Many families own dogs and many children can benefit from sharing a home with a dog. Taking care of a dog can help older children learn to plan and be responsible, while exercising and playing with a dog at any age is an great way to release excess energy and keep fit. A dog can also give a child unconditional love and someone to talk to. There is no denying that dogs make fantastic pets and companions, however, it is very important to recognise the potential hazards or dog ownership and try to minimise any risks where children are present.
The purpose of this article is to help you make sure that children are always safe around dogs (and Vice Versa!) we want people to be Mindful and Not Fearful of Dogs.
Children Are Odd (from a dog’s perspective)
From a dog’s point of view, children communicate very differently to them as well as differently from adult humans; they cry, yell, shriek and run about unpredictably, so it is not surprising that dogs can find it very difficult to understand and figure children out and even harder to tell them when they want to be left alone. It is also important to remember that not all dogs will want to interact and play with these odd little people and not all children will want to interact with dogs, so it is important that these ‘relationships’ are never forced upon either the dog or the child.
Dog Bite Reality
The NHS states on its website that
“In the UK about 250,000 people each year go to an emergency department because they have been bitten by a dog. Probably many more bites occur, but people do not see a doctor about them, so it is hard to be sure”
We also know that people are far more likely to get bitten by small breeds of dog, with Jack Russells, Chihuahuas, Dachshunds and Cocker Spaniels being at the top of the list, but these are rarely reported as there is often very little damage done, compared to when someone is bitten by a much larger breed of dog.
Research has shown that dog bites or strikes occur most frequently
- To children under the age of 15, (0-9 years being the highest) and to boys more than girls
- To people and children within their own homes and/or by dogs that are familiar to them.
- Most of the child/dog interactions that result in bites are initiated by the child.
- The bites are often on the wrist or hand but children are much more at risk of head injuries than adults, because of their height in relation to the size of the dog.
With this in mind, educating children as well as dog owners is the key to reducing this risk. It is as important for parents to teach their children how to handle and behave around dogs as it is for dog owners to understand and ensure their dogs are properly socialised and handled, because even the most mild mannered and well behaved family pet may react to being pulled around, jumped on or trod on accidentally.
For the most part, children and dogs manage to cohabit without incident, however teaching all children how to behave around dogs (and indeed any animal) should be a priority especially if they are or will be living with and/or interacting with a dog. So here are a few guidelines for parents and dog owners.
A child should NEVER be left alone with a dog no matter how trusted or how long you have had the dog. Even if you are just popping upstairs to the loo, separate the dog and the child.
The dog must always be able to leave the room, so it can move away from a situation it doesn’t feel comfortable with. Even if your are supervising the dog and the child, make sure that the dog can always get away from the child (or indeed any other people) to another room if it wants to.
The dog must have an area where he or she can settle undisturbed, when he or she wants some quiet alone time or to eat or drink. Children must be taught never to disturb the dog when resting, sleeping, eating or drinking. The dog’s bed or crate should be completely out of bounds for the kids (adults shouldn’t be in there either)
Children should be taught to respect a dog’s physical and emotional welfare. A dog must not be teased, fur or tailed pulled or have food taken from him. They also need to know that dog is not a toy or doll and should not be picked up, hugged, kissed, carried around, ridden, rolled on or dressed up, all of which can make it grumpy and snappy. It is very unreasonable to expect the dog not to react if he or she is hurt by tail pulls or eye pokes or by being dropped by children.
While there is nothing wrong with occasionally dressing a dog up in an outfit for a special occasion like Halloween or christmas, if he or she tolerates it well, it should be done by an adult, not a child and removed if the dog looks uncomfortable.
Children should to be taught how to be gentle with the dog. You and your children should not play rough and aggressive or chase games with your dog as this can encourage unwanted behaviour. Avoid play fighting with or taunting the dog to make it protective or jealous, because this tends to backfire badly later if the dog ever misjudges the situation.
Many dogs dislike hugging and close face-to-face contact, unless they have instigated it themselves. You need to watch your dog carefully for any signs that he or she is uncomfortable in this situation and if in doubt don’t allow it to happen. (Some dogs, like some people, really dislike being hugged)
Don’t take food or treats off the dog (unless it is an emergency). You wouldn’t like someone to do it to you so don’t expect your dog to be happy if you take their food away; in fact taking food off the dog is more likely to cause problems in the future. If you want to make your dog safe around food the best way to do it is drop extra titbits in their bowl while they eat or drop some next to them when they are chewing on a treat. (you can contact us for further advice on this). Do not let children play with your dog’s food bowls.
If you have been advised to take food off your dog to prevent it becoming ‘dominant’ (usually because a certain so called ‘dog whisperer’ from the USA, who has absolutely no dog training or behaviour qualifications at all and uses bullying and outdated methods to ‘train’ is popular on tv), please stop. Please have a rethink of this extremely outdated and frankly dangerous training method.
Children should never take the dog out for a walk without an adult present. A child must be old enough to take responsibility for the dog and it’s needs before they are allowed to take him or her for walks on their own. They must be able to pick up poop and keep the dog out of trouble with other dogs.
Reading Your Dog’s Body Language
It is really important to learn to understand the dog’s body language so that you can quickly see when your dog is uncomfortable in a situation (with or without children present) and remove him or her.
