Whisper Helps Teach Dog Safety at Girdwood School
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Dog safety is an important community issue for canines and humans alike, especially the young ones among us.
A dog attack directed at a human, a dog or anything living may end with devastating consequences for everyone involved. Many of these incidents are preventable.
Understanding dogs’ behavior and how to interact with them is the biggest key to preventing problems. To educate Girdwood School K-8 students, the Municipality’s Animal Care and Control (ACC) Public Relations Coordinator Laura Atwood recently visited with her dog, Whisper—a male husky mix who was likely born from a family of sled dogs.
Atwood was asked to speak about simple guidelines involving safe dog handling by sixth grade teacher Leola Rutherford, who also invited first grade teacher Alison DaRosa to bring her class in as well to listen.
The presentation’s purpose was to inform young students about dog safety and what ACC does. Also, it’s intention was to help gain understanding about how to behave around dogs that students do and do not know to prevent them from getting injured in any way.
Atwood began her presentation by asking students,”What is a shelter?” and then listened to the various responses they gave to build upon and work with. Then she explained that ACC is an open admission shelter for the Municipality offering safety and a temporary home for many domestic animals, with the exception of livestock or wildlife.
Animals typically arrive at the shelter in three ways Atwood explained; either they are lost and dropped off, an ACC officer has impounded an animal or someone realizes they can no longer take care for their animal properly.
“What we want is for that animal to go home to their original family. Almost all of our dogs are found by their families. Cats, not as many. We always have more cats available for adoption than dogs.” Atwood said. In addition to cats and dogs, she also talked about having pot-bellied pigs, sheep and the occasional goat.
Atwood’s message about dog safety stayed focused and she emphasized to always remain on guard, even with dogs you’re familiar with.
“One of the things we deal with at animal control is dog bites.” Atwood said. “We don’t like to see them happen to anybody. We want to teach people how to avoid that happening.”
Atwood says most dog bites can be avoided. In many cases, people get bitten when they are not paying attention to a dogs behavior and demeanor. Dogs physically express themselves through sounds and body language.
Using drawings of Whisper the dog projected onto a screen, Atwood asked students how they interpreted three basic canine behaviors. Afterward, she used their responses to further educate them about understanding a dog’s facial features.
A happy face shows open eyes, an open mouth and friendly ears. A scared face features ears back, a tightly closed mouth with eyes down—which is not a dog to approach even if it is your own. Angry dog faces happen when there is something he or she does not like or understand.
When students were asked to describe the drawing, one sixth grade girl answered, “His eyes are nearly closed. His mouth is also closed. His ears are down.”
Atwood told students that most dogs do not like to be hugged because it is not a natural behavior for them. “Read a dog’s body language to see how comfortable it is.” Atwood warned. She also warned never to place your face against an unfamiliar dog due to the danger of being bitten. She said, “You meet a new dog, the dog is cute, you want to get close to them, so we put our face close to theirs.” But in all situations, it was highly encouraged to protect your face by maintaining the proper distance.
As for feeding dogs, most will guard or protect their food, which is how they naturally behave. It is not appropriate to pet a dog, play with it or take its food away during feeding. Atwood recommends giving an eating dog a respectable distance.
“If a dog doesn’t want you near their food, there are a couple of signals they may give you,” Atwood said. “They may get lower over their food bowl. They’re going to start eating faster because they think you want that kibble. They may growl, they may lift their lip a little bit and if you’re still not listening—they may bite.”
Similar dog behavior may apply to rawhide, treats and toys. A young person may get attacked trying to take a treat or toy away from a dog. If a dog is chewing on something of the child’s, get an adult to take the object away and divert the situation.
Atwood’s next safety lesson addressed encountering dogs you do not know. She said always ask permission to meet a dog, and if it is granted by the owner, give the dog the chance to get to know you by offering your hand without extending your fingers. Let the dog sniff the hand, and if the dog appears calm, then it is alright to pet it. Atwood recommended not petting a dog over the head because it often makes them nervous to have a hand near that area. Petting under the chin and chest of a dog is best or along the sides.
Then Atwood explained to the students what to do if they see a loose dog with no owner around—which is a common occurrence in the streets of Girdwood.
Atwood said, “You don’t know whether that dog is friendly or not. You don’t want to try to pet that dog, but you also don’t want to run away from that dog. Most dogs are going to be faster than you. Instead, stay like a tree trunk,” she explained.
Atwood demonstrated how to stand straight with your hands placed on opposite shoulders and stay still. If a dog approaches you and seems aggressive, it may bark, sniff and demonstrate other behaviors. So it is best to stay quiet and look straight ahead until the dog has moved away. When the opportunity comes, slowly walk away in the other direction.
The students then practiced with Atwood’s dog, Whisper as he walked around the classroom and sniffed the students.
When it came time for students to ask questions, most of them were about the furry guest on the carpet. A sixth grade girl asked about Whisper’s age as Atwood replied, “I think he’s about five. I adopted him in April 2015. I don’t know for sure.”
Another sixth grader asked how Atwood met Whisper. “In his former life, he lived in the homeless camps in downtown Anchorage with a homeless person,” Atwood responded. “She realized at some point that she was not able to care for him. He was very thin.”
A first grade boy asked Atwood about Whisper’s birthday. She said, “Since I didn’t have him as a puppy, I just made his birthday the day I adopted him, and that was April 15th.”
Animal Care and Control is open seven days a week for adoption.
4711 Elmore Rd., Anchorage
Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
To report aggressive, attacking or loose dogs, call Animal Care and Control Dispatch at (907) 343-8119. For a copy of Title 17 or the Municipality’s animal control laws, visit library.municode.com.
For Animal Control website, visit muni.org/Departments, under Health and Human Services, click Administration, click Health and Human Services, with Animal Control being on the menu to the left, fourth link down.