I. CHILD SAFETY AROUND DOGS
Any parent or grandparent appreciates the natural curiosity and energetic nature of a young child. A dog or puppy is an attractive object of that keen curiosity, an animated version of a cuddly stuffed toy; it should come as no surprise that most children are drawn to a puppy or dog like a moth to a flame. But a young child in particular can’t understand or respect boundaries the way an older child or adult does: it’s not uncommon for a little person to want to get in a dog’s face or squeeze her affectionately. And a child’s high-pitched squealing, whether it comes from animated play or just plain enthusiasm, is to be expected.
These two proclivities—squeezing and squealing—are antithetical to a dog’s very nature. Squeaks and squeals can trigger a dog’s prey drive, which is difficult or impossible to turn off. And most dogs do not enjoy being hugged, however heartfelt the gesture; some may even interpret a hug as an invitation to fight. Dogs in general, including the family dog, do not view children as authoritative, and an in-your-face stare from a pint-sized person, even with benign intentions, can be interpreted as a direct threat in dog-speak. These ingredients—squealing or screeching, direct eye contact, the tight squeeze (which can also leave a dog feeling cornered), and the dog’s perception of child-as-subordinate—can potentially simmer in a volatile mix that boils over with a dog bite.
The mix of dogs and kids always requires supervision by a watchful adult, but parents would also do well to teach their children about safety in the company of dogs. Because dogs communicate non-verbally, teaching children to read dog body language is a good place to start and goes a long way towards keeping interactions between them safe and social.
Understanding Dog Behavior
- A bored dog is more likely to behave badly than a dog who has regular opportunities for exercise, play, and human interaction.
- A lonely dog is more likely to behave badly; dogs are social creatures and crave interaction with their human families.
- Dogs are never too old or young to learn new things.
- Dogs do not instinctively understand sharing, but can be taught to share.
- Dogs who are exposed to children early are likely to be more tolerant of them.
- Dogs need their own safe, quiet place to retreat when they feel the need.
II. TEACHING CHILDREN ABOUT DOG BODY LANGUAGE
Dog language is nonverbal, but dog behavior speaks volumes; you can teach your child or grandchild how to “listen” to a dog by observing his body language. Most dog bites are preceded by a warning; learning to recognize the signs of a stressed dog or an impending bite will help your child know when to back off.
1. SIGNS OF AGGRESSION IN DOGS
- Making themselves look bigger. This can include rising onto the toes and raising the hackles and the fur that runs the length of the spine.
- Bringing the ears forward or pinning them back.
- Stiffening the body, lengthening the tail straight out or raising it slightly.
- Wrinkling the nose and showing the teeth, with or without snarling.
2. SIGNS OF FEAR IN DOGS
- Cowering and trying to look smaller.
- Pinning the ears and averting the gaze.
- Possibly showing the teeth.
- Tucking the tail and perhaps trying to back away: if a dog feels cornered, she may instead try to induce the person cornering her to back away.
Why do dogs bite?
Parents should teach their children that dogs are more likely to bite when:
- They are protecting puppies
- They are sick or hurt
- They are eating
- They are sleeping
- They are engaged in rough play
- They have been poorly trained or lack manners
3. SIGNS OF AN ALERT DOG
- Stands tall with or without raising his hackles.
- Closes or slightly opens his mouth, with or without vocalizing.
- Keeps his ears up and pointed forward and eyes open wide.
- Keeps his tail up and might wag it slowly as he evaluates a situation and decides what to do.
4. SIGNS OF A PLAYFUL DOG
- Keeps her ears forward and tail wagging.
- Possesses bright, wide eyes, holds her mouth wide open, and may pant excitedly.
- Bounces around, play bows, and vocalizes or play growls.
5. SIGNS OF A RELAXED DOG
- Keeps his tail down or wags it.
- Slackens his mouth and may even appear to smile.
- Holds his ears neither backward nor forward.
- May allow his tongue to hang from his mouth.
- Has hair that lies smooth and flat against his back.
