Kids and dogs: they go together like apple pie and vanilla ice cream or cookies and milk. Parents can do a lot to foster a strong, loving relationship. It’s simply a matter of education. We do the best we can with what we know. When we know more, we do better. Let’s do better!
Here are three steps for letting your child meet a dog
It is very important to teach kids how to interact with dogs they are interested in. Childish excitement could
be interpreted as a threat by inexperienced dogs.
Step 1: Ask the owner: Teach your kids never to rush up toward a dog. Tell them to stop about five feet away and ask the owner, “May I pet your dog?” Sometimes the answer will be ‘No’. Many dogs don’t live with kids and are not comfortable with them. So if the dog’s owner says ‘No’, that’s okay. Remind your kids that there are lots of other dogs who would love to be petted by them. If the pet parent says ‘Yes’, then the children must ask the dog.
Step 2: Ask the dog—do not skip this step! Have your children make a fist with the palm pointed down. Then they can slowly extend their arm for the dog to sniff their hand. Teaching the kids to curl their fingers in minimizes the risk of a dog nipping their finger. When the dog is being given the opportunity to sniff, watch his body language.
Does he come forward with loose, waggy motions? That’s definitely a ‘Yes’.
Does he lean forward for a quick sniff and seem comfortable? Also a ‘Yes’.
Does he turn his face away from your child’s hand? Back away? Bark? Move behind the owner? Look anxious and unsettled? Growl? These are all No’s.
Unfortunately some pet parents don’t understand or respect their dog’s decision and will drag the dog forward saying, “Oh, he’s fine. He loves kids. You can pet him.” DON’T! Do not ever allow your children to pet a dog who does not approach them willingly.
Step 3: Pet the dog: If the owner says ‘Yes’ and the dog says ‘Yes’, the kids can pet the dog. Tell your kids that they need to be careful of a dog’s sensitive eyes and ears. Most dogs don’t like to be petted on top of their heads, but nearly all people pet dogs this way—it’s a hardwired human behaviour. There is a blind spot on top of a dog’s head. If he sees your child’s hand moving toward that area, the natural inclination is for him to tilt his head up and watch where the hand is going. Now your child’s hand is reaching right over the dog’s teeth—not a very good place for that hand to be. Suggest that your children stroke the side of the dog’s neck, rub under his chin, scratch his chest, or pet along his back. Most dogs prefer slow, gentle strokes to rapid pat-pat-patting.
A parent’s guide to dog-bite prevention
The best barrier against the aggression is a strong social drive. When choosing a dog for your family, look for one who adores people, especially children. A dog who really enjoys kids will give your kids the benefit of the doubt when they step on his tail or fall over him. Even with the best supervision, there will be times when a child hurts a dog. One day, one of my sons kicked off his snow boot, which went flying down the hall and hit the dog. Fortunately for all of us, Gordo didn’t bat an eye.
I often see dogs who could be great family members with some support from the parents. Supervision, along with a basic understanding of dog behaviour, is the key. For example, here is something I bet you don’t know: Dogs don’t like hugs! Oh, I know, your dog loves when your kids hug him. While I believe that dogs can be taught to accept and, in a few cases, even welcome hugs, I also know that hugging is not a normal dog behaviour. Think about the last time you saw one dog “hug” another. It wasn’t a gesture of affection, was it? No, it was either mating or a dominance display. Do you really want your dog thinking your child is attempting either of those behaviours?
Children, especially preschoolers, rarely understand the concept of personal space. We parents need to be sure that our dogs get some downtime away from the kids. It’s wearing to have someone following you around all day, even if he means well. My kids know that if the dog goes in his crate, they cannot talk to him or pet him until he chooses to come back out. It gives the dog a private refuge where he’s not expected to be the local celebrity, the centre of attention.
Learning a bit about canine body language helps too. There is a set of behaviours—called calming signals—dogs display when they are stressed. These serve two purposes: they are an attempt at self-soothing, akin to thumb sucking, as well as a message to others that the dog would like the situation to defuse. Watchful parents can step in when they see their dog exhibiting these behaviours.
