Renee Premaza on July 10, 2012
Sometimes, parents view puppies and dogs as human "kids" who wear fur coats. When humans have this inappropriate idea, we can actually set both our dogs and our children up for total failure. That’s not a good thing! When we think of our canines as kids, our tendency is to raise the bar too high in our expectations of them. When I explain to my clients that dogs don’t have morals and they don’t feel guilty about anything they do, I see lots of raised eyebrows. Think of it this way; dogs think and behave like the animals they are. When an animal chooses to do something, or to not do something, it isn’t because he’s deciding if it’s ethical. He chooses to do what works for him in his daily effort to stay safe and survive. So with that in mind, let’s talk about setting some rules to raise our dogs and children together safely while they’re sharing the same space under your roof. Here’s a short list to consider:
Rule #1 – Avoid allowing your young children to sit on your dog, to pull his tail or grab his fur. Too frequently, a parent will sing the praises of his dog telling me, "she lets the kids lay all over her, they hug and kiss her, and she’s so good about that!" I tell that client, the child is very lucky and kudos to the dog for being so tolerant. But… unless you are an expert in reading canine body language, you might be surprised to see that your dog could very well be uncomfortable and unhappy with what your child is doing. Another concern when we allow children to literally man-handle their dogs is they then learn to behave the same way with other dogs they never even met before. Now we have a very risky and unsafe situation that could get that child easily bitten!
Take a look at this wonderful cartoon that illustrates what "tolerance" looks like: For Better Or For Worse
Rule #2 – Children and dogs need constant adult supervision anytime they’re together. That means an adult must be actively watching them while remaining in the same room where they’re playing. If the adult has to leave the room for any reason, s/he can either take the dog with or gate the dog off in a separate room until the adult returns to closely supervise once again.
Rule#3 – Never allow your children to play wrestle with your dog. It’s been my experience when working with many dogs that when they become overly excited, they can get mouthy and put their teeth on the child’s skin. Excited puppies do this all the time and will nip at children’s feet, socks, shoelaces, or they pull on their shirts and pant-legs. Adult dogs who wrestle with kids can take this a step further and will bite harder on the child’s hands or legs, or grab their clothing and have a full-scale tug of war game. None of these situations are appropriate for either the child or the dog.
Here’s a wonderful webinar video given by Certified Member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Jennifer Shryock. Jennifer specializes in the subject of keeping kids and dogs safe around one another. You’ll hear Jen talk a lot about adult supervision in her discussions: Parent Webinars
Rule #4 –All too often, owners laugh and think it’s funny when their little dogs growl around the food bowl or when someone comes over to pet them while they’re chomping on a special chew toy. It’s amusing to them to see their little Chihuahua or Yorkie acting like she’s big and bad. Please note this is not funny and laughing when she does it reinforces the behavior. When children live in a home with any dog who growls around food, toys and other stimuli, it’s important to seek the help of a professional. Please contact a Certified Behavior Consultant if your dog is protective over resources. Here’s the link to find one in your area: IAABC Consultants
Rule #5 – Do not place high-level responsibilities onto the shoulders of your young children. Many of my own clients allow their 7 through 12 year old kids to walk their dogs through the neighborhood by themselves. When I’m told this, I shudder to think of all the possible dangerous situations that could happen during those walks. Ask yourself if your child could respond quickly and decisively if a loose dog suddenly appeared out of nowhere and started growling at them. Ask yourself if your child could stop your dog from running into the street if he accidentally dropped the leash during their walk. But, it would be an excellent idea to involve your children in their dog’s obedience training as long as you are there with them giving instructions and supervising them through the process. Keep their lessons simple and keep their lessons short so they stay interested. You don’t want to make this a chore for them where they now think it’s a drag to work with the dog.
Rule #6 – I have a sneaky suspicion this next rule might be a bit hard for you to swallow. It concerns growling. I know how angry people feel when their dogs growl at them or their children. I recently had a client who told me if her dog ever growled at her two kids, she would "get rid of her immediately!" Of course it wouldn’t matter to her what her kids were doing to elicit that growl in the first place. When our dogs growl at us, we get our ego’s in a twist; we say, "how dare you growl at Me!" We think when a dog is growling at us, it’s a sign of disrespect, right? Nobody wants to hear a dog growl at us or our children. However, we need to "silently" thank them for using this very important communication signal. Remember in the beginning of this blog, I mentioned that dogs are animals and not furry kids? Dogs, as well as other animals do not, and never will, speak English. They communicate by using body language. When humans are angry with each other, we can, if we choose to, use spoken words as well as physical signals to warn someone to back off or else! Emotionally stable dogs can also choose to warn us or other dogs to back off by growling. Some dogs have more than one warning in their bank of warnings while other dogs might only have a single warning. If we ignore a growl or other additional warnings, like a raised lip, a direct stare, etc., we could be putting ourselves in harm’s way where we might get bitten.
Earlier, we spoke about children who play rough or manhandle dogs. Suppose the dog they were interacting with decided he’d had enough of this obnoxious behavior and could not easily escape from the children. He doesn’t want to bite! He’s trying very hard not to bite by issuing a warning growl. If you come over and holler at your dog or, worse yet, smack him for growling, you will teach this animal not to issue any warning again. He’ll have no choice but to bite! Here’s another excellent resource to learn about why dogs growl and how to respond: Understanding Dog Growling and Dog Language
Never forget that our favorite companion pet is an animal and will always use his animal instincts to survive. When you decide to bring an animal into your home where your children live too, you must always recognize the difference in their species and avoid expecting your dog to think and behave like a human child. Dogs take the blame all too often for issuing warning cues and then they wind up losing their home or worse yet, they’re put to sleep simply because they growled. Remember the importance of providing responsible adult supervision when your children and dogs are interacting.
Here are additional excellent sources of information about how to keep kids and dogs safe when they’re together:
- Dog Safety For Kids
- Kids and Dogs: Safety First
- Be a Tree
- Family Paws
- Dog Bite Prevention: How Kids Should Greet Dogs
Renee Premaza is the owner of The Jersey Dog Trainer and has been professionally training dogs since 2001 in the southern New Jersey area. She is a Certified Member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants – Dog Division. Renee provides in-home training during the week and instructs group obedience classes on Sundays. She is also a CGC Evaluator and offers the American Kennel Club’s S.T.A.R. Puppy Kindergarten Program. Renee hosts a weekly live radio talk show, “Thursday in the Doghouse,” where she interviews authors, veterinarians, rescue groups and other dog and cat experts throughout the United States and Europe. For more information about Renee, visit her website, www.jerseydogtrainer.com