When I was bitten by a dog at 8 years old, my prize was 23 stitches in my face and neck. As I will explain, the dog breed does not matter, but the dog in question was not a pit bull. Six years later, my family brought a puppy into our home. Growing up, if you had asked my brothers and me who our favorite sibling was, we would have unanimously answered Abby, our family dog. Sharing your childhood with a dog can be a magical experience, and one that I hope my future kids will experience. But when it goes wrong, it can also be a heartbreaking one.
I was thrilled to see HuffPost Green's #pitbullweek tackling myths that plague pit bull-type dogs. These myths directly harm families with pit bulls, making it unfairly difficult for responsible dog-owners to find housing or insurance. It also directly harms families that don't have pit bulls. When we attribute characteristics to pit bulls generally associated with aggressiveness, we unintentionally create the perception that other types of dogs are completely safe. And the truth is, any dog can bite. Community and personal safety depends on treating every dog as an individual. The safety of children raised with dogs depends on recognizing stress signs in dogs, teaching children appropriate ways to bond with a dog, and actively supervising interactions between children and dogs.
In my practice as a behavior consultant, I have too often heard parents say, with anguish in their voices, that the dog bit and, "He just didn't give any warning." Unfortunately, it does not relieve any pain to explain that the dog gave a warning, but it went unnoticed. Dogs do give us many signs that they are uncomfortable. If subtle body language is not recognized, the dog will eventually feel like he has no choice but to intensify his communication. What started as a polite request for space can escalate into a bite. In the HuffPost Green video of children and pit bulls, I saw signs of lovely relationships between the dogs and the children, but I also saw many concerning interactions that should have warranted immediate parental intervention.
So, what are the subtle signs that your dog is stressed about an interaction?
The dog is turning his head away
The dog is licking his lips (but there is no food present)
The dog's posture is stiff
The dog is raising a paw
The dog's eyes are wide and the whites may be visible
The dog is trying to walk away or avoid the child
What are good guidelines for teaching children to interact with dogs?
The dog should solicit attention from the child - the child should never pursue the dog for an interaction
The dog is not a toy, not a horse to be ridden, and not a mountain to be climbed
One hand for petting the dog is enough, two hands are too much -- and please, no hugging
Pet for 3 seconds, and then pause and see if the dog actively asks for more petting, or decides to walk away
Children should pet the shoulder of the dog, not the head, which most dogs don't like (If you're an adult, try reaching out to pet your dog on the top of his head -- does he duck? Most dogs do -- they just do not care for pats to the head.)
Dogs deserve their own space while they're eating, napping, or chewing on a toy
The best way to keep kids and dogs happy and safe is through active and engaged adult supervision. Parents can give children proactive guidance on how and when to interact with their dog. They are also available for a swift intervention if the dog begins to look uncomfortable. If a work email or dinner on the stove is begging for attention, separate the child and dog.
Armed with your new knowledge, what to do if you notice that there are a lot of stressy, uncomfortable interactions between your kids and your dog? You are keeping everyone safe, but it does not seem that they are all as happy as they could be. Fortunately, there are training and behavior exercises that help kids and dogs repair and rebuild relationships. The exact approach will vary based on the history of interaction, behavior of the dog, and age of the child, so seeking professional help will ensure the ideal approach and make sure everything goes on without a hitch.
Here's to celebrating brothers and sisters -- canine and human -- and giving everyone the love and respect they deserve!
(CNN) -- It's hard to keep up with so many statistics about modern parenting, but here's one that floored me when I heard it a few years ago: By 4, children living in poverty hear 30 million fewer words than children in higher income households, according to researchers.
That is horrendous, but it gets worse: Hearing fewer words leads to learning fewer words, which means children start kindergarten with smaller vocabularies and a so-called "word gap." Often, they can't catch up when it comes to academic readiness and long-term achievement, studies have found.
This week, the American Academy of Pediatricsannounced new guidelines that encourage doctors to talk to parents not just about nutrition and illnesses but about the importance of reading out loud, singing and talking during an infant's first days.
"Fewer than half of children younger than 5 years old are read to daily in our country," the group's president, James M. Perrin, said in a statement. "The benefits are so compelling that encouraging reading at young children's check-ups has become an essential component of our care."
Pediatricians see 16 million children 5 and younger every year in the United States, said Patti Miller, co-director ofToo Small to Fail, a joint initiative of the Clinton Foundation and Next Generation, which is focused on helping parents close the "word gap" and improve the lives of children.
"So getting this word out through pediatricians and having them recommend to parents and support reading out loud to their children starting in infancy is so amazing and critically important," Miller said.
My husband and I read aloud to our girls, 6 and 8, every day from the minute they were born, and we still do it during breakfast or before bedtime. Their love of reading shows us they have certainly benefited, and it truly pains me to think about their peers who might have missed out before enrolling in elementary school.
President Barack Obama, in a video released by the White House on Wednesday, saluted the move by the doctor's group in connection with Too Small to Fail to help "bridge the word gap'" and increase children's chances of success later in life.
"We know that ... if a black or Latino child isn't ready for kindergarten, they're half as likely to finish middle school with strong academic and social skills," Obama said.
"By giving more of our kids access to high-quality preschool and other early learning programs -- and by helping parents get the tools they need to help their kids succeed -- we can give those kids a better shot at the career they're capable of, and the life that will make us all better off."
The key is getting the message to parents who too often don't realize the importance of reading aloud, talking and singing in the early years, Miller said.
"While this is a big gap, the good news is that the solution is pretty straightforward and we know that if we can get this important message out to parents about why you need to talk, read and sing, it can go a long way in terms of ameliorating this word gap," she added.
The mission has some bipartisan support. Too Small to Fail released videos Wednesday of Cindy McCain, wife of Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, former GOP Sen. Bill Fristand Hillary Clinton, who are teaming up to raise awareness about the importance of early literacy.
Clinton talked about how she sang to her daughter, Chelsea, every night when she was a baby. When Chelsea finally mouthed "No sing, mommy, no sing," Clinton went back to reading, she said in the video.
"Singing, reading or just talking is an important part of not only my daughter's brain development, but every child's," Clinton said. "Thanks to new research, we know that children's brains light up and make new connections when their parents speak to them from the earliest days, but many of our youngest kids aren't getting the support they need to grow and thrive."
Said Cindy McCain, "As a parent and former teacher, I'm very familiar with the way a child's eyes light up when he or she first starts to understand a new concept. Every moment a parent spends with a child, talking, singing, reading a bedtime story is an opportunity to make a lifelong impact in the child's life."
As part of the effort, Scholastic Inc. is donating 500,000 books for children up to 3 years old during the next year. The books will be distributed to 20,000 medical providers nationwide to be given to families during pediatrician visits.
The American Academy of Pediatricians and Too Small to Fail are also developing a toolkit to help doctors teach parents how they can add more communication with their infants and toddlers to every day activities such as diaper changes, meal time, bath time and bus rides.
"Parents don't have a lot of extra time. They're working, they're often working multiple jobs and doing their best to get everything done in a day so what we're trying to do is make these tips very simple and straightforward," Miller said.
If you have an infant or a toddler or you know anyone who does, encourage them to sing, talk and read aloud to their littlest ones. Those activities are just as important as making sure they get all the food and sleep they need to thrive.