Lip licking—When a dog is a little anxious, he will often quickly stick out his tongue and lick his lips. It’s usually just a fast, little flick. Watch your dog; this is one of the most common signals I see.
Yawning—This is often mistaken for contentment. The dog is surrounded by kids, and he lets out a big yawn. Isn’t that sweet? Nope, it’s a sign that he’s in a little over his head and would appreciate your help.
Shaking off—We’ve all seen dogs shake off when they are wet, but this happens at other times too. Time to shake off and start over. It will happen right after something makes the dog uncomfortable, usually as he’s walking away.
Freezing—Watch out! Freezing is one step beyond a calming signal; it’s often a last-ditch attempt to tell you to back off. Dogs typically freeze right before they snap or bite. That may sound obvious, but one of the scariest things I ever saw was when a pet parent told me, “Lucy loves to have kids hug her. Look how still she is.” It was a heart-stopping moment for me. Lucy, thank goodness, did not bite, but she was definitely not enjoying the experience.
Spaying and neutering our pets helps too. Nearly 80 percent of dog bites come from intact males.
What to do when your child is afraid of dogs
Whenever Laura sees a dog, she shrieks and clings to her mother’s leg. Thomas runs the other way. And Samuel just freezes, wide eyed in terror.
Each of these children is afraid of dogs. As parents, we strive to teach our kids how to cope with life and its challenges. Yet some parents mistakenly believe that it is good for a child to be afraid of dogs because then the child will be more cautious around them. It doesn’t usually work that way. When children are frightened, they often run, scream and flail. These actions typically bring a dog closer, not keep it away.
The more you know about something, the less scary it becomes. Many kids are frightened because they don’t know what a dog will do next. Dogs communicate almost entirely through body language. A basic knowledge of body language can help kids to understand a dog’s intentions.
After you have a basic understanding of body language, start watching dogs from a distance. Park outside a pet supply store and talk about the dogs you see coming and going. Which ones look happy, which look frightened, which have been taught to walk nicely on a lead, which seem like old or young dogs?
When your child is very comfortable watching dogs at a distance, try introducing older, calm dogs to your child. Respect her fear and work at her own pace. Don’t try to rush or cajole her into doing more than she’s comfortable with.
Most children will reach out and touch a calm dog’s haunches if the owner turns the dog’s head away from the child. That’s an excellent first step. Talk with your child about how the dog’s fur feels. Ask her if she thinks other dogs’ fur would be softer or more rough. Get her thinking about that one dog as an individual. Ask the pet parent to talk about some of the dog’s favourite activities.
Work towards having your child gives the dog cues (with dog’s owner ensuring that the dog complies). Seeing a dog respond correctly to what she asks will help her feel safe.
It’s best for her to work steadily with one dog until she feels very comfortable before adding another. Once she has met and likes three calm adult dogs, begin thinking about introducing her to a puppy. Puppies are bouncy and outgoing, which can be unnerving for a tentative child. Again, let her start out at a distance, simply observing the puppy’s behaviour.
Take it slow. It’s much better to teach your child to be a skilled observer of animal behaviour than it is for her to be thrown into situations that frighten her. With patience and time, she will learn that there are many gentle, social dogs, and she’ll be able to interact safely and calmly with new dogs she meets. That’s far, far safer than having her remain afraid of all dogs.
On a concluding note…
It’s important not to blame kids for being kids or dogs for being dogs. Let’s be realistic; it’s impossible to control someone else’s behaviour 100 percent, be it dog or child. We parents can, however, teach dogs and kids to enjoy each other’s company more by building an understanding of each other’s behaviour—and in doing so, we will decrease that scary number of annual dog bites and help ensure that our children are not bitten.
(Colleen Pelar, CPDT, CDBC, is the author of Living with Kids and Dogs . . . Without Losing Your Mind. Since 1991,she has been the go-to person for parents trying to navigate kid-and-dog issues. Because a knowledgeable adult can improve every interaction between a child and a dog, Colleen is committed to educating parents, children, and dog owners on kid-and-dog relationships. For more information, visit http://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com.)