Recognize a Dog’s Body Language Before Your Child Gets Bitten

Last updated on November 27th, 2015 at 12:33 pm

little girl annoying dogAs a professional dog trainer, I can’t tell you how often, when called in to work with an aggressive dog, I have heard, “He showed no warning! He just bit!” While on the rare occasion, this may be the case, more often than not, your dog showed several warning signs that he was annoyed or not in the mood to be bothered at that moment. But many times, those signs are very subtle and oftentimes, overlooked.  Even the most calm and gentle dog has its limit. So how can you know when your dog has reached their limit, giving you ample time to remove your child from them prior to them ‘snapping’ at your little one?  Since dogs can’t verbally warn us, it is up to us to understand what their body language is saying… because that is the primary way they communicate… and not all dogs do the ‘growl, snarl, curl your lip, and show your teeth’ thing first.

Note: The intent of this article is to build people’s awareness of what a dog’s body might be saying, and hopefully educate you enough to keep you and your family safe around them. It is not intended to be a ‘crash course’ in making you an expert. Thousands of adults and children get bitten every year, most often by their own family pet, so this is a very serious issue. If you are not sure, but think your dog may be showing signs of aggression, regardless of their age or breed, please consult a professional and get help. A great resource to locate a professional near you is the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP).

Last year, at a family get-together my sister brought her dog Shayna with her and the kids.  I knew from prior conversations with her that the dog, while usually very sweet, would on occasion snap at the kids ‘without warning.’’

After dinner, all of the kids were in another room except for one of my nephews. Shayna was on the floor near the kitchen entertaining herself with a toy, and the adults sat around the table talking. In the midst of a conversation with my cousin, I saw my nephew out of the corner of my eye walking towards her. Apparently, Shayna saw it too, and from across the room, I saw her entire body change. She was on alert; and no one else seemed to notice. In mid sentence, I flew across the room and grabbed Shayna just as she opened her mouth to snap, missing my nephew by mere millimeters.

The question I was asked over and over again that night was “How did you know?” And honestly, at first, I was not sure how to answer this. I couldn’t really explain it at that time. I just knew. But I quickly realized I needed to be able to explain it if I was going to keep my nephews and niece safe. And then it also dawned on me….. if I could figure out exactly what it was that I saw, the subtle ‘markers’ she was emitting, then I can help others to keep their kids safe as well

I.  KNOW THE MARKERS: The subtle signs that “mark” the dog’s reaction to something

  • WATCHING – This is the first phase of what we call ‘resource guarding’ or the guarding of their possession and it is a very subtle ‘shift’. When a dog is chewing on a bone, eating their food, or playing with a toy, they are 100% in that moment.  Their eyes may glaze over, they may seem like they’re in another world, but everything is about that item for them. However, for a dog who is resource guarding, when they become aware that a potential ‘threat’ is nearby, they will continue to chew, but their eyes are now locked on the approaching intruder. Their head does not move, just their eyes… and they are watching every move the person (or potential threat) makes.
Sharing - but watching - small

Photo: Ralph Dally, CC License

Note the difference in body language when a dog is “watching”

  • An important fact was reiterated at the last IACP conference by a trainer named Brenda Aloff who lectures on canine body language.  A dog’s body language was really meant for other dogs to be aware of, which is why sometimes it seems so subtle to us. It was not really meant for us. 
  • That being said, the average person would look at this and say, “Oh, how cute… 2 puppies sharing a toy.”  Look again. Notice the difference in body language with the two dogs. The one on the left is happily chewing on the toy, not really caring about the other dog being there. Unaffected by the presence of the one on the right, it is relaxed, and hunkered down over the toy with his paws wrapped around it.. 
  • Now, notice how the one on the right is still chewing on the toy, but the eyes are wide, and very alert to its surroundings. The body is more rigid, and it is closely WATCHING for a ‘potential threat’ at the same time. This is referred to as being ‘reactive’ and ready to defend its territory if the need arises.
  • FREEZING IN PLACE – The next thing I saw shift in Shayna’s body when my nephew approached was also VERY subtle… but to me, very obvious. She stopped chewing on the toy completely. Essentially, her body ‘froze’ in position. Since dogs cannot multi-task, she could not calmly continue chewing on the toy and watch as my nephew got closer to her at the same time, so she chose at that moment to watch his every move. Her body freezing at that moment told me that she was waiting to see if the ‘threat’ was going to keep on moving by, or stop and possibly take her toy.
Dog guarding bone - med