Many young children can be taught to read this “language,” but a very young child will have difficulty interpreting its subtleties; focus instead on gentle behavior and continue to instill a more and more sophisticated understanding of dog language as your child grows, closely supervising any interactions with dogs.
III. INTRODUCING DOGS TO CHILDREN
If you and your family are lucky enough to share your lives with a dog, practice safe habits from the get-go; lead by example and teach your children. Observe these basic dog safety guidelines:
- If you have an infant or very young child, never allow a dog into the child’s room without close supervision.
- Help your child understand the dog does not enjoy a hug or a tight squeeze and show her instead how to pat the dog gently.
- Teach your child never to pull the dog’s ears or tail, or attempt to climb on or ride the dog.
- Never allow your child to drag the dog around or play “dress up” with him.
- Encourage your child or children to lower their voices when playing around dogs.
- Keep dogs and kids separated at snack time or during meals.
- Help your child learn to respect the dog’s quiet time: when the dog retreats to his crate, the child should leave him alone. Likewise, help her understand it’s appropriate to play with the dog only when the dog wants to play.
CHILD’S PLAY: SAFE GAMES FOR YOUR KIDS AND THE DOG
Encourage healthy, fun interaction between the family pet and your child or children:
- Fetch is a wonderful, classic dog game, as long as it does not become a game of tug-of-war with the toy or ball. Instruct your child to walk away if the dog will not surrender the object, and show her how to ask the dog to drop it on cue.
- Dog tricks are an excellent way to stimulate the dog and help him bond with the child. Set up an agility course with low jumps, tunnels, and hoops to crawl through. This is also safe, rainy day fun for dogs and kids indoors.
- In lieu of chasing, teach the dog to run on a leash, but never allow a child to walk or run with the dog unsupervised.
- Play hide and seek with toys and treats .
These activities are unsafe for a child to undertake with a dog:
- Allowing a new puppy to chew on fingers and clothing.
- Chasing or being chased by the dog.
- Encouraging the dog to jump up for food, a toy, or a stick.
- Tug-of War with the dog; this is a safe activity only for an adult or much older child, and when the dog understands he must always surrender the tug object to the person.
- Wrestling with the dog.
- Teasing the dog.
- Discourage your child from putting her face close to the dog’s, and from holding the dog’s gaze with direct frontal eye contact. Teach her instead to look at the dog, and then away, look at the dog, and then away: this communicates to the dog that the child is not a threat.
- Teach your child never to approach the dog from behind.
- If the dog is on the sofa or chair and refuses to budge, help your child understand never to push or tug the dog out of the way, but to seek your help instead.
- Teach your child never to attempt to take a toy or treat from the dog, or to bother him while he is eating, drinking, or sleeping. Ask the child to come and get you if the dog is chewing something he should not.
- When your child is visiting a friend with a dog who makes her feel uncomfortable, help her understand it is okay to ask the adult in charge to put the dog in another room.
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: Knowing When to Leave Them Be
- Avoid petting or otherwise disturbing an unknown dog in his fenced enclosure.
- Avoid reaching your hand inside the open window of a car to pet an unknown dog.
- Avoid bothering a sleeping dog.
- Avoid bothering a dog who is eating or drinking.
- Avoid trying to take away a toy or a treat from a dog: ask an adult for help.
- Avoid a mother dog and her pups.
- Avoid a loose dog you don’t know; inform your local animal control officer.
For many of us a special dog occupies an important place in the family “pack”—our beloved canines really do want to be our best friends. But even if you don’t share your home with a dog, teaching your child safety around them is important. And if you’ve been thinking about bringing home a new puppy or dog, get a leg up on safety ahead of time: carefully research a wide range of breeds, paying especial attention to breed-specific temperament. Also consider the dog’s source: a retriever who has been bred for prowess in the field may be unsuitable as a family dog. Dog safety starts with creatures who are destined to get along. Observe safety precautions, and enjoy his company: there is no substitute for the enrichment that comes from the unconditional love of a dog.