“Cute” Dog and Baby Photos Feed the Fantasy

I just read this story following up on the tragic death of a one-year-old boy in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago.  You don’t have to go back and rehash details, but the part that got to me was the Dad’s comment at the end that he and his family have been so hurt and overwhelmed by online commentary that blame him for his son’s death.

I thought Christopher Shahan was very brave to tell his story in hopes that he can prevent tragedies for other families, especially in a clip where he tells other parents not to make the same mistake he did – because now he doesn’t have his baby or his dog.

Hearing what happened in terrible tragedies helps other families see what they can do differently.  Too often, though, I think we tend to look at what’s “wrong” with other people in a finger-pointing way and, perhaps, never learn the lessons that will pay true respect to the victims.


Didn’t Know is NOT Didn’t Care

I think there’s a big difference between families that did not know what to do for prevention and families where there are so many other child welfare issues or criminal negligence that it’s only a matter of time before the children are hurt by “something.”

And, of course parents don’t know about safety with dogs and babies and toddlers.  Why should they when our society chooses to surround itself with imagery showing dogs and babies as “best friends?”  You cannot pick up a children’s book with dogs in it without finding talking animals or smiley cartoon dogs who seemingly love being hugged and space invaded by babies.  We have chosen to sacrifice the real to the fantasy.

The price of fantasy is being paid every day by children and dogs and the families that love them.  Hardly ever does a baby or child die from a dog bite (that’s why a single incident will be news across the country), but even a less serious bite is devastating to a family.  Tearful clients tell me, “If only I knew, I would have done it differently…”

Sure, we can say, “Well, you should have known better!” but that’s easy after the fact.  No one purposely puts babies with dogs they think will hurt them.  The more a dog is tolerant, the more liberties will be allowed.  It’s human nature to believe what’s in front of your eyes (“He’s good with the baby!”), particularly when spurred on by a society that rewards and covets “cute” dog and baby interactions.  That is, until it goes wrong and then you’re spurned — as if you did anything different than millions of other parents who cling to the fantasy.


Take a Look in the Mirror

Have you ever forwarded supposedly “cute” photos and videos of dogs and babies? Surely, lots of people must be doing this because I see them all the time and many of these videos have millions of views and tons of, “Look how cute!” comments.

How about reveling in how good your dog is with your child?  I hear that all the time, too, when my work with dogs and babies comes up in conversation, “Oh, my dog is so GOOD with my kids.  They can do anything to him.”  (Readers of this blog will know how I feel about that statement.)

Do you have photos of your baby propped up next to your dog?  Or huggy pictures?

Where do you think we get the idea that this is an appropriate thing to do?  It’s from everyone around us validating that this is “normal” and something to strive for.  We get praise and admiration from friends and family – “Look how good your dog is!” – with the spillover implication that we must be good parents and good dog owners.

Let’s just stop it already.  Seriously, how is this much different than propping up the baby with a beer bottle or a cigarette in their mouth?  Ha, ha, so funny – look how cute!  People don’t do that because we, as a society, do not lavish admiration and attention on crazy behavior like that.  On the contrary, parents may very well go to jail for child endangerment.  So, why is the dog different?


Make a Difference:  Speak Up!

You’ve got to do your part to change this perception that dogs and babies “should” be best friends .  Risk being unpopular, being called a killjoy.  Trust me, you get used to it.

If someone forwards you “cute” dog and baby photos or posts them on their Facebook page, speak up.  The more people who say, kindly, “This is not cute enough to be worth endangering children and dogs,” the sooner perceptions will change and the less alone you will feel in speaking the truth.  And, you will know you did your part to make other parents think twice before going along and doing the same with their babies and dogs.

All of us who know better need to start changing things for the better.

(See follow up post Should You Share That Cute Dog and Baby Photo? for examples of how you might evaluate photos and real life situations.)


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  1. Breed and size DO matter when it comes to dogs and kids. I highly recommend this article about the attack, particularly commentary from behaviorist Alexandra Semyonova: http://blog.dogsbite.org/2012/04/2012-dog-bite-fatality-1-year-old.html.

    This dog was a mix of two, large, powerful, predatory dogs that have been bred for years to kill big game. This is NOT a family pet that should be hanging out with a baby, whether supervised or not. (And in this case, dad was very remiss in not even being on the SAME FLOOR of the house).

    Thanks for your good article on why parents should not risk their kids’ lives to get that “cute shot” of the baby with a pit bull or other big, powerful dog from a breed that was created to kill things. (Or indeed, any dog big enough to do damage).

    1. Thank you, Sharon, for reading and commenting. I don’t like to focus so much on breed as on basic safety that applies to all dogs, but I hear where you’re coming from. And, I agree with the analysis stating that a grab/shake mauling is not the norm when a dog bites a toddler. For awhile, I wanted to know what was different about this particular dog (since there are plenty of strong, powerful dogs who do NOT bite so it can’t be just breed), but then I let it go, realizing that it doesn’t change anything about what I teach. Parents need to walk the line between freaking out over nothing and using common sense rather than assuming a dog “knows” what to do with a baby.

      1. I think it’s best to keep babies and toddlers away from dogs of any size. Toddlers are not developmentally ready to interact with animals, as they don’t yet have empathy, self control or judgment. If a toddler must interact with a dog I think an adult should guide his hands to make sure the toddler doesn’t pull hair, poke eyes, grab ears or whatever. It’s easy to forget that babies and toddlers have strong little hands. You also need to be able to wisk the baby away if the dog snaps. Is any human fast enough? Hopefully the dog would growl a warning.

