The Real Lesson from Sarah Palin’s Controversial Dog Photo

If you’re on social media, you may have recently seen this picture of Sarah Palin’s son Trig using his Labrador as a step stool, and the ensuing firestorm. PETA spoke out against the photo, and Sarah Palin responded with a lengthy post beginning with, “Chill. At least Trig didn’t eat the dog.” So, there’s that.

Sarah Palin Dog Trig
Source: Facebook

Here is my take.

When I saw this picture I cringed. Not because I thought the dog in question was being abused; I’m sure he’s a happy member of the family 99% of the time. But this whole setup is an accident waiting to happen for both dog and child.

The child in question isn’t tiny and could be hurting the dog. He could also fall off and hurt himself.  And more importantly, situations like this are just an invitation for a dog bite.

A lot of people seemed to feel that it was the dog’s responsibility to politely inform a child if it doesn’t want to be stood on or otherwise bothered. I guess that’s a good idea in theory, but it’s not reality. There is a reason the ASPCA reports that the majority of dog bites to children come from dogs they know, not strange dogs.

I also cringe anytime someone posts a “cute” picture of a kid stepping on, pulling on, or otherwise aggravating the heck out of the family pet. I cringe anytime I hear people talk about what a “good dog” Spot is because he lets the kids pull his ears and tail and climb all over him without so much as a growl. Because a dog that in the same exact situation growls or nips isn’t a bad dog. He’s simply telling you in the only way he knows how that he is scared, uncomfortable or in pain. Plus, just because saintly Spot isn’t growling or biting doesn’t mean he isn’t giving you nonverbal cues that he isn’t happy.

So, besides the obvious tips like “don’t stand on your dog”, here are some guidelines to follow for assessing a dog’s body language to prevent dog bites:

  • Repeated licking of the lips and yawning can be a sign of anxiety or fear.  (source: ASPCA)
  • Looking at you from the corner of his eye with the whites showing (aka “whale eye”) could signal aggression. This is especially true if the dog is resource guarding a treat or toy and is being approached.  (source: ASPCA)
  • If any signs of fear or anxiety are observed, separate the dog and the child (or adult for that matter). (source: Sophia Yin via
  • Furthermore, allow the dog to retreat to a child or people-free zone where they can be alone and de-stress. This can be a separate room or their crate.  (source: Sophia Yin via
  • Kids often insist on kissing and hugging dogs against their will – being in such close proximity to their face while they’re fearful leaves them open to a bite. (Sophia Yin via

Click on any of the source links above for more in-depth guidelines and tips for dog bite prevention!

Sophia Yin also created a great body language poster that illustrates the body language warning signs dogs give. As you can see, some are pretty obvious cues while some are much more subtle to us humans.

Sophia Yin Dog Body Language Poster


Now, I wouldn’t call myself a supporter of PETA generally, but I do agree with their president’s response to the controversy  and will leave it as the final word:

“PETA simply believes that people shouldn’t step on dogs.” (via Politico)