Dogs Don’t Have to Bite Kids.

” … everything we know about dogs, ” writes Malcolm Gladwell in the essay What the Dog Saw, ” suggests that they are students of human movement.”

A dog cares, deeply, about which way your body is leaning. Forward or backward? Forward can be seen as aggressive; backward – even a quarter of an inch – means nonthreatening.   (pg 135)

Cock your head, even slightly, to the side, and a dog is disarmed. Look at him straight on  and he’ll read it like a red flag. (pg. 135)

Breathing even and deeply – rather than holding your breath – can mean the difference between defusing a tense situation and igniting it.  (pg 135) 

Now, think about energy. Your energy. What happens when you startle? When your emotions ratchet up to crazy-excitement?  You get a huge adrenalyn rush – In other words, your energy explodes!!

And, dogs pay attention to that too.  Some dogs more than others.

Like my Tessa.  If my son’s mood suddenly switches from calm to being upset – if Tessa is Right There Next To Him – her behavior changes instantly.  It’s almost like there’s an invisible cord attached to the two of them so that they feed off of each others’ energy.

As my son becomes more visibly upset, Tessa responds by jumping straight up into the air next to him. We call it “boing-ing.”  She can leap – from a standing position – to the shoulder height of any adult – effortlessly.

She leaps at different times for different reasons. She leaps in anticipation of getting fed.  In this case, you could say that she’s feeding off of her own energy.

She leaps when my son is upset – or when he’s transitioning to being upset. And, she does this AS His Emotions Are Changing in front of me. It’s clear to me that she’s feeding off of his energy.

My son is 25 years old and because of this, he’s more in control of his emotions than when he was a little boy.  As he starts to become upset, I can check it by suggesting that he look at how Tessa is reacting.  This is usually enough to bring him back to a place of calm energy – which calms Tessa down.  Instantly.

All of this: my son’s changing emotions and Tessa’s reactions to that, happens in less time than it takes me to snap my fingers.

Lightning fast. Like a dog bite.

But. Just like my understanding of the several steps leading up to Tessa’s reactions to my son’s emotional state, there are predictors  — things to understand — about a dog’s behavior that lead up to a dog bite — that can be diffused or even prevented.  Just as I was able to diffuse my son’s emotions.

You have to have an awareness/understanding of what to look for.

Now, consider this: ” …  studies have revealed that boys ages 5 to 9 are bitten five times more by dogs more than any other group or people.”  (VPI Pet Insurance.)  

Most little boys in that age group are all about explosive, joyous energy when they play. They make loud airplane noises. Their bodies make really jerky fast movements when they run across a lawn or a playground.

They yell and scream.  At each other. At their brothers and sisters. And, at their dogs.

All of THAT is typical, normal behavior for little boys.  And, most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.

But. Oh how confusing all of that little boy energy can be for a dog. Which is not a job for little boys to understand. But. It is most certainly a job for their parents.

To understand and to teach to their young sons and daughters.

Which brings me back to Gladwell’s essay on What the Dog Saw.  It’s quite good. You should read it.  You’ll learn about the importance of human body movement and how dogs react to that.

Gladwell weaves in fascinating commentary about human body movement by a woman named Karen Bradley. Bradley heads up the graduate dance program at the University of Maryland.

Her observations about Caesar Millan’s physical movements when he is with dogs are eye-opening.

Fortunately, you don’t have to master all that Bradley knows about human body movement to understand the job that you have to take on when it comes to teaching your kids about dogs and dog bites.

But, you have to start by educating yourself.  Start by reading this essay. Read it more than once. Pay attention to what Brian Hare tells Gladwell.

Hare is an anthropologist who has done experiments with dog’s behavior. According to Hare, “Dogs are really interested in humans … To a dog, you are a giant walking tennis ball.” 

As he summarizes the results of an experiment he conducted showing the different reactions a dog will have in comparison to a chimpanzee (chimps share 98.6 of human genes), Hare notes that chimps aren’t wired to look to humans for clues as to how they should react. However, says Hare:

“A dog will look to you for help.”

Which might be a good note to end on.  If we are to make a dent in the overwhelming statistics on dog bites, we need to understand our part.  It’s not up to our kids to figure all of this out.

It’s really up to us.





  1. Polly says

    Just ordered it – I am sure the book will be informative, and helpful if we do get Bella – thanks for the recommendation.

    • htkhp says

      The essay is one of twenty-two that originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Among some of the other things Malcolm writes about are “What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn’t Know About Women’s Health,” “What Job Interviews Really Tell Us ,” and “Who Can Be Blamed for a Disaster like the Challenger Explosion? No One, and We’d Better Get Used to It,” – to name a few. So you’ll be reading about all kinds of things, in addition to his rather detailed and thoughtful analysis of human body movement and how that affects dog behavior. There is a second essay about dogs in this book. It’s the very last one in the book and it’s called: “What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Crime.” And, reading it, may make you flinch.

      PS I know that three dogs is a handful – in any household . And, I can tell that Bella has been laying on your heart. Let your heart and your head come together as you wrestle with what you’d like to do and what you can do about and for her.

    • Giovana says

      It’s ironic that polpee love to be lazy (i.e., don’t train their dogs or socialize them, never walk them, don’t educate themselves on dog behavior) and then refuse to use one of the easiest training tools at there disposal: FOOD. Instead they waste time walking around looking grim and yanking on there dogs necks and running through doorways to ensure there dog doesn’t get there first (I have actually seen an owner SHOVE the dog out of the way and race through first .the dog looked perplexed.My dog is polite, eager to train and learn new things (bright eyed, perks up when she see’s her clicker), and rehabed from very dog reactive to being able to pass by other dogs for a click/treat. She does all these things because of the prospect of reward..praise is not high on her list but food and tug are she does not give a crap if its pleasing me or not. AND NEITHER DO I.Its a win-win for both of us..I have a dog performing/offering desired behavior (pleasing me) and she gets her choice reward (food or play or the prospect of potentially getting either).

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