. Let your dog smell the baby’s blanket and other gear. Set up the pack 'n' play and car seat weeks early.
- Make the baby’s room a dog-free zone.
- Start obedience training. Be honest about whether your dog is good with children. If your dog does not like children, Burckhalter said, you should find her a new home.