Kids

How and Why to Be a Tree

Here is how to be a tree:


Here's why to be a tree:

Trees are boring to dogs. Be a Tree and a dog will just sniff and then go away. When was the last time you saw a dog chasing a tree?

Be a tree in any of these situations:

  • A strange dog comes near you (even if he seems friendly).
  • Any dog is making you feel uncomfortable, worried or scared.
  • A dog is chasing you.
  • Your own or a friend's dog is acting too frisky or excited.

Count in your head to the highest number you know and then start back at 1 again until the dog goes away or help comes.

Most dogs do not intend to scare or bite people, but they do like to investigate new people. Most dogs will chase a person who runs and will get more and more excited the more the person runs. Shouting or screaming is also exciting to dogs and can frighten some dogs. Being still and quiet is the best way to show a dog that you mean no harm and that you are not going to play with him or threaten him.

You may have heard about other ways to be a tree, that involve tucking your hands under your arms, folding your hands across your chest, placing your hands at your throat or even in your pocket. Doggone Safe does not recommend any of these, because sometimes kid's hands smell yummy to dogs and raising your hands may cause the dog to be interested in checking them out because you moved them and/or you still have traces of lunch on them. Folding your hands keeps them still and if the dog does want to sniff or lick them he won't need to jump on you to do it. He will soon tire of this if you stay still and then he will wander off.

You may also have heard that you should turn your back on a dog who may be planning to jump on you. This may lead to you turning more and more while the dog gets more and more excited about trying to jump on you or to get in front of you. This is strange behavior to a dog and he could become more, rather than less interested in you if you play a turning away game with him. Standing still is always the best thing to do if you want a dog to go away.

If a dog does happen to jump, just stand still until he gives up. If he knocks you over, curl up on your tummy with your hands over the back of your neck and be still like a rock until he goes away.

Here is an example of what can happen if you raise your hands rather than keeping them low and still:

Here's how to practice being a tree:

If you have a dog, be a tree if he comes over to you and have your parent give him a treat when he moves away from you. Soon the dog will learn that when you are a tree, you will not be playing with him. If he ever does get too frisky, you can be a tree to show him that you do not want to play right now.

If you have friends, brothers or sisters or adults that will play with you, one of you can pretend to be a dog and the other can be a tree to get the dog to go away.

If you have a stuffed dog, another person can move the dog and you can be a tree to get the dog to go away.

If the Be a Tree program comes to your school you will get practice being a tree.

If you have the Doggone Crazy! board game you will get lots of practice being a tree while having fun learning about dog body language and how to act safely around dogs.

Teachers

Be a Tree FAQ

How can I get this program for my classroom?

You can purchase the Be a Tree Teacher Kit and deliver the program yourself or you can ask a Be a Tree presenter to come to do the presentation. There may be a charge for this, depending on the presenter. In Canada many veterinary technicians provide this program as a community service. Contact your local veterinarian or the veterinarian technician or technologist association for your area to see if the Be a Tree program is available. Doggone Safe members are everywhere.

How are Be a Tree presenters qualified?

The Be a Tree program can be presented by anyone who purchases a teacher kit. Purchasers of the kit have demonstrated a commitment to dog bite prevention through education and child safely. Purchasers have included teachers, dog industry retailers, nurses, fire fighters, police officers, animal control officers, humane societies, dog clubs, breed clubs, veterinary technicians and veterinarians. The kit was designed and tested to ensure consistent and accurate program delivery even by those unfamiliar with the program. The kit comes with a video that shows one of the program creators delivering the program to a group of grade 3 students to allow new presenters to see how the program should be delivered. Anyone who has purchased a Be a Tree kit has access to free email and phone support from the program creators.

Some Be a Tree presenters are licensed by Doggone Safe. This means that they have signed the license agreement and have agreed not to bring a live dog into the classroom during a Be a Tree session. They are allowed to use the Be a Tree logo in promoting their business and the program. They agree to pay a license fee of $10 to Doggone Safe if they charge admission (other than just to cover their expenses).

Doggone Safe has not conducted an evaluation of the licensed presenters and licensing does not constitute an endorsement of the presenter by Doggone Safe. If you plan to use a presenter from outside your school, you may request that they provide a background police check. Doggone Safe does not do background checks and is not responsible for the conduct of presenters in the classroom.

