This was written several years ago. It was when I still had my original two dog safety ambassadogs, D’Argo and Seven. This is a moment I will always remember as it was a day I learned a lesson about children and their perceptions.
We fail to give many children enough credit. We base our opinions of youth as a whole on the actions of a few. Sadly, the few our image is based on are often the slackers, thugs, unmotivated kids, rude brats and clueless young adults that we see on the media. This is wrong.
When I began The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project in 2001, I knew not only would I teach but also gain valuable insight from those I presented to – especially from the children. Children’s fears, hopes, dreams, goals, perceptions come one way or another from adult influence. In order to teach my program, I need to know why and how various feelings develop.
When I begin a safety presentation, I often ask: “What dog is the most dangerous?” and “What dog is the safest?” I need to know where the audience is coming from. People are often taught certain dogs are inherently dangerous while others are perfectly safe. This is not true. Any dog can be a risk and no type of dog is perfectly safe.
Most often when I am asked to give a talk, it is most often in middle to upper income locations. When I ask my opening questions I often get for the dangerous dogs question: pit bull, Rottweiler or German Shepherd. For safest dogs: Labrador, Golden, and Beagle. When I ask why I got these answers, I often hear “[Fill in the blank] said so,” “The only dog on my street that is bad is a Pit Bull the sweetest are Labs,” “It is what I see on TV,” etc. When I try to discuss how any dog can bite, it is not uncommon for me to hear “Well not my ________ this type never bites. It is why we got one.” Even after my presentation is done, I often hear how some dogs are just perfect dogs. There are dogs that will never bite and some that will kill you as soon as they can. Sigh…
I remember my first presentation for at-risk, younger inner city children. When I asked my opening questions about dangerous dogs and dogs that bite the most I was surprised at the answers: Chihuahuas, Poodles and “fuzzy little dogs.” One child said “Pit Bulls.” The other kids verbally jumped all over him!
After quieting them down, I asked why many answered smaller dogs. One boy piped up, “Because old ladies own them. They carry them everywhere and tell the dogs they are good when they go after us. All the ones in my building are mean!” When I asked why they got angry when one child said pit bulls, they answered “Pit bulls are bad because of the people that own them,” “People breed bad ones and make more bad ones,” “People take good puppies and try to make them mean.” Ah ha! Now for the light bulb moment I always try to find.
I asked could the same be said for the fuzzy little dogs. Maybe the little old ladies are doing things to make the dogs behave nastily. The kids paused and all nodded in agreement. These children, whom many would give up on simply because of where they were from rapidly understood the connection between human behavior and dog reactions. They understood that it is a combination of breeding, raising and management that determined the safety level of any dog.
Then they got to interact with my dogs – smaller and fuzzy and enormous and hairy. For many this was the first positive interaction with a dog.
These children, that many assumed were bad simply because of the actions of others in their community, better understood that not all little dogs are bad – there were many factors that make a dog what he is. These kids got it. I only wish others were as willing to learn.
Karen Peak is owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, a published author, wife, mother and the manager of a multi-dog, multi-species household.