Children and Dogs

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First off, I need to state unequivocally that Ray is amazing with children.  In fact, last summer the Children’s Camp counselor at the sanctuary would often use Ray to teach children how to safely approach a dog.  He seems to realize that small beings are going to be less predictable than adults, and he modifies his responses accordingly.

But just because he has always been good with children doesn’t mean that he is “bullet-proof”.  No dog is. Seriously.  The best dog in the world can snap if they are pushed to the wall.  It is our job as caregivers, parents and grandparents to make sure that dog/child interactions are pleasant and safe for everyone concerned.

When we were traveling last month, I took Ray to dinner with my brother, his fiance, and their almost 5 year old son Liam.  Ray and Liam seemed to take to each other right off the bat.  When we sat down to eat, Ray took his place, laying at my feet, under the table.  That is what he has been trained to do in public places.  And he is very, very good at it.  Towards the end of the meal Liam started to get bored, as kids do, and he went under the table to see Ray.  His parents were a little surprised when I reacted very strongly to this.  They had seen how good Ray was with Liam, and Liam was very appropriate with Ray.  So what was my issue?

My main problem was that I was unable to see Ray’s body language.  I am his guardian, and it is critically important that I am aware of his comfort level and how he is reacting to things.  Also, he was in a constrained space, which could make him feel trapped and vulnerable.  Children don’t know the signs that a dog is feeling stressed.  Because I couldn’t view and evaluate the reactions of either the child or the dog, I had to insist that Liam not be under the table with Ray.  Once I explained why I was worried, Liam’s parents were very understanding.  They could see I was trying to protect both my dog, and their child.

Children don’t always know the appropriate way to interact with dogs.  They don’t understand that most dogs don’t liked to be hugged tight; that some of their interactions are foreign and scary to the dog.  This is especially true for dogs who have not grown up in a house with children.

A recent study showed a marked decrease in dog bites (up to 80%) in communities that offered a dog safety class to elementary aged children.  Kids were taught how to safely meet and interact with dogs. Not all communities offer classes, so it is up to us as adults to teach children how to coexist with our canine companions. Here are some of the most important things to remember about dog/child interactions.

Dogs in the home

  • Never leave your child alone and unsupervised with any dog.  All dogs can bite given the right set of circumstances
  • Teach you children to never bother a dog who is sleeping, eating, or caring for babies.  Teach your children never to bother a dog who is in his crate.  Teach your child to talk to a sleeping dog before touching him and to never sneak up on a dog from behind without making noise so they know you are coming.
  • A child needs to know that most dogs do not like to be hugged or kissed.  Never put your face right in front of a dog’s face.  Many bites to children are to the face because of their inclination to kiss their dog. Dogs are not for playing dress-up or dragging around.
  • A child needs to learn to be calm with their dog.  Screaming, jumping and climbing on the dog are all things that can cause anxiety.
  • Never tease a dog!  No hitting, yelling, pulling on tail or ears.  Do not tempt a dog with a toy, and then remove it. Treat the dog as a living being with feelings, instead of a stuffed animal.

Dogs in Public with People

  • Have your child learn to always ask before approaching a strange dog.  If they ask to pet the dog and the owner says “no” they need to respect that.  Not all dogs are interested in meeting new people.
  • Teach them the proper way to greet the dog, once permission is granted.  The child should make a fist and hold it out, fingers down, for the dog to sniff.
  • Once the dog is done getting the child’s scent, they can gently pet the chest, the side of the neck or under the chin.  Petting a dog’s head can be threatening and can increase the chances of getting bit.

Loose dogs

  • Teach your children to “Be a Tree” when approached by a strange dog.  That means standing still, eyes averted, arms crossed at chest.  Dogs will quickly become bored by someone who is not moving or interacting with them.
  • Children should learn never to stare at a strange dog.  Staring can be perceived as a threat or a challenge.
  • Do not ever throw things or yell at a strange dog.  Silent and still is the very best response.
  • If your child is old enough, help them learn some of the most basic body language that dogs offer.  That will help them judge the level of danger.

Signs of a happy dog who wants to interact

  • Bouncy, happy movement
  • May look like the dog is smiling.  Mouth is open, tongue may be visible.
  • Tail is held at a normal height, swinging side to side.
  • Ears are not pinned back or held forward
  • Hair on the back is smooth.

Signs of a stressed dog

  • Tail may be tucked or held straight down
  • Dog is licking his lips
  • Eyes are shifting
  • Dog may be yawning
  • Head may be ducked and body crouched

Signs of an aggressive or threatening dog

  • Tail may be held straight up.  It might be stiffly wagging
  • Lips may be drawn back to show the teeth
  • Ears pinned tightly against the hair
  • Hackles raised, hair along the spine and on neck standing on end
  • Body seems tense and coiled, ready to spring forward
  • Dog is staring directly and with intent

Besides teaching our children, what can we as adults do to help insure everyone’s safety?  Easy:  supervise all interactions, obedience train our dogs, and know our dogs stress indicators so we can quickly intervene when necessary.

Ray and Liam ended their evening together as friends.  And that is the most important thing.  Because I was taught dog safety we were able to make sure everyone was happy and comfortable.  And that is the goal, isn’t it?

The AKC has a great child/dog curriculum, complete with games and hand-outs, available on-line at: http://www.akc.org/pdfs/PBSAF2.pdf  It is well worth the time to teach your children the correct way to work with dogs from the very beginning.

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3 thoughts on “Children and Dogs

  1. This is such a great article. When our son was young (24 years ago), he was taught to leave our dog alone, especially when she was eating and sleeping. He would get in trouble if he tried to mess with her and we had friends that thought we were nuts. Our son learned how to behave around dogs, what wasn’t allowed or tolerated. When we walk our dogs and have kids run up (we tell them to stop), we’ve learned to teach them what not to do and what to ask the owners. Makes such a difference.

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