Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dogs in the Classroom for Bite Prevention - Doggone Safe Says No!

When Teresa and I first started doing dog bite prevention presentations in classrooms more than 10 years ago we took our wonderful dogs Clipper and Blitz. Many of you may recognize them from the many photos of them that we use in our materials. These were both exceptionally stable and friendly dogs who loved kids. They enjoyed coming to the sessions, we enjoyed having them there and the kids loved to see them. So why did we stop taking them you might ask? There are various reasons, the most important being that we were focusing more and more on body language and less and less on "don't do this and don't do that around dogs". We found that even these exceptionally tolerant kid-loving dogs would show signs of stress after being greeted and petted by many children. If we stopped the petting because of the subtle signs from the dogs that they had enough for today, then the remaining kids would be upset. If we allowed the petting to continue, then we were contradicting the lesson we have just given, which is: Respect the dog and if he shows signs that he doesn't want to meet you, then you leave him alone. We were disrespecting our own wonderful dogs and setting a bad example for the kids! There are few if any dogs who will truly enjoy being greeted by a whole classroom of kids. The goal of bite prevention education we realized is to educate the kids in the most effective way possible, it was not a forum for us to show off our terrific dogs or have a fun outing with our dogs. After much experience doing classroom presentations with a and without dogs, we are absolutely convinced that the kids learn better without the dogs and the dogs are better off without the stress.

Licensed presenters for Doggone Safe sign an agreement stating that they will not take a live dog into a bite prevention session. We recommend that if presenters wish to include a live dog component that they do this separately from the Be a Tree session and that the dog be used for a demonstration (grooming, tricks, training, service work, etc) and not be the subject for petting by the children. We encourage presenters to take a stuffed dog if they wish to allow the children to practice dog-greeting skills.

Be a Tree presenters who do not sign the licence agreement may not use the Be a Tree logo and may not represent themselves as being part of Doggone Safe during presentations where they bring a dog (even if they are a member). They may use the Be a Tree materials as they see fit.

Here is a link with more information about the Doggone Safe no dogs in the classroom policy.

Here is an article with more detailed explanations, published in the Spring 2012 issue of the Pack Rat, newsletter of the Association of Professional Humane Educators (a terrific organization with lots of resources for humane educators)

Dogs in Bite Prevention Classes

The Be a Tree dog bite prevention program for school age children is a well-established, popular program. There are over 800 presenters worldwide and nearly 1 million children have attended a Be a Tree session over the nine years the program has been in operation. This program has the support of many veterinary and humane organizations and recognized experts in the field of dog behavior.

The creators of the Be a Tree program, Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin, do not recommend the use of live dogs in dog bite prevention teaching sessions. Licensed presenters of the program must agree not to take a live dog into a session as a condition of the license agreement with Doggone Safe, the administrator of the program. All the dog behavior experts consulted in the setting of this policy by Doggone Safe agreed that it is better to use a stuffed dog and not a live dog when teaching groups of children.

This article will explain why we came to this conclusion about the use of live dogs in bite prevention presentations.

The main focus of the Be a Tree program is on teaching children to read dog body language and to recognize the key signals that a dog sends when he is happy or anxious. We teach the children to look the dog over (even their own dog or a dog they know well) to see what the dog is indicating with his body language and to pet only happy dogs that want to meet or interact with them. Any dog that licks his chops, yawns, closes his mouth when they approach, shows a half moon of white in his eye or turns away from them does not want to meet or play with them right now. They should respect the dog’s wishes and leave him alone. They should interact only with dogs that are happy and who come to them for attention. The Be a Tree program focuses on creating empathy with the dog and respecting a dog’s feelings.

