Families learn to be “Doggone Safe”

At the New England Training Club a German shepherd practices the "leave it" exercise by not eating the scrumptious treat on his paw. The exercise teaches focus and control.
Photo: Pam Cyran

By Pam Cyran 

At the New England Training Club a German shepherd practices the "leave it" exercise by not eating the scrumptious treat on his paw. The exercise teaches focus and control. Photo: Pam Cyran
At the New England Training Club a German shepherd practices the “leave it” exercise by not eating the scrumptious treat on his paw. The exercise teaches focus and control.
Photo: Pam Cyran


The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year and one in five dog bites results in injuries that require medical attention.

So far in 2013, 11 people have died from dog attacks – all allegedly from pit bull-type dogs. Most of them were children. Click here for a complete list and account of each attack.

Many raise the question on whether bully breeds are dangerous and if they should be legislated against or banned all together. Others claim that “what is a pit bull” is a misleading label, causing numbers of alleged pit bull attacks to rise higher than any other breed.

A Boston.com article titled “Is this dog a pit bull?” shows the mislabeling of dog breeds.

But the politics aside, there’s one thing everyone can agree on. Dog bites do happen, and they happen in alarming numbers. According to the CDC, children and adult males are at a higher risk.

Organizations like the CDC and American Veterinary Medical Association give bite prevention tips to families looking to bring a dog into their home. Also, the United States Postal Service founded National Dog Bite Awareness Week. The annual event is usually held the third week of May. This year’s will be May 19 – 25.

The large number of dog bites has prompted new businesses promoting bite prevention though dog behavior and dog training courses.

Doggone Safe and Family Paws are two international organizations dedicated to keeping families and their beloved canine family members safe. Also, Boston’s local New England Dog Training Club (AKC Sponsored) helps owners and dogs communicate and understand each other through weekly training classes.

Doggone Safe

Courtney Trempe’s life ended when she was just 8 years old. She was attacked by a neighbor’s dog, a bull mastiff, in 1998. After the incident, Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin from Ontario, Canada said enough is enough

Orr, a resident of Campbellville, and Lewin, a resident of Fergus, co-founded Doggone Safe, an international organization dedicated to bite prevention and bite victim support. The group also founded the Courtney Trempe Memorial Fund for Dog Bite Victim Support in honor of Trempe. The Courtney Fund provides support for child victims of dog attacks and their families.

“We just feel the more educated people are, the better choices they can make, and the better they can evaluate their dog, and what their dog is thinking, and what the dog’s mood is,” said Orr. “A lot of the bites can be prevented if owners, if everybody, realize how to read dog body language and not assuming that their own dog in particular are friendly.”

Doggone Safe’s staple bite prevention program is the “Be a Tree” lesson for children. Doggone Safe has almost 1000 “Be a Tree” presenters around the world, including 23 in Massachusetts.

Vera Wilkinson from Watertown is one of them. Having 17 years in the dog training business, the 51-year-old implements the “Be a Tree” presentation into her own training classes.

“The importance of dog training is there are so many dogs,” said Wilkinson, who is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer and Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CPDT, CDBC). “Very few people can move through their daily life without coming into contact with dogs.”

The “Be a Tree” pose calls for children to stand still with their hands folded towards their feet, while the child looks at the ground.

“Fold your branches, which are your hands, and watch your roots grow, which are your feet,” said Orr.

The video below of the “Be a Tree” presentation is from co-founder Teresa Lewin.



Orr said the theory behind this pose comes from a dog’s natural instinct to chase things that move, and survival instinct to attack when something seems loud and threatening.

Wilkinson said a child being a tree looks boring and non-threatening to a curious dog.

“What they’re doing is looking down at the ground at their feet, but they’re mindful of where the dog is, and they’re being still, they’re not reaching out and touching, they’re not making any noise,” said Wilkinson.

The “Be a Tree” presentation lasts about an hour, half the time children learn the pose and the second half children play games to help them practice the information.

Children are shown about 15 large posters of different actions of dog behavior. They are taught which ones are safe and which ones are dangerous. Any time a dangerous act of dog behavior is seen, children become a tree.

The program is designed in a way to allow anyone, not just dog trainers, to give the presentation. The script for the presentation is printed on the back of the posters. The “Be a Tree” kit also comes with the necessary how-to materials for presenters.

It’s important to note, said Orr, that no live dogs should be present at a presentation. Orr finds the kids to be more interested in petting a dog than actually listening to the presenter and learning. Also, multiple children, such as in a classroom, can cause stress for even a friendly dog.

Doggone Safe has a separate board game called “Doggone Crazy” for children to further practice recognizing safe and dangerous dog behaviors. The object of the game is to move around the board safely and win dog bones.  At the end, the player with the most dog bones wins.

The game board has four different colors of paw prints that correspond to different cards or actions. Some cards show pictures of dog behaviors and players have to decide whether they are safe or dangerous. Other cards have multiple-choice or true/false questions. Each correct response earns the child a bone.

The red and green paw prints on the game board signal bad and good actions.

“Step in dog poop, go back three spaces, the kids like that one the best,” said Orr about one of the red spaces. An example of a green space is “take your dog for a walk” and the player wins a bone.

The game comes with a spinner that corresponds to the number of paw prints a players move. On the spinner is a picture of an angry snarling dog. When the arrow lands on this space, all players have to immediately “Be a Tree.” The fastest person wins a bone.

Doggone Safe is currently in the works of turning the Doggone Crazy into a mobile app.

As with any learned skill, practicing is essential, said Orr.

To celebrate dog bite prevention week, Doggone Safe is holding a “Be a Tree” presentation challenge. Vice President of U.S. Education Jennifer Dawson Shryock says the goal is 50,000 presentations from March through May.