Dogs may use one or a combination of the above signals to try and stop whatever is happening. If these signals are ignored and prove unsuccessful, then they may escalate to other more ‘active signals’ of communication which include teeth baring, shifting weight (to ease escape), growling, barking and eventually snapping. This is why it is important that dogs are always provided with a place of safety i.e their bed, and when they are there, they should be left alone; it also means that if you miss their signals of discomfort for any reason, that they can move themselves away.
If you do see any of these signals, ask the child to stop whatever they are doing to the dog and get them to move away from the dog and give him or her space and/or the opportunity to leave the room.
It is rare for a dog to growl, air snap or bite without any warning at all; in most cases where bites have occurred, it is because adults have missed or ignored all of the warning signs mentioned above.
Dog Rules For Children
- Never approach a dog in its sleeping area/bed or while it is asleep
- Never try to take food or toys away from a dog
- Never yell, scream at or hit a dog
- Never pull a dog’s hair, tail or ears
- Never go near a dog that is tied up without an owner present – dogs that cannot escape may be anxious and distressed by a stranger being near.
- Always talk quietly to a dog
- Always ask permission from the owner AND your parent/guardian before approaching a dog that is not your own. If you don’t know the dog’s name you must not touch it.
- Always offer a closed hand for the dog to sniff before attempting to stroke it
- Try not to stare directly into a dog’s eyes (dog’s think this is rude)
- Stroke a dog on its neck, chest, shoulders or back. Don’t stroke a dog that is not yours on it’s head, as some dogs don’t like their heads touched by strangers
- Don’t hug or kiss a dog that does not live with you (your own dog may not like this either)
- If you are frightened of a dog, stand still like a statue or lamp post, with your arms folded and look away from the dog. Do not scream or yell or run away from the dog
A good rule is if your don’t know the dog’s name you can’t stroke it.
This means that hopefully a child will always ask before approaching strange dog.
The Blue Dog CD
An interactive CD Rom called The Blue Dog has been developed in collaboration with vets, teachers, behaviourists and child psychologists and is available to buy from most veterinary surgeries and online. It is aimed at children aged between 3 and 7 years old and is a fun and enjoyable way for them to learn how to behave around dogs by making choices from what they are shown on the CD. It also comes with a printed parent guide. For more information visit www.thebluedog.org. Castle vets has a limited stock of these cds.
Safe Ways For Children To Interact With Dogs
- Clicker training is fun and simple for children over 6 years old (some younger ones may be able to do it as well), it will encourage the bond between the child and the dog and help both learn something new.
- Fetch games can be great fun, but make sure your dog is taught to drop the toy and allow the child to pick it up safely. Using a tennis ball and a throw stick is great as the scoop mechanism means no little hands in the way.
- Hide and seek games in the park with a treat as a reward for a successful find. Make sure you hold onto the dog until the hider is hidden and then encourage him or her to find them.
- Attend a training class with the kids and the dog.
- Young Kennel Club is great for kids whether you own a pedigree dog or a crossbreed dog (or no dog at all). Membership includes access to Crufts and discover dogs every year and the regular magazines teach all about dog ownership, breeds etc and offer the kids a chance to write their own articles. There are also regular activities, events and holiday camps.
- A single dog bite prevention lesson incorporated into a regular school day has been shown to dramatically reduce high risk behaviors toward unfamiliar dogs in both very young and middle-school children.
What To Do If You Are Expecting A Baby
- Try not to change your dog’s routine too much before or after the baby arrives. If necessary ask a family member or friend to help exercise your dog while you are in hospital and once your baby is home as you may not have the time to do this.
- Getting the cot, pram, high chair and other baby related equipment out several months before the baby’s arrival can help your dog grow accustomed to the new things gradually, rather than having to deal with everything new at once.
- There are several sound cds available that have baby and children noises on them. These can be played at a low level in the month before the baby comes so that your dog becomes accustomed to normal baby noises. (Clix – Noises & Sounds – Therapy CD For Dogs)
- It is a good idea to teach the dog to settle on a rug or blanket on command and stay there so you have more control.
- Dogs want to be a part of the family in the same way they were before the baby arrived. So instead of keeping the dog completely away, create barriers with playpens and baby gates, so the entire family can be in the common areas of the home together.
- If your dog currently has free run of the whole house but you are planning to prevent access to some areas once the baby arrives, you need to start training your dog to this new routine at least 4-5 months before the baby’s arrival. Rewards for being where he or she is supposed to be will help enforce this.
- Buy an Adaptil diffuser or collar as it may help your dog to be more relaxed about the changes happening in the hope. This should start a few weeks before the new baby arrives.
- On the day you come home with the baby, the new mum should enter the house first and greet the dog and perhaps have a little play session. After a short while the baby can be brought in and introductions can begin. Hopefully the dog will just ignore the new arrival completely while he or she focuses on the owner that has been away.
- Closely supervise your dog around your new baby and provide calm, quiet praise when he or she behaves properly. This could be as simple as the dog calmly sniffing the baby’s clothing or blanket or enjoying a toy in the same room as the baby. You should praise this behaviour with a soft voice and a gentle stroking. By praising your dog, you are reinforcing that the baby is a positive thing.
- Remember to NEVER leave your dog alone with your baby even for just a minute.
Links and Resources
Dogs Trust Learn With Dogs, contains some fun interactive games for kids
The Canine Commandments by Kendal Shepherd is a book that has been written with children in mind and explains how to get along with dogs without getting bitten by them.
Dr Sophia Yin a great resource for insights into dog behaviour