When we started doing dog bite prevention sessions in classrooms we used to take our dogs. These were highly trained and socialized service dogs - Newfoundlands and a German Shepherd. They were very happy to be petted by the first 25-30 children and after that they started yawning or licking their noses or trying to lie down facing away from the children. These were kid-loving dogs, but they did get to the point where they had had enough and were no longer happy and receptive to the children. They were simply tolerating the attention. Since we had just taught the children that a dog yawning or licking his chops or turning away does not want to be petted, it was contradictory to allow the petting to continue, even though the chance of these dogs actually being stressed enough to bite was negligible. Since most children wanted to meet the dogs, this caused a problem.  If we took our own advice and stopped the petting, then children would be disappointed. If we continued to allow the petting when the dogs were obviously not interested, then we were going against all that we had just taught. Some children even pointed out to us that the dog was yawning, so he doesn’t want any more petting right now.

At first we were able to elicit many stress signs from the dogs in order to demonstrate these for the children. Soon the dogs got so used to any classroom situation that they just went straight to sleep and we were left without any body language to demonstrate! This is when we got the idea to use the large format pictures that eventually became the basis of the Be a Tree program. With the photos we knew for sure that we could show the main body language signals that we wanted to teach.

We also found that many children are distracted by a live dog and they want to look at the dog and ask questions (how much does he eat? how much does he weigh?) that were not relevant to the topic of the presentation. Sometimes the dogs were feeling too friendly and would gradually wriggle and creep over towards the children while we weren’t watching, which caused great hilarity. One of my dogs was a real clown and he would roll over on his back with all his feet in the air in the middle of a presentation, just to make the children laugh.

At the end of the Be a Tree session we play a number of noisy games. These are much more fun when the presenter does not have to worry about what the dog is doing while boisterous activity is going on.

Another reason that Doggone Safe does not allow presenters operating under the Doggone Safe name to take live dogs into the classroom is that there is no way to evaluate the dogs or the handling skills of the presenter. Even certified service and therapy dogs handled by professional dog trainers and behaviorists will show signs of anxiety and stress when large groups of children are allowed to pet them and so it is better if the dogs are not subjected to this.

We have discussed this issue with many other experienced bite prevention educators and all agree that live dogs do not have a place in a bite prevention seminar. Delta Society Australia uses a stuffed dog as do others and we are working toward securing funding so that Doggone Safe can also have a stuffed dog with which the children can practice their skills. The children can practice their dog meeting skills with the stuffed dog and the presenter can use the stuffed dog to demonstrate what a friendly tail wag looks like.

The classroom is not the place for people to show off how nice their dog is, or how nice their breed is. Surrounding a dog with children sets the dog up to fail. If dogs are taken into the classroom as part of another presentation separate from Doggone Safe, we recommend that this be done as a demonstration only (grooming, tricks, obedience, service work etc) and that the children be allowed to watch but not to interact with the dog. This will avoid any chance of a dog reacting and hurting a child, will avoid stress to the dog and will avoid giving the children contradictory messages

Many schools do not allow live dogs due to allergies or children with fears of dogs. The no-dog policy of the Be a Tree program has made the program welcome in many places where it otherwise would not have been.

In summary, live dogs distract the children from the presentation, and the majority of dogs do not enjoy handling by large groups of children. Doggone Safe cannot evaluate the temperament and handling skills of all dogs and handlers that may want to be involved in the program. Even certified therapy dogs, service dogs, guide dogs and dogs that have passed the canine good citizen test are not evaluated for their ability to handle crowds of children or to be petted by many children. Service dogs or guide dogs required by presenters should be placed where they cause the least possible distraction and the children should be told that the dog is working and that they will not be able to pet him.

In our experience after doing many, many bite prevention presentations with and without live dogs, it is much better without the dogs. The children are not distracted by either their interest in or fear of the live dog, they learn consistent messages, they have just as much fun without a live dog present and the dogs are not put in a stressful situation where their innate love of children may be eroded over time.

Joan Bio
Joan Orr is the president and cofounder of Doggone Safe, a non-profit organization dedicated to dog bite prevention education. She is also the co-creator of the award-winning Doggone Crazy! board game, Be a Tree Teacher Kit, Clicker Puppy training DVD and the co-author of the book Getting Started – Clicker Training Your Rabbit. For more information, visit or

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