“We just don’t understand why he bit her out of the blue! He always gives her kisses! He loves our daughter!”
These are the very words I heard repeated over and over through our Family Paws Dog & Baby Support line that led me to dig deeper. So frequent is this type of call and situation that over time I began to pay attention to the pattern of the description “kisses.” I wondered why so many bite calls included the mention of a dog licking or “kissing the child.” I became curious if there was a correlation and if so I wanted to understand more. Was a lick a “kiss?” Or was it possibly a “dismiss?” Licking can be many things. Grooming, care taking, self-soothing, appeasement — but what about distance increasing or a cut off cue?
I began asking questions like: “Can you describe a situation where you notice your dog licks your child? Would you describe the lick as fast? Slow? Hard? Soft? Frantic? Have you ever felt that this interaction was too intense? If so, can you tell me more?”
In gathering more information I found that the children were often newly crawling and that they had been able to approach the dog. When approaching the dog, the dog would lick them. The parent would see this as kisses and affectionate. They were excited by it and may even have encouraged the child to approach the dog at times. They viewed it as cute and affectionate and were pleased to see this bond. I began thinking of this differently. When a dog licks me in the face, I move away. This decreases the tension of direct frontal eye contact. Essentially the licking of my face works well for the dog to break the tension of direct frontal eye contact. Dog licks and I turn away. It works. Might this be the same thing happening between the newly crawling babies but with more intensity especially if it happens often?
In a common example, the dog is in a resting spot, the baby approaches, the dog licks their lips, turns away, the baby continues to approach, the dog may check in with a trusted adult, lick lips again, turn away, and yet the baby continues approaching. Once the baby is close, the dog may stretch their neck to reach the child to lick them, often followed by looking at the adult. The baby may continue to approach or try to interact with the dog and the dog’s face indicates stress (whale eye, tight muscles). The dog’s licks become harder and more intense, more pushing the child away. This is what I refer to as “Kiss to dismiss.” If the child continues to approach and/or has approached the dog numerous times, the dog’s licks likely will become more intense and eventually may escalate to a bite. This licking pattern is not a quick flick, it is usually a lick with many other facial stress indicators observed. Often this is a lick parents feel uncomfortable with and intervene to stop the dog from continuing. It feels more intense.
When does this become a problem?
If the child is repeatedly approaching the dog and entering their personal space. Crawling, cruising and newly walking babies are completely unpredictable. This is a huge change for dogs to adapt to. Our dogs rely on observations of body language (watching the humans around them) and an unpredictable baby can be conflicting for even the most confident and comfortable dog. In response, dogs offer many signals that parents can become familiar with. Increasing the adults’ Dog Aware skills can empower parents and allow them to make safer choices through Dog Aware understanding.
What can we do to prevent a kiss to dismiss?
I discourage parents from allowing their baby to crawl towards and into the space of their family dog. “Invites decrease bites” is a phrase I say often as it helps families remember to not allow the child to move into the dog’s space. Inviting the dog over while holding your baby or toddler allows the dog an opportunity to make a different choice instead of a child moving into and entering the dog’s space, essentially forcing the dog to move or respond. Another phrase I say often is “a dog and baby on the scene, a parent in-between.” This is super important to prevent speedy crawlers from approaching a resting or unsure dog. Another phrase Family Paws suggests is “give space, not face to face.” These catchy rhymes stick with kids and parents! That is what matters! Finding ways to help families remember what to do is important!
Dogs are constantly communicating in subtle ways. It is up to us to learn what they are communicating and do our best to help them feel comfortable. The more we receive the subtle signals, the less our dogs will resort to escalating to growls and bites. So the next time you observe your dog lick someone in the face, ask yourself, is it a kiss or might it be a dismiss?
Below is another classic example of what I observe and reference as kiss to dismiss. Would love to hear your thoughts and please share videos anytime so that we can together continue to learn more about our dogs communication.