This meme is making the rounds on Facebook – it’s a photo of a baby and what looks like a Neapolitan Mastiff. The title says “How to Hug a Baby”, but for dog trainers and animal rescue advocates, it’s a red flag. While most people see a photo like this and say, “Aw cute!” we ask, “How long before the baby gets hurt and the dog gets sent to the pound?”
What we often interpret as a dog showing love to a human baby is usually the dog’s curious interest in that writhing, squeaking object that smells like milk. The dog sniffs and paws at the foreign object, and before you know it the baby is screaming and the dog is out the door. Take the situation to the next extreme, and the dog is shaking the baby like a stuffed toy and … well, we’ve all seen the headlines.
This photo makes me nervous because the dog is so big (even at less than a year a dog like this can weigh upwards close to 100 pounds; full grown as much as 150), and without any malice could crush the baby simply by resting its head on the child.
Never mind the fact that, for the most part, dogs don’t like to be hugged. Sure, we’ve all seen the photos of little babies or toddlers with the family dog in a headlock, their cherubic little faces pressed against the dog’s face. The dogs tolerate this and yes, can grow to enjoy that closeness with their humans. But generally speaking, a hug, which is affection in humans, is a form of restraint to a dog (just one of the many dog/human miscommunications). A dog who is anxious, frightened, in pain, or just having a cranky day might respond to a hug by telling the human to back off. How do they do that? A growl or a bite.
That there aren’t more children bitten by dogs is a testament to the dogs’ patience with our ignorance about dog communication. That many family dogs are sent to the pound because they’ve bitten a child should be a wake up call to dog owners that maybe the problem isn’t always the dog. Sometimes it’s us.