Children and dogs 2: teach your child the do’s and don’ts

As I wrote in my previous post, the way children behave is pretty much the opposite of what dogs like: children are loud, unpredictable and often know no boundaries. Their motoric skills are still developing so they might play rough with the dog. Or grab their toys or food. It is our responsibility as their guardians make children and dogs alike feel safe and comfortable at home. And who can teach your child better than you?

Lead by example

The do’s and don’ts presented below are directed at children, but in general they apply to you as well. Research has shown that children learn through imitation (read more: a short summary and a research paper). So if they should not get anywhere close to the dog during feeding time, you must also steer clear during that time! If you want your child to follow the rules you set, make sure you keep them yourself. 

Of course there will be exceptions. My advice would be to explain the reasons for the exception if your child is old enough to understand; if they aren’t, then just stick to the rules when you’re with them1.

DO: let the dog come to you, pet them gently on the chest and sides, drop treats on the floor instead of feeding from your hand and teach these rules to your friends too. DON'T: disturb them in their bed, come near their food or toys, jump or shout around them, hug them

Offer alternative interactions

This is another useful tip I picked up from Aurea Verebes’ seminar. There will be times when the child really wants to interact with the dog, but direct, physical interaction is impossible for some reason (the dog is not ready, tired, sick…). In these cases you can offer alternative interactions:

  • making toys for the dog (for example from toilet paper rolls)
  • filling food toys
  • preparing searches (if your dog can do scent work)
  • hiding food around the flat for the dog to find

Another advantage of that is that all those nice things (toys, food) will carry your child’s scent, which means that your dog will associate pleasant things with them2.

Tips and tricks

Barrier clicking – in this technique you create a physical line (for example with a colourful piece of string) to help your dog and your child with boundaries. It can be placed around the dog’s resting place or your child’s play area, as a visual cue that they should be left alone. Then train them not to cross it3.

A resource list – sit down with your child and create a list with two columns – toys belonging to the dog and to them. You can agree on a reward for respecting that! Hang the list in a visible place where you can easily refer to it.

A “help me” signal – many children are not capable of leaving the dog alone4. However, you can still agree on a “help me” signal – the child will use a special word to ask for your help when they know they should stop, but cannot.

Dog and child exploring their surroundings together
Image by pasja1000

A note on “training” children

Improving the situation at home requires a lot of management (see my post  about the dog side of things) and some dog training, but you will most definitely have to set boundaries for your child as well. 

The general principles of positive reinforcement training work for all animals, including people. If your child does something wrong around the dog5, try to understand why they behave in that way, what motivates them and what would be the right incentive to change that. In general, with younger kids you can reward them in small increments, for example with sweets or extra play time. Once they get older, success itself is going to be increasingly reinforcing.6

 

Children and dogs: a perfect match?

The internet seems to have an endless supply of “cute” dog videos, especially involving children. While the audience usually reacts with hearts and likes, most dog professionals watch them with a sense of dread. And then there are the “shocking” videos, where the dog bites “out of nowhere”. Dogs never bite out of the blue – and this is what this post is about.

Here are some USA statistics about dog bites:

80% of dog bites happen at home
77% of victims are either a family member or a friend
69% of bites to children occurred at home when there was no adult present1.
51% of all dog bites are to children aged 12 and younger

Luckily for us, based on the review of current studies, you can effectively prevent dog bites if you educate peaople about responsible dog guardianship. Let’s dive in!

So why do they bite?

Let’s think about dogs for a second: they value personal space, communicate with very subtle signals and most of them thrive on predictability. If you add children to the equation you get quite the opposite:

  • Children can’t read canine body language, especially the more subtle signs.
  • They are likely to look for clues on the dog’s face, often approaching them frontally.
  • Children have yet to learn about respecting others’ boundaries.
  • They behave unpredictably and make a lot of noise (which is an additional stressor for most dogs).
  • Children often have toys that the dogs might be interested in or try to take the dog’s toys.
  • It takes time for children to develop motor skills and they can be quite rough when they handle dogs.
Image of dog and child: a tongue flick, ears pulled back, body mass directed downwards and to the back - this dog is not happy!
A tongue flick, ears pulled back, body mass directed downwards and to the back – this dog is not happy! Source: Image by Michal Jarmoluk.

How can you help your dog?

In order to have a peaceful household, you must consider all the family members living there. I talk about the dogs here, and you can read about children in the next one. The most important thing to keep in mind is that a household with a child is naturally more stressful than without one – not just to the dog, to the parents as well! As usual I will advise you to help your dog cope with stress.

Fulfill their needs

To begin with, make sure that your dog’s welfare needs are fulfilled2.

Dogs have biological (they’re healthy, rest enough, have access to fresh water at all times...), emotional (companionship, safety, trust, fun…) and behavioral needs (exploration, sniffing, social interactions...)Protect them

You can’t always keep an eye on everything or constantly train and you shouldn’t have to. And when you’re done with the chores, I’m sure you’d like to sit down and relax from time to time. Management is your best friend:

  • use baby gates or other physical barriers where needed
  • never leave your dog and children unsupervised
  • provide a place where the dog can rest undisturbed
  • make sure they get enough sleep (if you have a child you will know exactly what I mean, it’s the same for dogs)
  • offer activities that your dog enjoys for their own sake (relaxed walks, interactions with their dog buddies, nosework, games… whatever your dog likes)
  • learn to recognize early signs of discomfort so that you can intervene before the situation escalates

Train them

You can train “barrier clicking” with your dog. In this technique you create a physical line (for example with a colourful piece of string) to help your dog and your child with boundaries. It can be placed around the dog’s resting place or your child’s play area, as a visual cue that they should be left alone. Then train them not to cross it3.

You can also teach your dog to relax – establish a signal meaning “nothing is happening, you can relax” (learn more from Grisha Stewart or from Dr. Ute Blatschke-Berhtod, or drop me a line if you’d like me to write about it).

And remember, just because your dog is patient and tolerates all kinds of things the child does with them is not a reason to let it happen. Your dog has the right to feel comfortable at home, as do you and all your family.