Shryock says presenters need to keep going into the schools.

“Not that fire prevention isn’t needed but this as worthy as attention as fire prevention and stranger danger and those types of programs,” she said.

Family Paws

Most bites to children are preventable – At least that’s what an expert dog behavior consultant says.

Jennifer Dawson Shryock, Cary, NC, founded Family Paws in 2002 to teach parents the necessary skills to prevent tragic incidents in their home. The idea for Family Paws stemmed from Shryock’s work as president for a German shepherd rescue group.

“One of the consistent patterns that we saw was the thought that people felt they had no other choice but to give up their shepherd because they were having a baby,” said Shryock, a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC).

Shryock dedicates her life to telling families that there is another way. Family Paws is an international organization that hires dog trainers and dog behavior consultants to present the organization’s staple programs: Dogs and Storks and Dog and Baby Connection.

Licensed Family Paws presenters teach both programs by using videos, PowerPoints, and handouts. There are presenters all over the world, in countries such as Germany, China, Canada, and soon India. Massachusetts currently has nine presenters in various areas, including Watertown, Burlington, Salem, Brockton, and Springfield.

Dogs and storks was the first program Shryock started. The program prepares expecting parents for life with kids and dogs.  Parents learn dog body behavior to understand their dog.

Dog and Baby Connection is designed to help families after the baby is born. It teaches parents how to safely manage the situation between their child and their dog. Family dynamics change as a newborn grows, begins to walk, and begins to speak, said Shryock. Presenters of Dog and Baby Connection offer advice and practical solutions to common troubles between dogs and children to families who struggle making that transition.

Shryock said Dog and Baby Connection is the most important program, but after the baby is born, families are often too busy to continue going through the presentations.

“Getting them back into the class is a huge problem,” said Shryock.

Shryock implemented a Dog and Baby support hotline to help families during their most difficult times.

“I can’t even tell you how many calls we get where people are just at their wit’s end, literally, and they’re going to turn their dog in today,” said Shryock. “Sometimes that’s appropriate, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we can give some tips just to get through the day, and connect with them again the next day.”

Family Paws offers as much support as needed and will connect families with a presenter in their area, said Shyrock.

“Most dog bites and incidents happen because there’s been miscommunication and not received communication,” said Shryock. “The dog has given multiple signals indicating in its doggy way that they’re stressed, they’re uncomfortable, and that they’re unhappy. And parents don’t recognize those signals because we naturally as humans do not speak dog.”

Listen to Shryock talk more about the importance of learning dog behavior and the skills to safely live with dogs and children.



Responsible dog ownership

Professional dog trainers say that being a responsible pet owner reduces dog bites.

“When you’re walking toward a dog who’s sitting on a couch or on a dog bed on the floor and they turn their head and yawn, they’re not sleepy,” said Vera Wilkinson, Certified Pet Dog Trainer and Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CPDT, CDBC). “This is a signal, I can’t cope with this this. Halt where you are.”

Dog trainers teach owners how to properly read dog behavior to prevent dog bites. The most common misconception is a “yawning” dog, when more often than not, the dog is giving you a signal to “please stop bothering me.” Another disengaging signal is when a dog turns its head and starts licking its chops.

Joan Orr, co-founder of Doggone Safe, says people often think their dog is a “good dog” because it tolerates aggressive actions, but that’s not a good train of thought to follow, she said.

“Your dog might tolerate it, might tolerate it forever, but he might not,” said Orr. “You’ll get to that one day when the dog’s just had enough, and he’s warned you one hundred times in his mind.”

Doggone Safe’s mission is to get people to recognize the potentially dangerous dog behavior. The organization does not promote breed specific legislation (BSL) and instead focuses on education.

“Doggone Safe is not a political organization so we have members on both sides,” said Orr.

Orr believes breed banning alone gives communities a false sense of security, and it’s something that people on both sides of the BSL spectrum can agree on.

“If you ask anybody, do you think more education is good, they will say yes,” said Orr.

Another way to increase responsible pet ownership is through dog training. Owners and dogs learn how to communicate and understand each other while the dog learns how to be a “good dog” in society.

The New England Dog Training Club (NEDTC) is a local American Kennel Club Federation sponsored club. The club has ten dog trainers, more than half are Certified Pet Dog Trainers (CPTD).

Dog trainers are certified through the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

Table from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.
Table from the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

The NEDTC hosts training classes every Thursday night from 6:30 – 9:30, in one-hour sessions. There are five steps a dog can train through. When a dog reaches step four, it can earn its Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certificate. Step five is training for competition. There are also puppy classes every hour.

Being an AKC sponsored club requires NEDTC to host at least one competition every year. Diane Kurkjian, training director of NEDTC, said training for competition is a good motivator for responsible dog ownership.

“A lot of the people that start with us just want a well-behaved pet, which is what we really want, everyone wants that, but we hope they get kind of excited about training and decide to stay a bit longer,” said 55-year-old Kurkjian from Melrose.

To get owners and their dogs excited about training, the club also sets up what is called a rally course. Rally is sort of a pre-cursor to actual competition.

“You go from sign to sign and you do what’s on the sign,” said Kurkjian.

The signs read commands such as “call” and “halt” and also show what direction the dog needs to move in. The course also requires the dog to weave in and out of cones while still focusing on its handler.

The pictures below show dogs and owners training and learning how to communicate together.


Photos: Pam Cyran
About Pamela Cyran 5 Articles
Pam Cyran is a multimedia journalist interested in web development and investigative reporting. Besides being a storyteller, she is an animal lover, and jazz and marching band enthusiast.