Dogs and children are a natural together, most of the time. A dog can be a child’s best friend, but a child can sometimes be a dog’s worst nightmare if the parent doesn’t teach the dog how to interact with kids (and vice versa). If things go wrong or your dog is shy, skittish, or fearful and not used to being around children, having a child around him can go very bad very quickly. All too often, it is the dog who ends up paying the ultimate price if anything goes wrong.
While most children think that dogs are the best thing in the world, to a dog that has never been exposed to children, kids can be incredibly scary smaller hoomans or just incredibly annoying.
In a dog’s world, young kids are often frightening. They are loud. They’re intrusive. They get in your pup’s face; they make sudden and unexpected movements, they pull on tails and sensitive ears or fur, and they poke grubby fingers into eyes and mouths. Some kids even crawl all over the dog like he’s a jungle gym (um – NOT okay!).
Some dogs will simply not put up with this sort of rude behavior, and they should not have to. Some will simply get up and walk away if they can, while others will attempt to warn the child off with a warning growl. If the child doesn’t understand the warning, they can quite easily get bitten, if not more seriously injured.
Below are some tips to help you introduce your dog to children – and children to dogs – to help avoid an ugly and tragic incident from occurring.
Puppies and Children
Puppies are a lot easier to teach new things than adult dogs. They are much more malleable by nature and adjust to new and unusual things quicker and easier than adult dogs, who are more set in their ways and behaviors. Puppies have a critical learning and socialization period between the ages of 8 – 16 weeks, where they should be exposed and introduced to as many new things as possible.
Dogs that have experienced and had the chance to get used to a variety of things during this period have a much better chance of handling them calmly and quietly when they get older. If they have a positive and rewarding experience during the early weeks of life, they will remember that positive encounter and are more likely to react better when they come across it again than a dog that didn’t receive these valuable early life lessons and exposures.
You should also handle your puppies as much as possible during this critical time. This helps to get them used to having all areas of their bodies touched and handled, which will help not only while interacting with children, but also with going to the vet’s office or to the groomer, or any other scenario where a dog should be calmly accepting of a strangers touch.
Touch, pick up, and rub all four of your puppies’ paws, manipulate their ears, open their mouths, examine their eyes and stroke their bellies. Touch the pup anywhere and everywhere that they are likely to be touched by someone else. If they experience it frequently now, during this critical age, they will think that it is a typical experience when it happens to them later in life.
There is some debate over whether pretending to be a kid around your puppy and doing activities a kid is likely to do helps your dog or not. Some say that getting them used to having their ears or tails pulled, and having fingers poked into their face ensures that they will react better when it happens to them later by a real child. Others say that doing these things makes absolutely no difference to their future behavior whatsoever.
Personally, I believe that dogs should be treated with just as much respect as our human family members. This means that it is the parent’s job to ensure their children treat the family pet with respect and behave responsibly when around them. Remember, our pups rely on us to keep them safe. Dogs should not have to tolerate being harassed by children just because the parents aren’t willing to step up and set clear boundaries and expectations with their children.
Having a safe spot for your dog to retreat to, such as a crate or a bed that is off-limits to everyone, gives your dog somewhere safe to escape to if things get too overwhelming or stressful. A crate off in a quiet corner of the room gives them a safe and peaceful sanctuary to go to if they should happen to need one.
It’s important to ensure that your dog has an escape route if they should need one. Most dogs would much rather get up and leave rather than growl or bite a human if given a choice. Be sure that they have the option available to them if they should need to escape a situation that is too much for them to deal with safely. This helps to keep everyone safe – both the dog and the child – and makes your dog feel safer and more secure in their environment.
The more you expose your puppy to while they are still young and highly impressionable, the fewer problems you will have to correct and deal with as they grow older. Raising a puppy is never an easy job, but this extra effort during the early weeks will pay off in spades later down the line.
When you bring your puppy around children, start things off slowly. Never force your puppy to do something it isn’t comfortable with, and don’t make them interact with the child if they don’t want to do so. Don’t let the child just run up and throw their arms around the puppy and smother it with kisses. As much as they may want to, this will likely scare or overwhelm your dog and create a negative association with children.
Instead, have the child sit calmly and quietly in the middle of the room, and let the puppy approach them in their own time, on its own terms. They will get there eventually. Their natural curiosity will drive them to investigate this new and unusual thing they have encountered.
Have the child slowly reach out a hand for the puppy to sniff. When the child goes to pet the dog, make sure they pet the side of the neck or on the chest. Don’t reach over your pup’s head, as this can be an intimidating action to many dogs and will scare them. Gradually extend the petting down along the body, taking as much time as needed, judging by your dog’s reaction and body language.
Adult Dogs and Kids
Getting an adult dog comfortable being around children when they have never been exposed to kids before is much more challenging than working with a puppy. It takes time, a good amount of patience and multiple repetitions. Your dog may not want to get up close and personal during the first session, and that’s perfectly okay.
Carefully observe your dog’s reactions and body language to determine how well they are handling the interaction and let that be your guide on whether to continue or to give your dog a break. If they appear relaxed and at ease, or even slightly nervous and apprehensive, but still display curiosity or interest in the child, it’s probably okay to continue the session and move forward with the interaction.
If they are tense, stiff, turning away and avoiding eye contact, end the session and try again later.
Do not push your dog to interact with the child if it is clear that they are uncomfortable and don’t want to. Forcing the child on them will only create a negative experience and make it that much harder for the next attempt. Have the child sit quietly in the middle of the room, just like with the puppy, and let the dog approach when ready.