Photo: Debra and Ron Sprague; © All Rights Reserved

A perfect example of a the “freezing” body language

  • In the picture above, notice again the eyes are not on the object the dog is chewing, it is watching the other dog very closely in its peripheral vision and yet still has both bones in it’s line of sight. The dog is very still, and the body is very rigid. He has angled himself not only over his bone, but slightly over the second one as well. His body language is telling me very clearly that he is ready to spring into action should that other dog get an inch closer. (This was Shayna as my nephew approached). The second dog wants that other bone, and is looking at it very longingly.… but just like me, it is also reading the other dog’s body language VERY clearly, so it is not making a move toward it.
  • Photo: •Ashley Sheppard; CC License

    Photo: Ashley Sheppard; CC License

    Now, look at the difference in the second picture.  The Bernese Mountain Dog is very relaxed, eyes are soft and the face is open and inviting, and she is digging into that bone, but there is no sign at all that she is on alert. I would feel comfortable approaching this dog with her bone unless her body language changed as I got closer to her.


Now unlike what we did in the last pictures, where I showed you contrasts to see the differences, in the next two I want you to see the similarities….which is why I placed them side by side.

Photo: Cassandra Karas, CC License

Photo: Cassandra Karas, CC License

Terrier - small

Photo: Shek Graham; CC License

I seriously hope that no one would ever have to tell you to stay away from the Rottweiler on the left, who is showing all the obvious signs of all-out aggression… you do not have to look any further than the teeth. And I am sure the breed alone would have many people leery to begin with.

But now, look at the Terrier with the bone on the right. It is not snarling, growling, or showing any teeth…. But barring that, do you see ANY difference in their bodies? Because I sure don’t.


  • EYES: They are both doing a dead-on stare. Their eyes are fully opened and round.
  • TORSO: They are both frozen in place, rigid from head to toe, and other than the growling that I am sure the Rottie is doing, and the jaw muscles flexing, they are pretty much not moving a muscle.
  • MOUTH: Jaw is set and tight as a drum.
  • HEAD: Very low… almost equal to their torso, in a ‘Don’t mess with me” position.
  • FRONT PAWS: Spread wide apart splayed to the side, both guarding their possession , and ready to spring into action.
  • BACK PAWS: Rigid… you can almost see the muscles flexing and tense. Both of them have their ‘toes’ curled in obvious annoyance.

I thought it was important that people see a dog does not necessarily have to be showing teeth for parents to be aware that their dog is showing signs of what we call ‘possession aggression’ or ‘resource guarding’.


Let’s see how much you have learned so far. Would you approach either of these guys?

Little Dog Attacks

Photo: Jetteff; CC License

Little Dog Owns this Bone

Photo: Thomas Stromberg; CC License


So now we are going to play a quick ‘game’ of ‘What is the dog’s body saying now”, to give you a chance to test your new Canine Body Language Recognition skills

NOTE: My explanations of these pictures do not just apply to the guarding of resources. If you are out with your child, and someone walks by with a dog, even if you had asked if your child could pet the dog and the owner has assured you that the dog is friendly, if you see any of these ‘guarded’ signs, walk away. That dog, for whatever reason, is not in the mood to be approached.

I hope some of this has been educational for you, and maybe given you a slightly different perspective than you had before you read it. Just to reiterate, this article is not intended to be a ‘crash course’or make you an expert when it comes to pet behavior.  It is simply to make you aware of potential threats to you and your loved ones. The unfortunate fact is that thousands of adults and children get bitten every year, most often by their own family pet.  Even the sweetest, most loving of animals can have a bad day and it’s up to us to recognize the signs so that all of us, kids and pets included, can stay safe.

Study: Childhood Bullying ‘Casts Shadow’ Over Adult Life

Last updated on November 24th, 2015 at 04:58 pm

Bullying-affects-adulthoodBullying is bad for your health,” the Daily Mail reports. The story comes from research which found that victims of childhood bullying had a higher risk of poor health, poverty and problems with social relationships in adulthood.

The study, which followed more than 1,400 participants from childhood to young adulthood, looked at three groups involved in bullying:

  • Victims only – who reported being bullied but never bullying others
  • Bullies only – who bullied, but had never been bullied themselves
  • Bully-victims – who had been victims of bullying and also bullied others

They found that “bully-victims” seemed to be the most vulnerable group, being six times more likely to have a serious illness, smoke regularly or develop a psychiatric disorder in adulthood. “Bullies only” were at no increased risk of problems in adulthood, once other risk factors had been taken into account.

