Diamonds in the Ruff
Is Your Dog Good with Kids?
This article is for dog owners whose dogs need to learn to enjoy living with kids, and for kids who need to learn how to enjoy interacting properly with dogs.
You're a parent. And it's probably safe to assume, you were probably a kid once. If you had siblings, you probably said (or heard) the following:
"Mom! He's on my side of the car!"
"Stop touching me!"
"Mom, she's touching my stuff!"
You may have had scuffles between you and your brother or sister where someone lost their temper. Feelings get hurt. Moms and Dads step in and make peace, redirect the offending sibling and show us how to be polite and respectful of each other's space.
Now you have a dog.
Your job is the same, only one of your "kids" has fur and doesn't speak English and is of another entire species. When you decided to get a dog for the kids, you probably envisioned every Lassie episode and YouTube video of joyful kids and dogs. But now your dog is ripping the kids' clothes and chewing up all their toys. In some cases, it's deteriorated to the point that when they try to pet him, he grumbles about it, or worse.
Now apply the above phrases coming from your dog.
These are things your dog is saying about his human sibling - your kid. And your response will be the same as the parent in the same scenarios. If you don't, the dog will escalate to correcting the child - which is something he should never have to do. We want to build a gentle, trusting, respectful relationship between both dog and child.
Dogs are not furry humans. No matter how much careful training you do, they will never become furry humans. They will always see the world as a dog and respond to situations as a dog. And your dog is a real dog, not a fictional, magical Lassie who just "knows" what to do. The real Lassie was played by more than one dog and those dogs had a full-time, paid, professional trainer, a director, and an editing department!
What is appropriate play?
Your dog is not a doll or a stuffed animal. Kid games are not always fun for dogs and dog play isn't always fun for kids. Both need to learn how to play appropriate games together. When anyone says, "he's so good with kids, he'll let them do anything!" I think to myself, but should he? He is putting up with it right now. But what if it hurts? What if he's tired or sore? "He was fine and then the just snapped." That's what people say when a dog has finally had enough.
What is "provocation"? Anything that puts a dog in the predicament of needing space is provoking, whether it was intentional or not. Leaning and reaching for a frightened dog could provoke it to defend itself. Over-petting, bending to kiss a dog goodnight and startling it out of a sound sleep is provoking. There really isn't such a thing as an "unprovoked bite" unless the dog is suffering from a mental issue and isn't in his right mind. In virtually every case, the reason was quite obvious to the dog, even if it wasn't to you.
"Let sleeping dogs lie." You don't appreciate being pestered when sleeping or eating or busy doing something important to you. Being bothered is especially unpleasant when you don't feel well. You probably don't enjoy being teased or taunted. Neither does your dog.
If your dog happily shares his space except in specific situations where he is pestered or bumped when he should be left to sleep in peace, then a simple rule of "let sleeping dogs lie" will make both your child and your dog safe and happy. Your kids probably don't like to be trampled on while they are sleeping either! :-)
A growl is a request for space, "please don't bother me right now." It's important information about how he's feeling and what his needs are. It tells you exactly what you need to work on. It's important to not scold the growl, as silencing the conversation just means he will still be uncomfortable and just not say anything, appearing "safe" until he snaps without warning. If you see that a child is about to do something that might make your dog uncomfortable, redirect them to give him space. As necessary, redirect the dog to a more private place of his own to sleep where he won't be bothered. Praise him lavishly for going there and every time you see him choose that spot on his own. Be sure to supervise all interaction between dogs and children so both have proper guidance.
Dogs warn with a look-away, lip lick, a side-eye look and if those polite requests aren't noticed, follow it with a grumble. "This makes me uncomfortable. Please don't." If the grumble isn't heard, the dog might escalate to a louder "leave me alone, dammit!" growl/bark. If it goes on too long and isn't respected, an air-snap warning for emphasis. When days and weeks go by with unheeded polite requests for space, he becomes irritated sooner, warning the child well in advance. He's louder. Eventually he gives up being polite.
Always ask the dog. Remind your children that a living animal is not a toy to be packed around, and that it's always polite to ask the dog if they'd like to play or be petted. Children must accept that sometimes their dog friend might say "no, thanks" even if he was willing earlier.
If you have a dog with a short fuse when bothered or the issue is escalating into actual biting, hire a professional trainer for one-on-one help. Make sure the dog has a safe place to retreat and a private bed of his own where he is never bothered when resting. For safety, ban him from couches or beds that your child is likely to inhabit, with the firm rule that they should not bother the dog when he is resting (and never when he has a high value chew!)
Best friends share, respect each other's personal space, and enjoy each other's company.
SUPER-vision and Guidance.
Young children (and many adults!) are simply unable to recognize when their actions are worrying or annoying a dog. Adult supervision is necessary to help both the dog and the child out of problematic situations.
Don't leave them alone together. Think of your dog as a pair of sharp scissors.
Until the child is coordinated, careful, and responsible enough to use sharp, pointy scissors, they should not be left alone with sharp, pointy dogs either.
Supervision and guidance are absolutely essential if you have a sensitive, easily upset dog with a low threshold for feeling threatened. Some dogs are easily spooked and quick to react. Once they have learned that scaring the scary thing away works to get relief from the situation, they will repeat it. It will become their "go to" reflex response .
You can't make them "get over" being upset or afraid. You can help build trust and confidence so many things aren't upsetting anymore. Trust is easily shattered. Fragile relationships can be trashed with one accidental oops that proves to the worried dog or child they aren't safe.
TOO MUCH EXCITEMENT CAN BE A BAD THING.
If there is going to be a lot of activity, give the puppy a nice stuffed Kong and put them somewhere else during that birthday party!
Rowdy, bitey puppies become more-so when there is a lot of visual movement and noise. Running and screaming, waving toys above their heads, flapping fabric and spinning wheels, can all spur a puppy into a chase response. When puppies go into chase mode, the best response is to "Be a Tree" - not a cat. Dogs chase cats, not trees. Stop. Stand still. Fold your arms. Have a "safe word" to alert an adult to come retrieve the puppy. Parents: If you see your children getting animated and your puppy starting to wind up, call "RED LIGHT!" to freeze the children so you can collect the puppy and tone down the energy spiral.
Play carefully choreographed games with rules, starts and stops. Retrieve and deliver games, not keep-away and chase. Adults should teach the dog the rules and how to play the game. Then add the child and teach the child the rules and how to play the game. When well-practiced and successful, then the dog and child can enjoy the game together. Supervision is necessary to keep both on track and guide their interactions.
Resources for Parents
Mom & Dad -
if you are looking for great resources, check out these websites:
Raising Kids and Dogs by Colleen Pelar
Family Paws Parent Education - Kids & Dogs, safe together
Great books for parents:
"Please Don't Bite the Baby (and please don't chase the dog)"
"Living With Kids & Dogs"
This wonderful drawing is by student Riley Nelson who was in the 2nd grade and attended puppy class with her Boston/Rat Terrier Olly.
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