San Diego Family - Shelter Dogs to Dream Dogs Q & A with Cate Sacks

Q & A with Cate Sacks,  “The Dog Whisperer”

Cate Sacks is the owner of Shelter Dogs to Dream Dogs, an El Cajon-based K9 training facility and shelter rescue program that takes in ‘unadoptable’ dogs from local shelters and trains them to be family-friendly pets. See their website for more information:

Q:  “We have family coming to visit for a few weeks and they have a 2-year-old and 10 month old infant.  How do we train or prepare our dog to accept the young kids? Our dog has always been mild-mannered, but he’s never been around young kids.” 

First, whenever you’re introducing new people to your dog, it’s important that the introduction is done calmly and without high energy. Often, a dog can get scared, become jittery or be caught off guard when it spots its owners being loud and excited. Make sure that when your family arrives, you greet them with hugs and hellos outside, while your dog remains inside.

Second, remember that as hosts, you come TO your guests.  The same applies for a dog.  Let your dog come TO your family.  This allows your dog to be in control, to not be suddenly surrounded by eager unknown people, particularly children. To do this, take your family outside so that there is space. Next, find a nice quiet comfortable area where everybody can sit down and relax, and finally take your dog via leash to your guests.  Let your dog move up to each person on a loose leash, as it wishes. Your dog will pick up on the energy that as the leader, you have already approved these people and that it is a safe, secure environment. Allow your pet to greet your new guests at its pace, instructing them to pet only when the dog comes close and invites each guest to do so. Instruct each family member to talk sweetly to the dog and pat their own leg gently to coax it over.  If the dog looks timid, do not stare at the dog but give quick, gentle glances speaking sweetly and then looking away. Relax outside catching up on the family news while your dog takes time to introduce itself. Be sure to ask the family to refrain from them all staring at the dog.  Teach your children to pet the dog gently on the chest or shoulders instead of the head or face.  Put yourself in the pets place. How do you feel if you walk into a room and everybody stares at you? A little insecure!

If the dog is having a hard time coming up to a particular person, ask that person to take the dog for a little walk around the garden or play ball. Every dog will become happy with strangers in the house if they cater to their needs.  Visiting children always needs to be monitored around an unfamiliar dog. Never place a baby’s face at the dog’s level. Although 99 percent of dogs are safe, sweet and respectful with children, a dog can still step on, knock over or bite a child.  For this reason, it is important to teach children how to be gentle and respectful towards every dog.

Q:  This spring, we’re taking our 3 kids, all under the age of 5, to visit my aunt. She has four large dogs, and I’m a little concerned about how they will interact with the kids.  Any advice on how to prep my kids to interact with the dogs?  We’ve never had dogs in my immediate family.

Again, you want to keep the energy low and calm, especially when you have multiple dogs and kids, which can become a madhouse of excitement. First, tell your kids to be relaxed when interacting with an unfamiliar dog.  Allow the dog to sniff. Do not stare at the dog. Greet and talk with the dog with “nice words,” such as “good dog!” and “Hi Buddy!”

Before your kids meet the dogs, take the parents out to meet each dog. You’ll be establishing leadership of your “pack”—your children. While your kids are inside the house, have your aunt bring in one dog at a time to meet your kids, like in the above scenario. This will negate any jealously or contagious excitement that the dogs may feel if ALL of them greet the kids at the same time. Sometimes, dogs can be jealous, just like people. Remember, in this situation, your kids are just as unsure about each dog as the dogs are of them. One-on-one introduction insures a calm, careful introduction of each dog to your kids. Be sure each child is seated comfortably on a chair and allows the dog to come up to them quietly. When the dog comes up to them, instruct the child to scratch it gently on the chest or shoulders while talking sweetly to it. After a few seconds of scratching the dog, take your hand away for a couple of seconds but still talk to the dog, then repeat scratching  This will make the dog ask for more.

Education Can Prevent Dog Bites
(More safety and dog training tips from a trauma nurse at Rady Children’s Hospital)

We hear the same story way too often in the Emergency Department from perplexed parents. “Our dog has never bitten anyone.  The kids and the dog play nicely together all the time. Then today, out of the blue, he bit him.” As we prepare for Dr. Vecchione to arrive and work his magic on these tiny lacerated faces, we often wonder, “Why do we see so many dog bites?” As a trauma nurse and a dog trainer, I decided a few years ago that I wanted to find out more about dog bites, and my hunch was, that people can prevent nearly all of them. I am now certain that this is the case. The way we can prevent dog bites is by educating the entire community. With a generous sponsorship from the San Diego Emergency Nurses Association, and in cooperation with an organization called Doggone Safe, I will begin to spread the word. Who better to help me start this education than the Trauma Team at Rady Children’s Hospital?