Give the child some high value treats to give the dog if it does approach, like little pieces of chicken or steak, something that smells good, and they won’t be able to resist or turn away from easily. Something that will entice them to come forward, seeking more. Have the child start tossing the treats when the dog is still 4-5 feet away, gradually luring them closer. (You might need a pretty good-sized bag of yummy treats for the first few sessions if your dog is particularly reluctant to approach.)
After the dog has come up close to the child, have them try feeding the dog from their hand. Instruct them to hold the treat on their palm with their handheld flat, just like when you feed a horse. This will minimize the chances of the child accidentally getting bitten during this exercise.
After the dog has accepted a few treats from the child, let the dog sniff their hand. A couple more yummy goodies and they can try to pet the dog – slowly and gently. Again, have them pet the side or underside of the neck or on the chest, never reaching over their head. This move can easily be interpreted as a threat by many dogs and cause them to react defensively.
Once the child has successfully petted the dog a few times, that is probably enough for the dog to handle and process for the first session. But be proud of your dog, because this was most definitely a success and a positive experience. One that the dog will remember and associate with children in the future.
For the next session, start over at the beginning once again, though the process should go much faster the second time. Slowly have the child pet further down the body, moving in small increments, until they succeed in petting from head to tail.
Another good option for introducing dogs to children is going for a walk. (If your dog is particularly leash aggressive or reactive, it’s probably a good idea to avoid this exercise!) For most dogs, walking is a natural activity that often has a calming effect. It also helps them to bond with whoever is walking with them. Walking gives the dog something else to concentrate on, so they’re not just fixated and worried about the child.
Depending on the size of the dog, it may or may not be advantageous to allow the child to hold the leash and walk the dog themselves. A smaller dog would probably be all right since they are unlikely to be able to overpower the child. With a bigger dog, however, they can easily pull the child over and possibly cause them serious injury, perhaps even death, if they happen to drag them into the path of an oncoming car.
Be aware of this and carefully watch out for anything that might catch the dog’s attention, that they might be enticed to chase or lunge after. The best idea for walking a bigger dog is to keep hold of the end of the leash yourself and have the child hold onto the middle section of the leash. This way, it appears to the dog that the child is walking it, while still allowing you to maintain control and keep things safe and secure.
Keep the walk relatively short and walk in an area that the dog has walked in before and is comfortable with. Avoid anything unexpected. Since your pup already knows the area and its smells, he is more likely to pay more attention to the child walking them than what is going on around them as they walk. If they are walking in a new area, they are much more likely to be more distracted and focused on the new smells surrounding them, since it’s an environment that they have never been through before.
The Other Half: Teaching the Children
Just as dogs need to learn how to interact with children, kids also need to learn how to properly and safely interact with dogs. They should never walk up and pet a strange dog without politely asking permission from the dog’s handler. They should never be around a dog without proper adult supervision, be it their own family dog or a stranger’s dog.
Dogs are not babysitters (though some of them would probably make pretty darn good ones!), and it should never be the dog’s responsibility to be the one left in charge of the situation. Too many kids have been mauled for pushed boundaries that could have easily been avoided if a responsible adult had properly supervised them.
Kids shouldn’t be allowed around dogs when they are eating or chewing on a bone, and this is a common cause of a child getting bitten. Kids should also avoid waking a dog up while they are sleeping, as they can easily scare or startle the sleeping dog and cause them to wake up in a defensive mode.
To avoid any dangerous scenarios, the best thing to do is to help the child understand what the dog does and doesn’t like, and how to calmly and properly approach and interact with a dog. Kids should be taught from an early age that they should never approach a dog that they do not know.
If you are one of those pet parents who tell children that your dog doesn’t bite – please stop now! ALL dogs can bite (assuming they have teeth!) and you are not doing anyone a favor by setting your dog – or an innocent child – up for failure.
Kids should also learn to ask permission from a trusted adult before approaching or petting an unfamiliar pup. Sadly not all children receive these critical lessons, so the next best option is to get your dog used to being around and interacting with kids.
Teach the child how to safely introduce themselves to a dog, perhaps using a stuffed animal as a ‘guinea pig’ to practice on before moving on to the real thing for safety reasons. Children should be taught how to read and understand a dog’s body language and be able to recognize the signs of an unfriendly dog or a dog that has had enough interaction and needs to be left alone.
Using flashcards with pictures of different actions and expressions that dogs use can be an invaluable lesson for younger kids. Children should learn that it is inappropriate and possibly dangerous to go poking and prodding at a dog, or to smother them with hugs and kisses, as most dogs do not care for this. Some dogs may potentially see it as a threat and react accordingly.
With safety measures in place, dogs and kids will both have a more enjoyable and safe interaction, and no one will end up hurt or euthanized. If the child respects the dog and understands what they are trying to communicate, kids and dogs can quickly become the very best of friends.
Having a dog to love, explore with, and confide in is something that no childhood should be deprived of, as a dog’s love is a special and sacred thing. After all, dogs are one of the best parts of childhood.
Sadly, there are a few dogs that will just never care for children, and it will never really be safe for these dogs to be around children at all.
Don’t force it. It all depends on the dog’s personality and preference, what they have been taught and exposed to, and what they will and will not tolerate.
What tips have you found to introduce kids and dogs successfully?
Melanie is the owner and founder of Brevard’s premier trusted in-home pet care company. With a Sociology & Criminal Justice degree from the University of Tennessee, in 2016 she took her corporate security background and combined it with her lifelong passion for animals – that’s how Space Coast Pet Services was born! She is certified in Pet First Aid & CPR, bonded, insured, and proudly completed a full background check successfully. She is committed to ongoing training and education for herself and her team. To learn more, click here.
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