  • This large study addresses an important issue – whether the damaging effects of bullying last into adulthood.

The study cannot prove that being bullied causes problems in adulthood. It is possible for example, that involvement in bullying is a marker for a pre-existing problem which would also lead to difficulties in adulthood, such as psychiatric problems or family dysfunction.

Still, this was a well-conducted study carried out over a lengthy period and its findings should be taken seriously.

Signs your child is being bullied

Sometimes children don’t talk to their parents or carers because they don’t want to upset them, or they think it will make the problem worse.

However, if you suspect that your child is being bullied, there are signs to look out for, according to the NSPCC. These include:

  • Coming home with damaged or missing clothes, without money they should have, or with scratches and bruises
  • Having trouble with homework for no apparent reason
  • Using a different route between home and school
  • Feeling irritable, easily upset or particularly emotional

For more advice and information visit the NHS Choices Bullying hub

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Warwick, UK  and Duke University in the US. It was funded by the by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, all in the US, and the UK Economic and Social Research Council.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science. Due to the study’s topicality, it was covered widely and for the most part fairly, in the media.

What kind of research was this?

This was a prospective cohort study which followed more than 1,400 participants from childhood into young adulthood.

Its aim was to assess whether involvement in childhood bullying had any effects on areas in adult life such as:

  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Social relationships
  • Educational achievements
  • Involvement in risky or illegal behaviours

Cohort studies enable researchers to follow large groups of people for lengthy periods and are useful to look at associations between behaviour (in this case, involvement in bullying) and later outcomes.

Their main limitation is whether they are able to take account of all the other factors (called confounders) which might affect those outcomes. This means cohort studies can never prove cause and effect, only highlight associations.

The researchers point out that being bullied or bullying others is a relatively common experience in childhood and adolescence. While the damaging effects of involvement in bullying in childhood are recognised, they say that this is the first study to investigate how it might affect adult life.

What did the research involve?

In 1993, the researchers recruited a random sample of three groups of children aged 9, 11 or 13 years, from 11 counties in North Carolina, 80% agreed to participate. Each child, or their caregiver, was assessed annually by structured interview, until the age of 16. Each participant was interviewed again at ages 19, 21, and 24 to 26 years. Of the 1,420 children, 89.6% were followed up into young adulthood.

At each assessment between 9 and 16 years old, children and their parents reported on whether the child had been bullied or teased, or had bullied others in the three months before the interview.

Those who had been involved in bullying were then asked for further details such as how often bullying had occurred and where (the focus in the current study was peer bullying at school, rather than for example, sibling bullying at home).

Definitions of bullying and the questions used in the interview were taken from a validated child and adolescent psychiatric assessment. Frequency of bullying and its onset were also assessed.

The definition of being bullied used in the study is that the child is a particular object of repeated mockery, physical attacks, or threats by peers or siblings.

The definition of bullying is where a child repeatedly engages in deliberate actions aimed at causing distress to another or attempts to force another to do something against his or her will by using threats, violence, or intimidation.

To assess bullying involvement, interviewers asked questions such as:

  • “Do you get teased or bullied at all by your siblings or friends and peers?”
  • “Is that more than other children?”
  • “Are other boys and girls mean to you?”
  • “Do you ever do things to upset other people on purpose or try to hurt them on purpose?”
  • “Do you ever try to get other people into trouble on purpose?”
  • “Have you ever forced someone to do something s/he didn’t want to do by threatening or hurting him/her?”
  • “Do you ever pick on anyone?”

Participants were categorised as:

  • Victims only (they never indicated that they had bullied others)
  • Bullies only (they never indicated that they had been a victim of bullying)
  • Bully-victims (they had indicated that they both bullied others and had been victims of bullying )
  • Not involved in bullying

When the children had become young adults, they were asked about the following issues.


For example, whether they had been diagnosed with a serious illness, been in a serious accident, or had a positive test result for sexually transmitted disease or whether they smoked. Weight and height measurements were also taken to work out their body mass index (BMI).

Risky or illegal behaviour

For example, they were asked whether they had been involved in fighting, property break ins, frequent drunkenness, frequent use of illegal drugs, frequency of one time sexual encounters with strangers. Official criminal charges were checked from court records.

Wealth, financial and educational status

They were asked about income and family size, whether they had completed high school or college, whether they had work or financial problems.

Social relationships

At the last adult assessment, participants were asked about their marital, parenthood and divorce status; and the quality of relationships with parents, partners and friends.

