PLYMOUTH – First graders in Jessica Pike’s class at Indian Brook Elementary School gasped in amazement as Merida, a therapy dog, barked out the answers to their math problems Tuesday.
One and one equaled two barks. Two plus two? Four barks.
Pike and her fellow teachers appreciated the dog’s smarts as well, but were more impressed by other numbers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, half of all people who seek treatment for dog bites every year are children. One of Pike’s own students was bitten by the family’s rescue dog this year.
But studies have shown that just one hour of dog safety education decreases risky behavior in children by 80 percent.
“That’s my passion. That’s why I wrote the book,” said Cathy Acampora, an educator for Plymouth County 4-H Extension Service, who, along with her rough collie, visits classrooms across the county during the school year.
The book, “PLEASE, Don’t Hug Me: A guide to dog safety and being a good dog friend,” features a smiling photo of Merida on its cover. The 7-year-old rough collie is the poster girl for friendly pooches, but Acampora knows that not all dogs are as good natured.
And sometimes, even a happy hound can be caught off guard by overzealous dog lovers.
Merida, named after a Disney character like all of Acampora’s dogs, is a therapy dog and along with service and police dogs is one of three types of dogs that wear vests. Her job is to make people happy so people are allowed to pet her, but even with therapy dogs, some basic rules apply.
Animal lovers, especially young ones, should always ask permission to pet a therapy dog and should allow the pooch to get to know them first by holding a hand to their side to get sniffed. Dogs also shouldn’t be petted on the top of the head. Rather, people should pet them under the chin, on the chest or back. Better still, Acampora said, ask the owner where to pet their dog.
While dogs cannot talk, they can communicate. But people often do not understand what they are saying.
Dogs will yawn when they’re stressed. “A lot of people think they’re bored with them but what they’re really doing is telling you to stop,” Acampora said. “If you’re doing something with your dog, laying on them, hugging them, grabbing them, they really don’t like that and they will yawn. It’s a way that they can make themselves feel better and it’s their way of saying, I have all these teeth, so back off buddy. So you want to leave your dog alone if they yarn at you.”
Dogs will also signal their discomfort by licking their lips, Acampora said.
“That’s a way for them to feel better. It produces happy hormones called endorphins in their brains, so they’ll often lick things when they’re stressed,” she said.
Dogs have powerful eyesight that especially detects motion and allows them to see in the dark. But they see some colors better than others. Blue and purple are especially clear, but yellow, green and red are less distinct. Dogs’ eyes can also communicate that the animal is uneasy.
When a dog shows the whites of its eyes, Acampora said, it is really uncomfortable. “Those are not puppy eyes. Those are puppies saying I’m really uncomfortable,” she said.
Tails often signal a dog’s demeanor as well.
A tail wagging in circles is usually a sign of a very happy dog, but even a wagging tail that is unusually high in the air can indicate a dog that is overexcited, which can turn to aggression. A dog with its tail between its legs can be sad, scared or nervous, which can also be dangerous.
Acampora told students that if they encounter an overexcited dog, they should cross their arms, make themselves as big as possible and look down and away. “This tells the dog I am not interested and if your dog looks away from you, he’s saying I’m done with you, go away,” she said.
Clear warning signs come when a dog scrunches its nose, narrows its eyes and bares its teeth. “That’s a dog that’s not happy,” Acampora told children, explaining that a growl is a clear message that you have gone too far.
“You guys need to learn to speak their language because they can’t speak yours… We need to listen to their language because, in dog language, it can go from a quick warning to a bite like that.”
Acampora combined the lesson in dog safety with a short course in animal adaptation, which she adapted from the state’s elementary school science frameworks.
The 340 different breeds of dogs in the world today, she explained, are adapted from wolves for specific jobs – killing mice, retrieving waterfowl, herding sheep or cattle, protecting their owners or even just as friendly companions.
Corgis, for example, were bred with long strides, but short bodies to avoid getting kicked while herding cattle. Dachshunds, like the one owned by the school’s principal, were bred to be fearless and go into holes to get badgers.
Pike’s class offered a receptive audience. A show of hands indicated that almost every child in the class had a dog. Others owned cats.
Pike said she was grateful because even children who don’t have dogs are bound to run into animals on play dates or while visiting friends or relatives. The presentation also tied into the first grade science curriculum, providing a fun and memorable lesson to support what the children have been learning in class.
“This is what they’ll remember when they look back on first grade – that there was a dog that came into class,” Pike said.