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Dogs & Children

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Dogs and Children growing up together can equal many moments of happiness for the whole family, including the dogs. There are a few things that parents should know and a few rules that children and dogs must learn to help prevent accidents. 

If things do go wrong it is our fault. As adults in our role as both parent and dog owner we must accept full responsibility.  It is not the child’s or the dogs fault it is ours; we did not do a good enough job at explaining to children and to dogs how they should interact.

Your responsibility begins the moment you choose a dog. Within any breed there are dogs that are excellent with children, although you will find more in some breeds than others. It is always important to do your research and visit lots of reputable breeders before getting any puppy, but probably more important when children are involved. When visiting puppies, you want to see puppies that are confident, friendly, well socialised and not fearful. You also want to meet the mum of the pups and any other related dogs that the breeder owns to make sure they are friendly and confident with children and don’t show any signs of fearfulness.

If you have a dog before you have a child you don’t have much choice, but if you already have a child and are thinking about adding a dog to your family. I always recommend waiting until the child is at least three. Puppies (especially those of big breeds) are clumsy, grow big quickly and are full of energy. It is normal for them to investigate and experiment with everything. A child of two or three is selfish and going through a similar period of development they don’t understand that dogs have their own characteristics, needs and rights. Big dogs and small children are a lot of work and are likely to develop a strained relationship; unless the dog is extremely calm and careful, something we cannot expect of a puppy. This does not mean the combination of a child under the age of three and a big dog doesn’t work, as I do know of countless families in that situation who are very happy. 

Safety rules for babies born into homes with a dog.

If you already have a dog and become a parent there are some safety rules that you should observe:

  • Don’t put the baby on the floor and wait for the dog to come along and have a sniff. Besides not bringing anything particularly positive to the relationship, this procedure is highly unsafe. You never know what might startle the dog or the baby and develop into an accident.
  • Don’t give the dog more (or less) attention after the arrival of the baby. Try to keep the relationship the same. Dad might have to spend more time with the dog since mum will probably be very busy taking care of the baby. Newborn babies need their mums much more than their dads. Dad’s time comes later.
  • Never allow the dog to be with the baby by itself, no matter how good your dog is around children.
  • Be particularly careful when the baby begins to crawl. The dog may want to play with the baby in the same way it would with other dogs and this would be an accident just waiting to happen. Don’t overreact, just supervise and calmly control the situation.

Things to tell your child:

Children and dogs often have problems when saying hello. Children like to hug to show affection, dogs don’t understand hugs, to them a hug is more like something that inhibits another’s movement which is a sexual or dominant behaviour. Dog’s often snarl when a child hugs them, the dog is just saying “please stop that”. Often a dog might innocently open their mouths in this situation, who is then to blame if a dog’s sharp canine innocently touch’s the delicate face of a child. Accidents happen because of misunderstandings between species, it is important that we give clear instructions to our children to prevent these misunderstandings.

It is important that your child has rules when interacting with a dog and understands the following:

  • You must not approach the dog when it is sleeping, chewing its bone or eating; the dog must always be left alone in these situations.
  • You must never approach a dog you don’t know. 
  • When you say, “Hi” to a dog, you must not hug it. Squat down, make some chewing sounds and give it a treat with calm, gentle movements.
  • If a dog runs after you, do not run away. Stop right away, turn your back to the dog and cover your face with your hands.
  • You must never hit a dog, throw things at a dog or grab a dog by its tail or ears etc.
  • If a dog grabs one of your toys, don’t try to get it back. Tell mum or dad and they’ll do it for you.

Of course, if your child is aged around three, they will ask “why?” to everything you say. Give them an answer, don’t just say, “Because I say so.” Ensure they understand. We don’t want life to be just a set of rules it is also important that children and dogs have fun supervised time together. As your child gets older and spends more time with your dog developing a friendship, they learn about each other’s behaviours and the likelihood of misunderstandings and disagreements occurring decreases.

Teaching your dog

Of course, it is also important that you teach your dog how to behave around children. Teach the dog from the very first day that it must never:

  • Jump up at children.
  • Jump on the child’s bed.
  • Grab the child’s toys.
  • Grab the child with its teeth, not even in play.
  • Run after the child.

As your child and dog start to understand each other you can relax some of these rules. Conflict between dogs and children usually happen because adults don’t react appropriately at the first sign of any misunderstanding. It is important that we always pay attention to dog and children interactions and if minor incidents occur, we analyse the situation and prevent it happening again. Usually with time minor incidents develop in to more serious issues.  With serious incidents, it is important that you react immediately and I would recommend you contact the club or speak to your vet who can recommend someone to help you.

Prevention is better than cure

The best way to deal with problems is to stop them happening in the first place. We can’t stop all problems, but we can make every effort to avoid the worst of them by providing children and dogs clear rules and establishing good habits. This is by far the most successful approach. 

Motivation and reinforcement are the two most powerful tools you have. It should be fun for your child and your dog to do things together. You will have to show them what they can do together and obviously, there isn’t a great deal that very young children and dogs can do together. One thing that young children can do is pet a dog. Stroking a dog is a great way to build up a relationship. Young children can also give the dog treats. Teach your child to offer a treat calmly by placing it flat in the palm of their hand and teach your dog to take the treat gently. As children get older around 7 – 8 you can show them how to get the dog to sit, stand, drop, come and all sorts of other tricks, to earn a treat. These fun games of communication can by enjoyable for both your child and your dog.

Motivating and reinforcing desirable behaviour helps you to avoid problems, but conflicts can happen and you must deal with them straight away. It is your responsibility to stop any behaviour that is not safe. Dogs and children do and need to express themselves by playing loudly, making a mess etc. but a dog snarling at a child or a child hitting a dog is not ok and you must intervene immediately, by saying in an assertive and confident way “stop that right away”. It is okay to startle your dog or child in this situation as you want them to remember them and if you act straight away with the right level of assertion you probably won’t have to do it again. It is your self-confidence and the surprise factor that stops the unwanted behaviour of your dog or child. Both Child and dog must understand that you mean what you say and you do not accept that type of behaviour. You always only reprimand the behaviour never the dog or child. Don’t panic or exaggerate your behaviour this will only make the situation worse. Make it very clear to both dog and child that is was their behaviour that earnt the reprimand not them; otherwise they will just become frustrated and your child will blame the dog for the reprimand and your dog will associate your child with your unpleasant behaviour.

Because of this it is very important that after your perfectly timed reprimand (the reprimand occurred immediately the unwanted behaviour occurred), you start a fun and rewarding activity for your child and dog. We want them to understand our message; not traumatize them. You as the adult provide clear boundaries and let them know what is acceptable behaviour and what is not.

Our goal is to educate them, to teach them to live happily together and to respect other living creatures. An important lesson to learn is sometimes you need to compromise, you can’t always get what you want. Even though occasionally we might need to reprimand, our most successful strategy is that of motivating and reinforcing good behaviour and creating good habits. If in any doubt or you are reprimanding continuously please contact the club or talk to your vet who can refer you to an expert.

Children and dogs see the world a lot different to us adults. We are sometimes too busy to appreciate things but the most important thing we need to remember is to always let children and animals know how much we love them. We need to teach them respect for others including humans and animals. Being a parent and an animal owner is probably the most serious job you will ever have because you are totally responsible for another individual. It is hard work, but very rewarding when you see the smile on a child’s face or the happiness in your dog’s eyes.







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