Who created the Be a Tree program and has it undergone peer review?

The Be a Tree program was created by Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin (click here for bios). The program was developed over a five year period with extensive testing and revision along the way. Many experts have reviewed the program and their input has been incorporated. Reviewers have included professional animal behavior specialists, veterinary behaviorists, general practice veterinarians, dog trainers, elementary school teachers, early childhood education specialists, humane educators, humane society professionals, social workers and mental health professionals.

Panting can be a sign of stress in a dog - why do you tell children that panting dogs are happy?

A panting dog is dealing with the stress by panting. A stressed dog that is not panting is much more dangerous because it has no mechanism to relieve the stress and is therefore more likely to react. Not all stress is bad stress. The dog might be waiting for a child to come and say hello. The waiting and wondering causes mild stress and the dog starts to pant. "Are we going for a walk?", "Are you going to throw that ball?", "Am I getting the cookie?" These are all circumstances that will cause panting due to mild stress and anticipation. We are trying to keep things simple for children. They obviously cannot be expected to tell the difference between a dog panting under mild stress or a dog panting with rapid frantic breaths that indicates extreme stress (still a dog less likely to bite than a highly stressed dog that is not able to pant). Other things that the children learn during the program should prevent them from interacting with a dog panting out of extreme stress. They are taught to stand sideways and allow the dog to sniff their fist. A very nervous dog is apt to move away and not come forward to sniff - so they would leave that dog alone. They may also see the half moon eye or the fore paw lift and realize that the dog is anxious. They are taught that if the dog stops panting when they approach it, that the dog does not want to meet them. Hopefully, handlers whose dog is very anxious will say no, when a child asks to pet the dog. So for the most part a panting dog is a dog waiting with happy anticipation for something good to happen, or at least is a dog that is dealing with its stress. The panting/not panting differentiation is simple for children and immediately rules out many dogs that they may otherwise have wanted to pet and gives them a way to decide whether their own dog (who is the one most likely to bite them anyway) is open to interaction with them. We also teach that children should ask the dog handler to tell the dog to sit before they meet it. The command "sit" is a stress reliever for most dogs because it is familiar and generally has a positive association and gives the dog some control of the situation. A dog that does not sit for the handler is not under sufficient control for a child to pet. An extremely anxious dog is unlikely to follow instructions and is ruled out on that basis, whether panting or not.

Why does Doggone Safe not allow live dogs in Be a Tree presentations given on behalf of the organization by licensed presenters?

Live dogs distract the children and the majority of dogs do not enjoy handling by large groups of children. Doggone Safe cannot evaluate the temperament and handling skills of all dogs and handlers that may want to be involved in the program. Even certified therapy dogs, service dogs, guide dogs and dogs that have passed the canine good citizen test are not evaluated for their ability to handle crowds of children or to be petted by many children. Service dogs or guide dogs required by presenters should be placed where they cause the least possible distraction and the children should be told that the dog is working and that they will not be able to pet it.

Why do you tell children to fold their hands and look at their feet in the tree position?

Folding their hands gives the children something to do with them and makes them less likely to put their hands up. Some dog bite prevention programs advise putting hands in pockets and backing away (child could trip), or folding hands across the chest. Bringing hands up towards the face like this brings the attention of the dog up towards the face. Keeping hands low keeps dog's head low. Here is a series of photos that illustrates this. The movement of the hands upward attracts the dog to move closer and investigate the hands. The dog's head tends to follow the hands. A smaller dog might even jump to check out the hands. This puts the dogs teeth closer to the throat and face.

We have tested many tree configurations with kids and friendly dogs and overly excited puppies and the less movement the better.

We suggest that children watch their roots grow (look at their feet). This gives them something to look at other than the dog. It gives them a positive image to focus on (roots growing). We also tell them to count in their head to the highest number they know, over and over until help comes or the dog goes away. This gives them something to do with their minds while they are frightened. We have tested looking at feet versus looking ahead with groups of adults. Everyone reported that it is easier not to look at the dog while focusing on your own feet. Every person admitted to sneaking a peek at the dog while trying to look ahead, but not if they were looking at their feet. Children respond much better to specific instructions such as "look at your feet". There is no interpretation involved with this and it is easy to remember. "Look ahead" and "look at something in the distance" or "look up to the sky" are too non-specific and require judgment. In a high stress situation, the less judgment a child needs exercise the better.