The researchers also assessed any disadvantages the child might have suffered – which they call “Childhood hardships” – using established risk scales. Hardships included, low socioeconomic status, unstable family structure, maltreatment at home and family dysfunction.

They also assessed psychiatric problems between 9 and 16, using formal diagnostic definitions. Psychiatric problems assessed included anxiety, depression, disruptive behaviour disorders and substance use disorders.

They analysed their results using standard statistical methods. The results were adjusted for both presence of ‘childhood hardships’ and childhood psychiatric disorders.

What were the basic results?

Nearly two thirds (62.5%) of the children said they had not been involved in bullying.

Nearly a quarter (23.6%) said they had been victims only, 7.9% said they had been bullies only and 6.1% had been bully-victims.
Both bully-victims and bullies were more likely to be male, but victim status did not differ by sex.

Over one third (37.8%) of victims and bully-victims had been chronically bullied (bullied at two or more time points).

Once they had adjusted for childhood hardships and psychiatric problems, the researchers found that both “victims only” and “bully-victims” were at risk of poorer health, poorer finances and poorer social relationships in adulthood, compared to those who had not been involved in bullying.

By contrast “pure bullies” were not at increased risk of poorer outcomes in adulthood.

Those who had been chronically bullied had a higher level of social problems and showed a trend to financial problems, compared to those who were only bullied at one time point.

Bully victims were six times more likely to have a serious illness, smoke regularly or develop a psychiatric disorder as adults, than those who had not been involved in bullying.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage but throws a “long shadow over affected people’s lives”, say the researchers.

They suggest that being bullied may alter physiological responses to stress or interact with genetic vulnerability.

Interventions in childhood are likely to reduce long-term health and social costs, they argue.


This long term study suggests that victims of bullying, in particular chronic bullying, suffer long term damage which lasts into adulthood. As the authors point out, early monitoring, assessment and interventions are vital to prevent or stop such destructive behaviour.

The study does have some limitations. It relied heavily on children and adults self-reporting in many areas of life, which could affect the reliability of its results. Also, as the authors point out, the findings may not apply to other populations, particularly since American Indians (Native Americans) were overrepresented and African Americans under-represented.

In their analysis the authors tried to take account of other factors in childhood which might influence adult prospects, such as family and psychiatric problems. However, in this type of study it is always possible that both measured and unmeasured confounders might have an effect on outcomes.

This is a complex area and it is possible that involvement in bullying is a marker for a pre-existing condition such as a psychiatric problem which could also damage prospects in adulthood. On the other hand, as the authors point out, it is possible that bullying was caused by psychiatric problems in childhood, a factor that was adjusted for in their analysis. This may have led to an underestimate of the long term effects.

This is a difficult area to research and this study overall provides useful initial insights into the potential prolonged effects of childhood events.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.


“Bullying is bad for your health,” the Daily Mail reports. The story comes from research which found that victims of childhood bullying had a higher risk of poor health, poverty and problems with social relationships in adulthood.

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Child Health & Safety News Roundup: 11-09-2015 to 11-15-2015

Last updated on November 24th, 2015 at 04:59 pm

twitter thumbIn this week’s Children’s Safety News: Prosecutors Weigh Teenage Sexting: Folly or Felony?

Welcome to Pediatric Safety’s weekly “Child Health & Safety News Roundup”- a recap of the past week’s child health and safety news headlines from around the world. Each day we use Twitter and Facebook to communicate relevant and timely health and safety information to the parents, medical professionals and other caregivers who follow us. Occasionally we may miss something, but we think overall we’re doing a pretty good job of keeping you informed. But for our friends and colleagues not on Twitter or FB (or who are but may have missed something), we offer you a recap of the past week’s top 15 events & stories.

PedSafe Child Health & Safety Headline of the Week:
“I am a Witness” – How A Powerful Anti-Bullying Message Became One Simple Emoji

To All Caregivers of Kids (Especially Special Needs): Two Words

Last updated on November 24th, 2015 at 04:59 pm

son hugging his mother

Yesterday I had to leave work (again) because one of my kids was sick (again) and we went to the doctor (again). There was a tall young dad in the waiting room with a tiny infant. He juggled the supplies and the baby until he managed to find a bottle. Of course I made a fuss over the cuteness of the little bundle, despite the mortification of my own child who now stands 3 inches taller than me. The dad had a beard and was wearing skinny jeans so I assumed his disheveled hair was due to his hipsterness, but as we chatted he confessed that he wasn’t sure if he had showered in the past three days. Between their older toddler and the baby he and the mommy were completely overwhelmed. We commiserated about those days of pure survival, where it is just a minute by minute constant blur of diapers, laundry, bottles and burps – not to mention all the other icky stuff. Then the exhausted dad took a deep breath, looked my special needs child right in the eye, and said, “You better thank your mother.”

