Facebook pictures of adorable tots cuddling up to the family dog may seem a gorgeous keepsake to look back on in years to come.
But animal specialists are warning owners to remain vigilant for certain behaviours which may indicate a dog is distressed or angry and may attack.
Six-day-old Eliza-Mae Mullane and 11-month old Ava-Jayne Corless hit the headlines earlier this year when they were killed by dogs inside houses within the space of a week.
An American dog foundation in Manchester, New Hampshire, released a picture of a little girl and her pet to highlight the potential dangers children may face when left alone with an animal.
Like all animals dogs give warning signs to show their distress, although these are often missed by people and because of this animals are often branded unpredictable.
MM contacted a number of dog rehoming centres and shelters to get their verdicts on what the below picture shows and advice they have for parents with young children and pets.
“I would consider that the dog in the picture does not look happy to have the child up close and invading their personal space,” said Coryn Shields, manager of Rochdale Dog Rescue.
“Signs like the ears back and the whites of the eyes are all signs a dog does not like what is going on.
“There are many subtle and appeasing signs that dogs give that may not be recognised by their owners that they are not happy; these can include lip licking, looking away or not making eye contact, ears back, tension and showing whites of their eyes.
“Often these signs can be missed and it is not recognised that the dog is trying to tell you they are not happy so the dog, if they cannot get away, may escalate to a growl or feel their warnings have not been listened to and snap.”
Due to mystery surrounding rescue dogs’ backgrounds Rochdale Dog Rescue does not rehome them with children under the age of ten to try and prevent any incidents occurring.
Head of Training and Behaviour at the Dogs Trust, Lynn Barber, explained that children can’t be expected to recognise an animal’s behaviour and that it’s up to responsible adults to look out for them.
She said: “Children should not be expected to be able to interpret a dog’s body language.
“Babies and toddlers will have trouble identifying any emotion that a dog may be feeling while young children should not be expected to be able to recognise fear or worry in a dog.
“Even older children would be unable to identify anxiety, stress, nervousness or frustration, any of which would cause a dog to be more reactive and potentially bite.”
According to The Health and Social Care Information Centre, which records hospital admissions, there were 6,302 incidents of dog attacks in 2012/2013 out of an estimated eight million dogs.
Brand Manager for RSPCA Manchester and Salford Susie Hughes revealed that she believes many dog attacks could be prevented if more time was spent looking into the way they behave.
“When a dog bites it’s often because the communication signals it has given have been ignored,” she said.
“They have, if you like, a ‘ladder of aggression’.
“Biting is at the extreme end when all else has failed and so in essence if we are to prevent dog bite incidents we need to better understand dog communication.”
A number of charities and groups are attempting to do this, with the Dogs Trust teaming up with National Childbirth Trust to advise families on how children and dogs can live in harmony together.
One person looking to make a difference is Senior Behavioural Expert and Dog Trainer at Stockport’s Academy 4 Dogs Tracy Chapman, who is on a mission to ensure both children and adults are fully aware of the signals dogs give.
Along with her Italian Spinone Woody, she goes into schools to host Woody’s Way and teach children the signals dogs use.
“We set up the event because of the sheer number of dogs that were biting children and obviously it was all over the news,” explained Tracy who has trained dogs for over 14 years.
“What we began to find out is that owners were unaware of the signs if their dog became distressed or unhappy so this was quite alarming.
“Eventually I decided to set these sessions up and in January we had the first event and already we have taught 3607 children in the space of a few months which is great.
“I go into school with Woody and it means the children can associate with him visually and they learn how to read dogs signs to know whether a dog is distressed or angry.”
Tracy also hosts events at other venues with groups of children and admitted that in the short time since the sessions have been running, the publicity has been overwhelming.
“We’ve received a huge amount of support for what we are doing and we have already featured in some newspapers as well as on the BBC’s Sport Relief programme.”
With Woody’s Way taking off and with more events planned, Tracy is hoping to leave a lasting impression in schools with a change to the curriculum.
“My aim is for Woody’s Way to become known national and that a book or guide will be made part of the school curriculum for children so they are made more aware about the subject.
“It’s not just children who should be reading this but also adults as it’s really important for them to understand the signals that dogs give off.
“I think people need to understand that a dog isn’t unpredictable because they are giving off signs all the time about how they feel but it’s because the owners don’t recognise them.”
For more information about Woody’s Way, visit http://www.woodysway.co.uk/.
Picture courtesy courtesy of Luigi Anzivino via Flickr, with thanks