Someone suggested to us that it is better for the child to look ahead (but not at the dog) so that they will know when the dog is gone. So we tested this also. Even with your head down a person can see at least 40 feet ahead and to the side, certainly far enough to be able to know if the dog is still in the immediate area. Try it yourself.

I was told to try to block the dog with a book or knapsack if attacked. Why is this not in your program script?

Some dog bite prevention educators do suggest this. If we receive the direct question "What if the dog is coming at me even though I am standing still?" we will give this as an option for older children. That is hold up a book or knapsack so that the dog bites this first. We stress that if the child stands still and quiet the dog will most likely go away eventually.

We have had many stories of the tree working even with a moving and pushy dog. See the Doggone Safe blog for such stories. Movement is a major trigger and even trying to block with a knapsack etc may backfire since the kids are moving, probably looking at the dog and acting like victims. Some people suggest that if a dog is coming fast and looks aggressive and there is time, then trying to feed it a book or knapsack may be a good idea. But then what? If they move away at that point the dog will most likely leave the object and chase them. If they stay still then the dog may lose interest in the object and approach them again. So there is not much difference here from just standing still in the first place. What if the dog was not intent on biting, but the child thought it was and the object enraged or excited the dog? A bite could be provoked that would not otherwise have happened. Unfortunately if a dog is really intent on attack there is really nothing a child can do to prevent it. This is a rare situation and most dogs do not want to attack. If the dog is predatory, then standing still is the least interesting thing to the dog. If the dog is aggressive then standing still is the least threatening thing to the dog.

No-one has tested this with children in a real-life situation for ethical and safety reasons. We have seen a mock situation in a video in which a child is holding a knapsack and backing away while the dog jumps and barks at him. In this scene the dog does not back off and in fact appears to be getting more excited. There is no evidence that backing away and holding out the knapsack is discouraging the dog from attacking. In this particular situation the child could trip and fall backwards while walking backwards which would almost certainly trigger an attack.

We like to keep it simple and stick to the be a tree message, because it really is the most likely thing that will save the child's life and does not require any decision making in a time of extreme stress.

Your program does not talk much about dog bites to the children - why is this?

The Be a Tree program is designed to prevent the situations that lead to bites. The program uses mostly positive messages and does not intend to frighten children by talking about dogs that might bite them. The program gives children the tools they need to evaluate what the dog is thinking and decide whether that dog wants to meet them. We prefer to have them thinking in terms of whether the dog wants to meet them, rather than whether the dog is likely to bite them. The program teaches them to interact only with happy receptive dogs in appropriate ways under adult supervision. They learn more about what they should look for and what they should do as opposed to what they should not do.

Some of the program content seems too advanced for younger children - what age is the program aimed at?

The Be a Tree program is ideal for children in grades 2-3 and is suitable for up to grade 5 and for younger children as well. The program has been tested with junior kindergarten up to grade 5. Individual presenters can gauge the level of the audience and adapt the level of detail accordingly. We have used the program with veterinary students and college level veterinary technician students to teach about dog behavior and even they learned a lot from it. We are conducting an ongoing survey of teachers and will discover what they think about the age appropriateness of the program. We will make recommendations to presenters based on this feedback when it is available. The program was reviewed by several elementary school teachers and early childhood educators to ensure that the content and level of detail is appropriate.

Why do you ask that the dog be sitting before the child pets the dog?

A dog that is not under sufficient handler control to sit on command is not reliable enough to be petted by a child. This is a very easy way for a child to make a judgment and rules out a great many dogs with a simple step. Perhaps when enough children begin enforcing this rule, dog owners will become more diligent in teaching good manners to their dogs. This idea was suggested to us by Summer Epinger of D.A.F.E.Y. (Dog Awareness for Everyone Including Youth).

Why do you ask the child to allow the dog to sniff their fist in greeting the dog?

Is is an important social aspect of dog culture to sniff in greeting. Dogs that are suddenly touched will naturally turn to see who is there and may even snap if surprised. Many dog bite prevention programs recommend offering a fist rather than a flat hand. One reason for this is that a fist can be less threatening since if the dog has been hit, it is more likely that the owner uses and flat hand rather than a fist to discipline the dog. Another reason is that little fingers can be mistaken for treats, especially if they smell tasty. The most important reason is that if the dog does bite, there is less likelihood of serious damage and no chance of having a finger bitten off.

