I will never forget the day when I heard the screeching of my son, Jack coming from the other room only to run in and find him on the floor after a scuffle with one of the family dogs, our little miniature dachshund, Jessica.
The events that had taken place just moments before were enough of a wake-up call for me to realise that I had been recklessly ignorant in my current living conditions since I never recognised the significance of safe-dog interaction until this point.
You see, I was (and still am) an avid dog lover, sharing my home with not one but FOUR dogs of different breeds and I now have two children added to the mix making our household somewhat chaotic and in need of structure, boundaries and of course, safety.
So, rewind back to those years ago when the godawful event took place and the penny well and truly dropped, I had made the decision to never again allow my children and dogs to be left unattended without the presence of either my husband or myself – today this sounds like basic responsible parenting but you’d be surprised how many parents don’t consider the importance of safe dog interaction even today.
At that time, I was running my own entertainment firm of 7-years and had been looking for a way out. For one, I battled with clinical depression since a child myself and the unsociable hours of disc-jockeying while trying to be a parent was only adding to the burden of my woes, but it wasn’t until one night it dawned on me that I would love working with dogs and that it might just kill two birds with the one stone.
I began to learn about safe interaction with dogs and I saved money every month as I trained as a professional dog groomer and behaviourist.
My journey into the dog industry was enlightening and frightening all at the same time since it revealed the brutal truths that exposed the extent of my ignorance in regards to co-existing with my non-human kin. It turns out, I was only just discovering how to live safely with dogs after almost 15-years of dog guardianship!
When the world went into lockdown families all across the globe turned to canine companionship and there began what we now refer to as ‘the puppy boom’ – what we saw unfold before us was the rocketing prices of puppies as the demand for bringing one home to entertain the children became more and more.
And what pet professionals began to witness was a nation consumed with idealistic thoughts of raising a happy and healthy puppy despite the restrictions of many of the activities that would normally help to make that possible – outdoor adventures, exercise, training classes and so on.
Suddenly, the pet sector was overrun. All of us were being contacted by many a desperate family looking for help to ‘manage’ and ‘control’ their puppy after their unrealistic expectations of the perfect family pet were met with puppies with numerous health defects, and anti-social behaviours.
During those many months of house arrest, professionals took to the internet and began offering virtual consultations to the most in need but things were only just ticking by. I observed that many of the problems my clients were coming to me with were more to do with the dog feeling overwhelmed in their environment, than anything else.
As businesses began to open again, the extent of these problems were all the more obvious – many families simply weren’t prepared and as such, were deciding that they just weren’t suitable to be pet guardians. Rehoming centres sadly became over-populated with unwanted pups, kickstarting another kind of pandemic in the pet industry which was heart-breaking.
I wondered; how much emphasis was being placed on teaching children of a family how to safely interact with their new addition? Could more be done to encourage a calmer, less intense space? And if so, could we save a lot of broken-hearts if we concentrated more on our understanding of canines?
It reminded me of my own personal experience those years ago with Jessica. Since home-schooling was the norm, it didn’t take me long to decide that the best approach to encouraging safe interaction with the family dog would be in reading – ‘I Can Be A Dog Detective!’, was born.
I picked up a pen and paper over morning coffee and in a matter of a couple of hours I had the blueprint, and first draft of my very first children’s picture book.
The first step to safe interaction with the family dog is more about understanding how your dog is feeling and why. While many families are asked to concentrate on training and tricks, the real problems stem from a lack of understanding since controlling a behaviour doesn’t necessarily lead to safety.
One of my most repeated phrases these days is: safety is a feeling. If we do not feel safe then we will react in ‘undesirable’ ways.
In biology this process is known as the ‘flight or fight’ response and it is both reflexive and indigenous in all animals of the Animal Kingdom. This is how an animal is programmed to survive irrespective of them being in the wild or in the comfort of our insulated homes.
When we consider this fact, we suddenly realise that in most cases where a dog snaps at a member of the family, more specifically, a child it is the result of the dog being fearful or in pain. And these instances can be reduced exponentially if we develop our ability to recognise and listen to what a dog is trying to communicate.
For example, a dog growling is a warning cue, just as a verbal “stop” said by a human is a warning cue in our language therefore, a dog should never (ever) be punished for trying to communicate to us that they need space.
It all comes down to acknowledging that we are not the only beings that have emotions and needs – the need for comfort, the need for rest, the need for SPACE. But often a dog is left with little or no choice in any of those things within the family home, especially where there’s children and no boundaries.
A baby who pulls the family dog’s tail only to be snapped at is no different than a person pulling someone’s hair only for them to hit back.
Safety is a feeling and when our safety is at risk, we either run away or fight back.
Safe interaction therefore, is learning more about how to identify and listen to what our dog is trying to tell us, never punishing them for communication, and ensuring that all members of the family respect those needs from day one.
The dog training industry is a lucrative one with many trainers focusing on ‘correcting’ behaviours that humans deem “undesirable”.
During puppy classes we focus on how to teach our dog’s how to give a paw or roll over, when the most important lessons are often ignored – how do our dogs communicate? Do they speak to us and if so, are we prepared to listen? What purpose does smearing a puppy’s face in their accidents serve other than to scare and demoralise their emotional needs?
These are the questions I believe will save the most lives when it comes to safety, and these are the areas of dog care that I have invested my time to teaching both my peers and pet guardians all around the world.
Safety is not what we can teach our dogs in the family home (though I’m not saying that dogs don’t enjoy learning new skills and being rewarded for them) but safety is definitely about learning a new language – canine language – and using what we learn to enrich the lives of our dogs in a way that will encourage a more harmonious co-existence in the family home while keeping everyone safe.
Stephanie Zikmann's 'I can be a dog detective!' out now.