Before reading my post, please watch this video, (sorry I’m unable to embed here for convenience.)
To summarize the video for those that couldn’t see, it shows a great dane being used as a piece of furniture by a toddler. She crawls around on him, playing to the camera, digging her elbow, feet, knees, hands and butt into the dog while she mumbles and her parents record proudly. The video is called “Why Great Danes are Great!” and the description says: “One very patient Great dane and one adorable little girl. Listen for her to sing her Bumble bee song.”
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. This dog is indeed very patient, and very tolerant. That doesn’t mean that the poor thing is okay with what is happening to it. In fact, from the very beginning of the video, the dog looks uncomfortable. He is offering stress signals as though he is reading them from a text book. Initially, he blinks, looks away, and then starts to pant rapidly. Throughout the video, the dog avoids eye contact with the camera/mother and the child. His ears are drawn back. He yawns. The little girl tries to grab his face to give him a kiss and he pulls away- gently, but deliberately. These are clear signs of distress. As he tries hard to convey his discomfort, the mother says, “wanna try and give him a kiss again?” At this point, the little girl stands and kneels on the dog, her knee jamming into his back as she steps on his hip/haunch with her other foot. The response from behind the camera? “Climb careful.”
At this point, the dog would be completely within its rights to bite this child. The fact that he doesn’t speaks volumes for this dog’s temperament. The little girl now sits on the dog like a bench and slides her butt across his ribs, scooting closer to his face. The dog freezes, lips tight, head down, moving only his eyes to make indirect contact with the offending toddler. She bends forward and gives him a kiss on the head while he is in this state. This is so dangerous. A dog that freezes has moved beyond simple stress signals. Freezing is a WARNING sign, and is often followed by fight-or-flight type response. The family continues to give her instructions on what to do next, and she begins using her bottom to rock back and forth on the dog’s ribcage as she plays with his ear. “Dane,” the dog, is holding his breath. This lasts for around a minute, the dog staying frozen in place as the girl’s parents tell her to move closer to his front, and then she starts singing and clapping her hands with her arms outstretched fully, right in the dog’s peripheral vision. He yawns, tightens his ears closer to his head, and begins panting again. He looks away, pulling away from her clapping hands. His brow is now significantly furrowed as he looks back and forth. The little girl eventually climbs onto him entirely, laying on him like he’s a mattress, while still fidgeting so that her legs are rolling around on his ribs. He has now frozen again, brow still furrowed, ears pinned, lips tight, holding his breath. She digs her elbow into the base of his neck and then puts her face against him. She sticks her foot in between his body and his haunch (I call this the “legpit”) and pushes into it. He does not move. The father says “say nighty night,” and shortly thereafter this 2 and a half minute dog torture session comes to an end. I shuddered at the words “nighty night” because it was clear that this family had no idea that they were putting their child at risk by allowing this behavior.
I’m not sure which is more abusive, the physical discomfort that this dog has to be going through because dogs are not pack horses and are not meant to be sat on, ridden, stood on, etc, and great danes in particular are prone to a lot of pain-riddled health issues like dysplasia and arthritis; or the blatant disregard of the dog’s gestures meant to put an end to this uncomfortable situation. I am concerned about the behavior that this little girl believes is acceptable due to the encouragement of her parents and how this will progress into more painful abuse of the dog, but more importantly, I’m concerned that the dog will be pushed beyond its tolerance threshold one day and will respond naturally, only to be euthanized as a “dangerous” dog. In the case of great dane vs. toddler, could mean serious or even fatal injury to the girl.
Body language is so important to dogs. They can’t say, “I am uncomfortable with this” in English. This dog spends the duration of this video using stress signals because it is the only way he knows how to convey that this situation is upsetting him. When you ignore- or are simply ignorant about- the signals a dog gives to you, sometimes it creates a scenario where the dog now feels as though he must increase the level of his signals. This could mean that he escalates to a growl, or it could be a snap- with or without body contact. Sometimes, though, the dog simply feels compelled to attack- and why shouldn’t he? Obviously his signals are not working, and he has to protect himself if his adult caretakers will not take action to defend him. The family will then say, “he just TURNED on us. He was always so good with her… he even let her climb on him. This was totally unprovoked!”
Don’t let your dog or child pay the ultimate price. Learn about canine body language and how to read the signals your dog is sending.
Here are some resources to help you:
Books on canine body language:
Canine Body Language: a Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff.
Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Dog Behavior by Roger Abrantes (note, I have had this one recommended to me but have not read it)
Canine Behavior: a Photo Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handelman (tons of photos, I’ve not read the whole thing but lots of good information.)
If books aren’t your thing or you want to see dogs in action displaying different behaviors:
The Language of Dogs: Understanding Canine Body Language and other Communication Signals (DVD) by Sarah Kalnajs