Why do you recommend that the child scratch the dog on the side of the neck?

Most dogs enjoy a scratch on the side of the neck. This does not involve the child's hand coming over the dog's head and keeps the child's face away from the dog's face.

Some bite prevention programs suggest that the child should pet the dog on its back. We have tested this method (with adults) and have found that this can startle the dog causing it to turn toward the child. With a large dog and a small child this results in face to face interaction. Even if the dog already knows someone is there it most often turns it's head toward the source of the touch. Many dogs find a hand on the back to be a threatening gesture and try to move away. Some turn and snap without fully investigating the reason for the pressure on their back.

When is it safe for the child to leave the Tree position after an encounter with a dog?

When the dog has lost interest and moved away or when help comes and the dog has been secured. If the child is in doubt they should maintain the tree position. If the child moves and the dog resumes interest then the child should be a tree again.

Does Being a Tree work in a real-life situation? Will children remember to do this?

We have had several reports from parents of children (and even adults) being a tree in a real life situation. The tree has worked to make the dog go away in all reported cases. We have used the tree in combination with clicker training to teach many puppies not to jump. You can read about some of the real-life cases in the Case File section of the Doggone Safe blog.

Teachers

About the Be a Tree Teacher Kit

The Be a Tree Teacher Kit is for...

  • schools/teachers who want to deliver a bite prevention program themselves

  • humane educators for in-house or community outreach use

  • obedience trainers who want to educate their clients about safety around dogs

  • dog industry professionals who want to offer bite prevention programming to local schools or community groups

  • pet industry retailers who want to provide a community service and promote their business at the same time.

Contents of Be a Tree Teacher Kit

  • A set of 9 11"x17" photographs of dogs showing various body language signals. Text of script printed on the reverse to prompt the presenter.

  • A set of 5 "tools" photos - also 11"x17". These are tools for kids to put in their toolbox (in their head) - to help keep them safe. Text of script printed on the reverse.

  • A snarly dog photo - 11"x17" - this is held up by a helper at random and everyone must stand up and "be a tree"

  • A spinner - 10" x 10" - used after the first 15 minutes of instruction - the results of the spin govern the rest of the program.

  • Program script

  • 4 Simon Says cards

  • 4 Scenario cards

  • Handout for photocopying

  • Follow up activities

  • Program evaluation form - for photocopying

  • CD Video showing a sample delivery of the presentation

  • Tote bag for carrying and storing the kit

  • La "trousse d'enseignement" a été traduite en français.  Veuillez contacter la coordonnatrice pour le Québec, Sherri Utter, afin d'obtenir des informations au sujet du programme "Fais l'Arbre".

Use the spinner for activities after the teaching part of the session...

Snarly Dog - everyone be a tree

Panting Dog - everyone be a happy dog

Toolbox - volunteers act out a scenario - audience shouts out which tool to use

Simon Says - everyone plays Simon Says

Hats off to the best educational package I have seen in years and a great public service that goes a long way to getting the message out about dog bite prevention and working toward eliminating dog bites to our children. 

Lisa Grey - Canine Behavior Consultant and Specialist; Bite Prevention Educator with BCSPCA (former); Senior Trainer - Canines with a Cause; Senior Instructor - Adolescents at Risk and Canines Ontario; Owner Natural Bond Canine Consultants, Ontario, Canada

I have reviewed the materials from the Be a Tree program and will be utilizing this material when teaching the second graders of Longmont, Colorado. The materials provided are great tools in teaching animal safety.

Robin Breffle, Community Service Office, Animal Control, Longmont Police Department, Longmont, Colorado

My experience as a classroom teacher of 35 years taught me that children learn by doing, practicing and playing. The program "Be a Tree" is a great teaching tool. Lots of role playing and repetition until the children have a patterned response to an aggressive dog. Fast paced and fun.

Sherri Utter, Retired Elementary School Teacher; Animatch Volunteer, Quebec, Canada

As a Canine Behavior Consultant and Special Education Teacher, I am very impressed with the Be a Tree program. This fun and interactive program involves kids every step of the way as they learn the tools to make safe choices around familiar and unfamiliar dogs. I am impressed when I return to the classes several weeks later and the kids still remember all of the tools and can tell me some things that dogs do that indicate they may be stressed. This program empowers kids to make better choices through awareness and education. The Be a Tree teacher's kit comes with beautiful clear poster-sized photos that are helpful for teaching children and adults alike. The easy-to-follow script is conveniently printed on the back of each poster to help the presenter stay on track and be at ease during their presentation. This really helps to minimize tangents and stay focused on the key points of the presentation.

