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Dogs and Children: How to Make Sure Your Kids and Dog Get Along

Updated on March 12, 2011
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Most people are familiar with situations where someone had to find another home (or a shelter) for a dog that did not get along with a new baby or a child. The dog was too “hyper” and jumped up on a little one, or the dog became possessive or grumpy and started snapping at a kid. Then there are the horror stories: baby mauled by the family dog, children bitten by a dog that had never bitten before, infant killed by a puppy. The truth is that most of these situations could have been prevented, if the dog’s owners had followed some safety guidelines. Rehoming situations, too, are generally preventable and a few procedures can usually keep trouble from brewing, allowing Fido and Junior to both stay happily in the same house.

1. First, and most importantly, never ever, for any reason, leave an infant or small child in the same room alone with a dog. This includes dogs that you think are completely well behaved and would never bite or dogs that you think are too small to be a danger. Think how much damage even a Chihuahua puppy can do to the leg of a coffee table or to an electric cord. Babies are so much more fragile and vulnerable, and tragedy can result, even if the dog is generally well behave and is just playing. Dogs may not equate an infant with an adult human. Flailing legs and arms, warmth, a milky smell, and high-pitched noises can trigger the prey drive of many dogs, regardless of their breed or their behavior toward other people.

In addition, small children often squeal and run in fear or play roughly with a dog, which prompts the dog to chase or bite. Even when the dog is only goofing around, it may knock down small children, resulting in everything from bloody knees to a life-long fear of dogs. My first Labrador retriever came from a rehoming situation as a result of this very issue. Someone had gotten a lab puppy for his four-year-old daughter for Christmas. Unfortunately for him (but fortunate for me!), he had not stopped to think about the rambunctiousness of a lab puppy, and the puppy kept bowling the child over. Direct supervision and teaching the dog not to jump up would have prevented the need to find the dog a new home.

2. If you are bringing a new baby home, make sure you give your dog plenty of affection during this time of transition, but also make sure he continues to follow the household rules. Some dogs that have little experience with infants are actually afraid of babies, and others can become jealous of the time and attention a new little person in the household garners. Do not start letting him “get away with things” just because you feel sorry that he is receiving less attention, or, more likely, because you are sleep deprived and too exhausted to want to deal with it. If the dog is afraid of the baby, do not force the dog to get near. Keep a happy, upbeat attitude and voice tone (difficult to do when running so short on sleep, I know!), and try using some favorite treats when the baby is in the room. In time, he will adjust and become more desensitized and less frightened of the baby. Again, do not leave the dog and child unsupervised, as some dogs may bite out of fear.

3. Consider signing Fido up for some good, old-fashioned, puppy kindergarten or dog obedience classes. Obedience classes can reinforce your position of authority, train your dog to respect boundaries, instill some confidence in a more timid dog, and overall help to teach acceptable behavior. Dog training classes will also teach you how to teach your dog. They help you learn to control your dog’s behavior and replace negative behavior with acceptable ones. In addition, positive reinforcement with treats or play can go a long ways to helping your dog learn to respect a child, and will increase your skills in guiding your dog’s behavior.

Most communities have many dog trainers advertising their service, and you may not know which one to choose. If you are unsure, one of the best ways to find a good dog trainer is to call your veterinarian and ask for references. The vets are usually well connected in the local dog community and can point you in the right direction. Another place to find a referral is at the local dog park. Look for well-behaved, responsive dogs with responsible owners and start asking whom they recommend. People are generally happy to share enthusiastically about trainers they love. Finally, you can ask at some of the local “doggy daycares”, though be aware that some of them have their own trainers, which you may or may not want to use.

4. Fourth, do not let your dog become the head of the pack. If Fido is growling when your child approaches the couch that he thinks is his throne, for example, Fido needs to be dethroned very quickly. It is important for every family dog to know that he is not the head of the household, whether that dog is a tiny Yorkie or a giant Mastiff. Small dogs that are allowed to get away with unsociable behavior can develop “Small Dog Syndrome”, which is a clever way of saying the dog is spoiled and thinks he is the boss. Large, guarding dogs can be “harder” and challenge dominance. Either way, it is vital that the dogs know to defer to humans. While a tiny, growling dog may be amusing in some situations, children often ignore what dogs want in favor of their own desires, and if the dog is trying to boss the child around, the dog may snap to get the child’s attention.

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5. Fifth, teach your child how to behave around dogs. Children should know to leave a dog alone if that dog moves away from them. Dogs that walk away from children are sending a signal, and children should respect that, whether they want to or not. They should also learn that a growl means, “Leave me alone!” in no uncertain terms and be able to recognize the growl as a warning. They should know not to pull fur, grab tails, or squeeze too tightly. Toddlers, for example, no matter how well meaning or gentle the child, often cannot resist giving that hair a tug. And children who are still in the “everything goes in the mouth” stage have been known to take a bite out of a wagging tail. Children should also know not to ever put their face in the dog’s face or to abruptly wake up a sleeping dog. If your child is too young to understand and responsibly follow these directions, then he or she is too young to be left alone with the dog.

6. Make sure your dog has a safe, familiar place to retreat. In the wild, dens are secluded and private, representing security and a place to hide. In a modern household, a crate may be the best option for giving your dog his own free-space. My dogs sleep in a kennel, and when they need a break from my active toddler, they are quick to duck into their bed. Even as a toddler, my child has learned that when the dogs are in the kennel, he is to leave them alone, whether he wants to or not! The child has to learn to respect boundaries just as the dog does.

7. You may need to keep them mostly separated until the child is old enough to learn to behave appropriately around dogs, especially if you have difficulty getting your small child to leave a grumpy dog alone. This may mean putting the dog in a crate or behind a baby gate at times, or putting the toddler in a playpen while you wash those dinner dishes. While both may protest at having some freedom removed, I have learned that keeping my child and my dog safe trumps their desire to run uninhibited around the living room!

 

8. Finally, learn all you can about dogs, dog training, and dog behavior. Take the time to pick up a book or two about your dog’s breed or about positive dog training. Then read it from cover to cover! Another source of excellent information, and one that won’t cost you a penny, is online communities, such as Dogser or breed specific forums. These types of sites are made up of experienced dog owners who are able to give veteran advice and are an excellent resource for learning about dogs and dog care in general. Reaching out to an experienced community, sharing your particular circumstances, can give you direct feedback and suggestions about your particular issue and help you avoid common new owner mistakes.

Children and dogs go together like peanut butter and jelly, and many of us have a furry friend to thank for warm and happy memories of our childhood. If you want the same for your kids, take the time and effort to teach both of them how to get along. Then watch the memories grow.

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