Facts about Dog Bites:

  • There are an estimated 52 million dogs living with families in the United States.
  • More than 4.7 million people are reported bitten by dogs every year.
  • The top three populations at risk are children under 13, the elderly, and postal workers.
  • Well over half the bites come from our own pets or dogs that we know and interact with regularly.
  • The most frequently bitten areas of the body are the face, head, neck, arms, and hands.
  • Every year, 10-20 people die from fatal wounds caused by dog bites.

When to Leave Dogs Alone:

You may already be aware of these situations when we should all be respectful of a dog’s space and body language. When in doubt and if possible, leave dogs alone when:

  • They are eating a meal or chewing on a favorite bone or toy.
  • They are sleeping.
  • They are in their own special place, like their crate or dog bed.
  • They are caring for small puppies.
  • They are sick or injured.

Dog Body Language Basics:

Dogs show us with their bodies when they would rather be left alone. Dogs do not bite “out of the blue.” Especially around children, we must begin to become aware of and respect these body language basics. These are a dog’s way of saying: “Don’t bother me right now.” :

  • Tail raised and straight, may even be wagging
  • Ears up and forward
  • Tail tucked under or entire body crouching, which may indicate fear
  • Body leaning forward and still
  • Eyes fixed on something in a stare
  • Mouth closed
  • Whites of the eyes exposed

When a dog becomes uncomfortable, impatient, or anxious, they may use “calming signals” to distract themselves from the situation. These signals say to people, “I’ve had enough.”:

  • Lip licking
  • Sudden scratching or biting
  • Turning their head in the direction of the situation, or completely away from it
  • Barking or whining
  • Getting up and walking away or walking in circles
  • Yawning

What Dog Owners Can Do:

Just as the rewards of having a dog are many, so are the responsibilities. Dog owners can be the foundation of bite prevention when they follow a few basic guidelines:

  • Become aware of the behaviors your dog may exhibit from the above list around people and especially children. Use caution and remove your dog from the situation if you are unsure of their response to it.
  • It’s OK to say “No.” If you know that your dog is distracted or really does not do well with greeting strangers, say so. People will respect and appreciate your honesty and can then make safe decisions around your dog.
  • Train your dog. Most all behavior problems can be prevented by your firm leadership. Learn how to be a fair, effective leader by taking your dog to obedience classes from a trainer whom you trust.
  • Socialize your dog. As early as possible in your dog’s life, allow them to socialize and interact with other dogs and people of all ages.
  • Involve the whole family. Dogs are pack animals and they are happiest when everyone is consistent with expectations and handling.
  • Spay or neuter. These simple procedures prevent behavior problems and reduce the risk of aggression and biting. Dogs that are not spayed or neutered are three times more likely to bite than those that are.
  • Exercise your dog every day. A short walk around the block or a game of fetch is enough to make a difference. A dog that has had some exercise is more relaxed and less likely to become excitable around children.
  • Leash your dog. The only way to control your dog in public is on a leash, no matter how well behaved you think your dog is. The leash will keep your dog safe and provide you both with confidence in strange situations.
  • Keep your dog healthy. Visit your veterinarian regularly and vaccinate your dog as required by law. A change in behavior or sudden aggression may be masking an illness or pain.

What Parents and Kids Need To Know:

We all love to see kids and dogs playing together. They seem to have a special bond. It is essential to understand, however, that dogs don’t always respect kids. This is true especially for children under five. Remind kids early and often how to be with dogs safely and treat them with respect.

  • Kids should get permission three times. Ask their parents first, the dog owner second, and finally, ask the dog. If all of the people say yes, then look at the dog and see if its body is saying “OK.” The dog should have an open mouth, relaxed ears, its body at ease, and all four paws on the ground.
  • Give the dog some space. Just as humans need some space to feel comfortable around others, so do dogs. Give the family dog a safe, special place where they can go, but children are not allowed. It can be a dog crate, or just a corner of a room with a mat or dog bed.
  • If you are approached by a dog off leash, or if your dog becomes too frisky, “Be a Tree.”

Stay quiet and count to ten slowly in your mind. The dog will probably go away. Do not scream or run. This behavior only excites the dog, and may even provoke a bite.

  • If a dog does jump on you and it knocks you over, roll into a ball and cover your neck and face.
  • Let the dog decide when it wants attention. Encourage children to wait until the dog initiates play with them.
  • Dogs do not like hugs and kisses from kids, especially kids they don’t know. Remind children that although their family dog may tolerate this behavior, another dog may become agitated and bite.
  • Do not play rough games with your dog, like wrestling or tug-of-war. These games teach your dog to fight against you. Stand up straight and play in a way that encourages your dog to work for you. Good choices are playing fetch the ball, hide-and-seek, or taking a walk on the leash.

Let’s all begin to notice every dog’s body language. Talk to your patients and families about living safely and happily with their dogs. We are all committed to healthy kids, and so many of us are crazy about dogs. We can now begin to become experts in preventing these unnecessary injuries.

Kay Thompson RN, CPEN, CPDT
Rady Children’s Hospital Emergency Department (
Original article published 03-29-16