Teach your kids how to understand when there's a dog in an uncomfortable situation

A lot of dogs are good at tolerating a situation, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily happy being in it.I recently attended the Association of Professional Humane Educators (APHE) conference in Dallas, Texas to promote IFAW’s Animal Action Education campaign. While there I attended some wonderful workshops offered by various humane educators who work with kids in a variety of settings.

One of the workshops that I really enjoyed was called ‘Training Dogs for Education’ which focused on how to select and train a dog who goes to classrooms for humane education lessons. Classrooms can be stressful places for dogs, so picking a dog who loves the work is as important as the training that goes into them. However, what the presenters stressed the most was detecting warning signs that the dog is uncomfortable in a situation.

A lot of dogs are good at tolerating a situation, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily happy being in it.

It’s important to look for subtle signs that the dog may be uncomfortable. These include stress signals such as yawning when not tired, tail tucked between their legs, ears back, the whites of the eyes showing, the corner of the mouth pulled back, panting when it’s not actually hot, licking chops without food being present, sudden scratching and of course, when all those signals have been missed, growling.

Dogs will exhibit some of these signs if they are uncomfortable anywhere, not just in the classroom. It’s their way of communicating their discomfort but because they are quite subtle, the signals are often misread or missed completely.

If your dog is exhibiting any of these behaviours, you need to pay attention to them!

It is important to immediately make your dog as comfortable as possible which may mean removing him or her from the situation, classroom or otherwise. Unfortunately people often ignore or try to repress these warning signs which just increases their dog’s stress and anxiety. By the time a dog growls or bites, they have run through a host of signals that someone has missed.

Even if you’ve got the friendliest dog it is very important to know these signs and even more important to teach the kids!

IFAW’s Animal Action “Cat, Dogs, and Us” education pack for children ages 5-14 contains information and lessons about canine communication. In the pack for ages 5-7 there is a role playing game where the kids communicate non-verbal messages like “I would like a drink of water” and other kids guess what they are trying to say.  

In Lesson 4 of the pack for ages 8-14, students look at photographs of dogs and analyze what a dog might be saying including potential mixed signals (tail is saying something different from the ears), and discuss how they might respond.

By teaching children how to read what a dog is saying, we enable them to understand and interact respectfully with dogs and lay the groundwork for safe, healthy relationships between them.


For more information or to download the IFAW "Cats, Dogs, and US" education pack, click here.

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Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Jan Hannah, Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project