Last week a stray dog showed up in our neighborhood. This was a big dog, but young. He came toward me when I was taking out the trash, but when we got within several yards of each other his back legs seemed to go out from under him. He was not wagging his tail like a happy dog. Instead, he had it tucked in tightly and he had his long ears lowered as much as they would go. His head was to the ground, and he seemed to be shivering. I reached out a friendly hand, and he rolled into a submissive position, quivering all over in fear.
You may have heard that a frightened dog is a dangerous dog. I'd never seen a dog so scared as this big pup. I was certain he'd been abused, but I was afraid to get too close. I stepped backward and stood still, and he got back to his feet. I felt sorry for the dog, but there was little I could do. I went back inside and tried to put him out of my mind.
A couple of days later, the dog was back. I had just stopped my vehicle in the driveway, and my twins had gotten out on the passenger side when I saw him approach from the back of the car. I didn't know how he would react to the kids, or how they would react to him, and I was scared to death of what would happen if they ran up and tried to pet him. Thankfully, they did exactly what they'd been taught to do. They acted like trees and waited to see what would happen next.
Why act like trees?
My kids had been through an animal safety program at Purina Farms a few years ago. This program taught kids to "be a tree" if approached by a strange dog, and to "be a rock" if the dog knocked them to the ground. These easy to remember instructions taught them the safest way to react when encountering a stray, and thankfully, they remembered.
The Be a Tree program was developed by animal experts after years of experiments and research. It is taught all over the world. Educators instruct children to stop, stand motionless like a tree, fold in their branches by holding their arms down and their hands clasped, and look at their roots, avoiding eye contact. Dogs may still sniff around, but they almost always stop and leave a child alone when they are acting like a silent, motionless tree.
What if that doesn't work?
If being a tree doesn't work, and a dog jumps on a child and knocks them down, they should then be a rock instead. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, acting like a rock by curling up on the ground and protecting the face and neck with your arms can lower your risk of serious injuries in the event of an attack. Being a rock may also cause an excited dog to lose interest and move away, sparing you from any injuries at all.
One reason these strategies work so well is that even very young children can remember to be a tree and be a rock. They can also remember how to re-enact these poses once they are taught. Knowing what to do can help a child remain calm, which can help to calm a strange dog, too.
Our neighborhood stray didn't seem like a vicious dog. If anything, he was pitiful. But children should be taught to be a tree around any strange dog, because you never know how an unfamiliar animal is going to react, even to friendly people.
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