It is sad, but true – parenting any child, special needs or not, is literally a thankless job. Caregiving in general is clearly not valued in our society – just look at the pay rates. It is crucial in those early years (and all the years that follow) that those young beings are treated right, engaged, stimulated and loved. And yet many parents and caregivers never hear a thank you – and if they have special needs, the ones in their care may be unable to communicate, even if they are truly grateful.

So in this time of Thanksgiving, to all the parents, grandparents, caregivers, therapists, teachers and family friends let me say thank you. If you care enough to read this then you care about your role in a child’s life – maybe even a special needs child’s life – and you are doing a great job.

Thank you!The autism challenge - small

Ps – If you are seeing family or friends this holiday season, and you are caring for a special needs child, take the opportunity to educate them on whatever challenges your child is facing. The Autism Society put together this quick quiz… it’s a great way to get the conversation started. And again…thank you, for all you do!

Boys, Breasts and Puberty….Who Knew?

Last updated on November 24th, 2015 at 04:59 pm

Sad and thoughtful hispanic teenage boyA friend of mine with a son just entering puberty recently discovered a little known fact: a large number (possibly a majority) of boys in early puberty develop breast tissue.  Her son had a tender swollen lump under one of his nipples and when she took him to their pediatrician, she learned that anywhere from 40% to three-quarters of boys will develop this “breast bud”. Who knew?

For boys entering puberty, gynecomastia – development of breast tissue in males – tends to be confined to a breast bud of less than 2 inches across, right below the nipple. It can occur on just one side or under both nipples and is often quite sore, especially if the area is banged or bumped.

Puberty hormones are the culprit for this breast tissue growth, and it is a very normal – though seemingly little discussed – aspect of puberty in boys.  The good thing is that it shouldn’t grow beyond a small bud, isn’t generally very visible (especially under clothes – consider a swim shirt in the summer) and goes away over time as the hormones settle down, generally within a year but it could take up to 2 years.

While this is a fairly common aspect of puberty and just takes time to resolve, it can still be worthwhile to have your son checked out by a pediatrician. I know my friend’s son found a lot of relief in the doctor’s words about how common and normal this is – and it’s always good to get an unusual lump looked at, especially as there are some other rare causes of breast development in males.

The Peanuts Movie is Sensory Friendly this Saturday

Last updated on November 24th, 2015 at 04:58 pm

New sensory friendly logoAMC Entertainment (AMC) and the Autism Society have teamed up to bring families affected by autism and other special needs “Sensory Friendly Films” every month – a wonderful opportunity to enjoy fun new films in a safe and accepting environment.

The movie auditoriums will have their lights turned up and the sound turned down. Families will be able to bring in snacks to match their child’s dietary needs (i.e. gluten-free, casein-free, etc.), there are no advertisements or previews before the movie and it’s totally acceptable to get up and dance, walk, shout, talk to each other…and even sing – in other words, AMC’s “Silence is Golden®” policy will not be enforced during movie screenings unless the safety of the audience is questioned.

Peanuts Movie PosterDoes it make a difference? Absolutely! Imagine …no need to shhhhh your child. No angry stares from other movie goers. Many parents think twice before bringing a child to a movie theater. Add to that your child’s special needs and it can easily become cause for parental panic. But on this one day a month, for this one screening, everyone is there to relax and have a good time, everyone expects to be surrounded by kids – with and without special needs – and the movie theater policy becomes “Tolerance is Golden“.

This Saturday November 14th, at 10am local time, AMC and the Autism Society’s “Sensory Friendly Film” program will be showing The Peanuts Movie. Tickets are $4 to $6 depending on the location. To find a theatre near you, here is a list of AMC theatres nationwide participating in this fabulous program (note: to access full list, please scroll to the bottom of the page).

Coming later in November: The Hunger Games – Mockingjay – Part 2 (Tues, 11/24) and The Good Dinosaur (Sat, 11/28)


Editor’s note: The Peanuts Movie has been rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America. However, as always, please check the IMDB Parents Guide for a more detailed description of this film to determine if it is right for you and your child.