        Horrible, tragic case and such a beautiful little boy.

        Keep up the excellent posts. I still think you should publish your articles in parenting magazines.

    2. I would like to add that any size dog can do damage. I’ve read about small dogs harming babies too.

      1. Good point. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the same situation, the small dog bites more or harder because they feel threatened. Plus, any dog who is small enough not to seriously harm the baby is small enough to *be* seriously harmed *by* the baby. So keeping dogs and babies separate is a good thing regardless of size or breed.

    3. I’m confused why you would bring pit bulls into this specifically, since the dog involved was not a pit bull, but a mastiff/Rhodesian ridgeback mix.

      1. Thank you for saying that Kellyk! Pit Bull wasn’t anywhere in this story but for some reason people feel the need to bash them. My pit is amazing…would I leave her with a toddler? Nope…but I wouldn’t leave my terrier mix alone with one either because any dog can bite! For the record my little terrier would bite way before and harder than my pitty.

  2. Excellent article Madeline! Thanks for posting this. I have written numerous times to magazines and websites who show these images and have been assured that the baby or toddler was not in danger during the photoshoot. Missing the point!! People just don’t want to hear this, but we just have to keep saying it!

    1. Thank you, Joan. I think the “copycat” reasoning may help people be more careful about the images they portray. Because, really, it doesn’t matter if you dissect the body language or “know” the dog was “fine” in the particular instant the photo was taken. It just perpetuates the idea that this is something everyone should do. I’m glad you keep up with writing to magazines and websites to say that. It’s true that no one wants to hear it, but it WILL become common knowledge eventually — kind of like the backlash at Britney Spears for sitting her son in her lap while driving.

  3. Great article. I also think this when I see photos of people who have propped their baby or small child up on a horse – no helmet, no support, no one holding the horse or beside the child and everyone goes ‘oooh thats adorable’ and I say ‘wheres the helmet’ and get the reply ‘I trust my horse! You’re so PC!’

  4. So many of the images I see like these totally freak me out. They show dogs straining under the pressure from the interaction. I appreciate this post here. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. I am so glad to hear you say to stand up against those photos…. Just recently asked a humane society to take down the infant in the face of the shar pei puppy. Explained why it was not the awww of the day. They listened, but not after several comments for me to chill… Also the story that hit the news and talk shows of the 3 yr old with a service dog to carry her oxygen. Video of the dog on today show made me cringe, and he was on a prong… There were several comments on why that wasn’t such an awww story and those comments got crushed with people saying dogs are bred to “deal with it” and that dog will learn. So hard to educate sometimes when society thinks like that.

    1. Good for you, Dawn, to speak up with your humane society. The more people say something, the more other people will think twice. Because, I think in the end everyone wants the same end result — dogs and kids happy together. I hope this and the following blog post help give you some support to explain WHY it’s important. We all have to look out for the welfare of the dogs and babies in our community.

  6. Thanks for a great article. It is so nice to hear I am not alone in my concerns. I was born outspoken and now i have the knowledge i do about how to read canine body language i am told constantly what a kill joy I am when I express my concerns about these type o f photos and videos. Sadly i feel totally outnumbered but won’t stop expressing my concern. Meanwhile I just keep pushing along educating anyone who stops and says “you might have a point, tell me “

  7. Such a tragedy; I read about this a few weeks ago and couldn’t help but feel disturbed. But I do agree with always supervising and that every dog, regardless of size, breed, temperament, has its limit. Dogs and kids need to be taught to respect each other; and should never be left alone together. I can see how one thing led to another and this tragedy ensued. However, in response to what Sharon said, it is quite disturbing that the dog didn’t just bite the 1 year old, but actually mauled him. What made him different than another dog who only bites? As an owner of a 6 year old Boxer dog, I sometimes have to stop and wonder when people try to warn me that he will confuse my future baby with prey, if that could be true? Most dogs do have a prey drive, and will chase squirrels and the like. I just wonder if you could shed some light on whether or not they do know the difference between an infant and small animals/prey? Does a dog with a prey drive confuse the squeaking noises and flailing arms of a baby with prey? This has nothing to do with the boundaries/limits conversation of respecting the dog and etc., just whether or not they all have to be taught or if it’s something I should be worried about. Thank you in advance.

    1. The dog needs boundries. For instance, don’t allow the dog in the childs bedroom. The dog can never take food from the childs hands. He can’t lick the child without permission. Boundries, boundries, boundries. The child once old enough needs to be taught to lead the dog. The child will need boundries, boundries, boundries 😉

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  9. Can I just say that I have a Rottweiler bitch and she is fantastic with my four yr old son , but I never trust any dog … I have strick rules in place 1. I use a dog crate allowing my dog her own space and my son has been taught to leave her alone whilst in there 2. I use a stair gate so the dog has no access to the front door or upstairs 3. Under no circumstances is my son allowed to pull her around or play fight etc and if wanting a hug he’s allowed to sit next to her NOT on her or leaning on her 4. Dog goes into her crate if there are other children in the house 5. She’s left alone whilst eating 6. They don’t share toys ( as I see many dogs being given teddy bears!!! Which I don’t agree with) AND NEVER LEAVE THEM ALONE !!!so all in all if your going to have a dog ANY breed or size with any aged child then safety measures def need to be put in place , doesn’t mean you will enjoy your dog any less

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