Children and Dogs: How to Build a Positive Relationship
Children and dogs go together like peanut butter and jelly, right? Well … the family dog is iconic – we see them in movies, books, and in our own living rooms. It might seem like an easy job – napping all day, having meals delivered, and soft beds to lay on. However, there is one part of the job description for a family dog that some dogs sometimes struggle with – interacting with children. We love seeing children and dogs together, but we should step back and evaluate this relationship from the dog’s perspective.
How Dogs Feel About Children
Shared interactions together determine the relationship between children and dogs.. In order to have a positive relationship, those interactions must be positive for both parties. From the dog’s perspective, interactions must be predictable, free of fear or stress, and they must be able to leave the situation if desired. Without guidance, kids are unpredictable, can do things that scare or hurt dogs, and may unknowingly trap dogs in interactions. When a dog is feeling frightened, hurt, or trapped, they may communicate through growling, snapping, or biting. For this reason, it is very important to supervise any interaction between young children and dogs.
Supervision is Necessary
What does it mean to supervise an interaction between a child and a dog? There are two types of supervision, active and passive. Active supervision means that the situation has your undivided attention, and you are able to intervene at any point. Furthermore, you are guiding both the child and the dog through the interaction. This may include showing children how and where to pet dogs, or encouraging the dog to walk away occasionally. Passive supervision means that you are present, but are engaged in another task. We recommend active supervision in most situations — and in all situations with younger children (under 5-6 years old). Or if the dog and child are not exposed to one another frequently, active supervision is highly advisable.
To effectively supervise, you also need to know what you are looking for. Learn as much as you can about body language in dogs, specifically stress signals. Some interactions are never appropriate, regardless of whether or not the dog is showing signs of stress. Hitting, kicking, pulling, or any behavior that could cause physical pain are unacceptable. Other unacceptable behaviors include sitting on top of or “riding” the dog; stealing items from the dog; teasing the dog with food or toys; and preventing the dog from leaving (this includes hugging!). If the dog is showing signs of stress, you need to intervene before the dog escalates to growling, snapping, or biting.
It’s also important to think about how you will intervene if the dog appears stressed. It is best to calmly call the dog away from the situation if possible, and avoid yelling or otherwise adding more emotion to the situation.
Positive Interactions Build Positive Relationships
What should interactions between children and dogs look like? This will greatly depend on the child’s developmental stage and the dog’s temperament and experiences. Very small children cannot follow directions, so limit interactions to being in close proximity without contact. This is the stage where unintentionally hurting the dog is very likely. Babies and toddlers like to grab, poke, and put things in their mouths as they explore their world, and they will do the same to the dog if allowed.
Reward the dog for watching the child calmly with treats and praise. Once the child is capable of understanding basic instructions, you can introduce brief interactions of petting. It is important to give very specific instructions to young children, such as “Hold out two fingers and pet the dog on his back in this direction”. Take frequent breaks so the dog can decide to leave if desired. Involve older kids in the basic training and toy play within their abilities to understand and carry out instructions.
In assessing a dog’s temperament around children, it is important to consider the dog’s history around children. However we should not rely on it. Not all situations are the same — dogs may be comfortable with a certain children in one setting, but uncomfortable with different children in another setting. While some dogs are much more tolerant of children’s behavior, we should be careful not to label a dog “child safe” and reduce our level of supervision. Any dog can bite given the correct set of circumstances, and children need adult help to avoid those situations. If your dog has limited or negative experiences with children, be very careful to manage their contact with children and work with a professional dog trainer to help your dog feel more comfortable around children.
Children and Dogs: Final Thoughts
Children are more at risk for being bitten by dogs, and those bites are more likely to be to the face and head. Clearly we need to protect children from dog bites, and we need to protect dogs from feeling the need to bite. The two sides of the equation here are not at fault when things go wrong, children can’t help themselves from doing things that scare and hurt dogs, and dogs can’t help but to defend themselves when hurt or scared. That’s why there must be a responsible adult supervising and managing these interactions. If we manage these interactions to ensure they are positive for both the child and the dog, they will both be better off for it. When dogs feel safe with children, children stay safer.