Jennifer Shryock, Canine Behavior Consultant, Creator of Dogs & Storks Workshop, Cary, North Carolina

Teachers

About the Be a Tree Program

The Be a Tree program is a dog bite prevention seminar program for school age children. This program focuses on fun and interactive activities to teach children how to read dog body language and how to act safely around their own dog and strange dogs.

The main message from the presentation is "Be a Tree" if strange dog comes near or any dog is too frisky or is making you uncomfortable.

The Be a Tree program is supported by a teacher kit that presenters use to ensure a consistent and accurate presentation. The kit and the program have been developed and reviewed by experts. Click here to find out about the teacher kit and see what the experts have to say.

I liked it when your mom came in to show the class how to behave with dogs because now I am OK around them!

I thought it was Awesome when your mom came in for that be a tree thing now I am not so afraid of big dogs.

Kids

Be a Dog Detective

Dogs give lots of clues about how they are feeling if we only know what to look for. You can have lots of fun being a dog detective and looking for clues about how a dog might be feeling.

Dogs have feelings and they can be happy, sad, worried, wanting to play or wanting to be left alone, just like you do. It is never a good idea to go up to a strange dog, so no matter how happy or friendly a strange dog seems, just ignore him and be a tree if he comes close or bothers you.

You probably have friends or family with dogs and maybe you even have a dog of your own. Even these dogs that you know well may not want to play or be petted sometimes. You can tell how the dog is feeling by his body language. If a dog is happy then he may want to meet you or interact with you, if he is not feeling happy, then he would rather be left him alone.

Sometimes dogs want to be petted and sometimes they don't. You might like to have a good night cuddle with a parent, but you certainly wouldn't want your parent to run out onto the soccer field or the dance class in the middle of a practice and give you a big hug, would you? There is a time and a place for interacting with dogs as well. They don't like to get hugs and kisses, but sometimes they want to sit and be petted or to play and sometimes they don't.

Here are some photos that show the same dog presenting 2 different emotions, with arrows pointing to the body part clues that show whether he is happy and relaxed or not. A dog that is happy and panting and wagging his tail may want to interact with you. If he closes his mouth and looks serious as you approach, then he has changed his mind. It is better to leave him alone and let him come to you if he decides he wants to be near you. Remember, we are talking about dogs that you know. Be sure a parent is around to supervise and give permission to approach the dog. Ignore strange dogs even if they do seem friendly.

You may notice that sometimes the arrow points to a tight or loose leash rather than a body part. A tight leash tells you that the dog is not relaxed. Stay away from a dog on a tight leash!

The most important clue is the mouth. If the dog is panting and looks happy, then he is most likely feeling relaxed. If he looks worried or interested in something and his mouth is closed then he is not relaxed and happy and he does not want you to touch or play with him right now.

There are more photos to look at which compare the same dog showing different emotions. The photos with the red borders are dogs that want to be left alone. See if you can see the clues that tell why the photo has a red border or a green border.

Do you want to find out more about being a Dog Detective and try out some of the things you have learned? Visit with real-life dog detective, 7-year old Kayleigh and find out what she has to tell you. Check back every month or so for updates.

For more information about dog body language and more advanced information about how dogs communicate with all their body parts click here and ask your parents to go over this information with you.

Teachers

Speak Dog Video Slide Show

One of the important aspects of the Be a Tree program is its focus on teaching children to read dog body language. This knowledge empowers them to make good decisions and keep themselves safe around dogs. Children who are afraid of dogs and run away screaming are the ones most likely to get bitten since this behavior can trigger a dog’s instinct to chase. When children understand that dogs give signs to indicate whether they want to meet you or not, this lessens their fear and gives them the tools they need to decide on the best course of action. They learn that being a tree is an option with any dog and that they can do something to be in control of the situation.

Doggone Safe has produced a video slide show the illustrate the different ways dogs communicate with their bodies. This shows many dogs showing contrasting emotions. Watch it yourself before showing it to your students, since there is scene with a barking dog that may be frightening to children with a fear of dogs.