Some thoughts on sexual violence and children’s relationships with dogs

I want to share some thoughts about sexual violence and children’s relationships with dogs. It’s a long one, so you might want to grab a cuppa.

As a critical developmental psychologist, professor, parent educator, and dog behaviour practitioner, I think A LOT about what kids learn through their relationships with dogs. And it has me very worried–for both our dogs and our children.

This week, people across Canada are reeling from horrific accounts of sexual violence during orientation week at one Ontario University. The terrible truth is that sexual violence is pervasive on our campuses. In 2019, The Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey reported that 23% of Ontario University students experienced a non-consensual sexual act in the past year. These numbers focus on victimization, but they also suggest a disturbing truth about perpetrators–those who commit sexual violence (most often, but not always men) are not rare monsters. We live in rape culture, and perpetrators are our neighbours sons, brothers, fathers, and partners.

As a society, we are raising children to be violent. We are raising them to believe that they are entitled to others’ bodies, entitled to inflicting violence.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been delving into research about the link between various forms of violence against humans and violence against animals. Research on this topic comes from many different fields, such as Critical Animal Studies, Feminist Studies, Critical Disability Studies, Indigenous Studies, and others (e.g., see work by Billy-Ray Belcourt, Sunaura Taylor, Nik Taylor & Heather Fraser). There’s also some great non-academic work, like this must-watch TED Talk by Kim Brophey.

Our relationships with dogs are a confusing mix of love, devotion, domination, and violence. As Australian social work scholar Melissa Laing put it in a recent article on interspecies families, family pets “are kin who reside in a liminal space between subject and object”. They are family and they are property.

This is a dangerous mix.

And here’s how it too often plays out in kids’ relationships with family dogs–We buy adorable puppies to satisfy our children’s emotional needs (often with zero thought about what this is like for our dogs). We teach children that humans are masters who are to be obeyed, that disobeying is to be disciplined, that resistance in the form of growls, barks, and (when those are ignored) bites is to be punished–even with death (dogs who bite children are euthanized far too often). We show kids that it’s ok to drag the beings they love around on collars and lock them up alone in cages.

All of this is practicing the wrong things. We should be teaching our children how to truly see another being for who they are, to recognize when they are uncomfortable, that it is always ok for someone to say “no”. Instead of teaching them to be “masters”, we should be teaching children to be humble in their relationships, to learn and grow through gentleness and love.

Every child who lives with a non-human animal should be raised to understand that animal’s species-specific body language and they should have a deeply ingrained understanding of consent. For this to happen, kids need adults to consistently model and teach ways of being in relationships with dogs that gentle and respectful. It does no good to tell children to be gentle, and then to turn around and force the dog into submission.

Children learn from their family relationships–including their relationships with the family dog. For the sake of both dogs and kids, we need to do much better at teaching the right lessons.

Resources for Families

Teaching Dog Body Language

There are lots of great resources available for teaching kids how to interact with dogs. Turid Rugaas’ book, On Talking Terms with Dogs is a must-read for everyone who interacts with dogs. For teaching children about dog body language, I recommend the Dog Decoder app, Lili Chin’s book Doggie Language, and, for younger children, the Doggie Detective® activity pages by Family Paws Parent Education. I also suggest that parents check out the resources at thefamilydog.com/stop-the-77/.

Teaching Consent

Understanding dog body language is essential for understanding consent, so the above resources are a good start. Here are some excellent additional resources for teaching children about consent in greeting dogs.

Dogs Trust: Say Hello to a Dog

Blue Cross: How to Approach a Dog

More Resources

For additional resources for families with children and dogs check out my articles in Today’s Parent magazine.

For more on the topics of speciesism, violence & our relationships with dogs, check out this recording of my FB Live conversation with Andrew Hale of Dog Centred Care.

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