In some ways, this is a continuation of my hypothetical dread post about Pyrrha’s phobia of children. Many thanks to everyone for your kind comments, advice, and anecdotes. You are the best.
I feel that there are three types of dogs, when it comes to interacting with children: (1) dogs who inherently adore children, (2) dogs who tolerate children, and (3) dogs who are afraid of (dislike) children.
The most important caveat of these types, however, is that ALL dogs, regardless of type, can be provoked to bite or to otherwise harm a child. It can be hard for many people to believe this about their beloved family dogs, but it’s a vital fact to remember for those who keep children and dogs under the same roof.
Bo, who acted as my surrogate dog before we got Pyrrha, was the definition of Type 1. He worshiped children! On the pedestrian mall, he wanted to greet every child he saw, especially the small ones, probably because they were the ones most likely covered with food remnants. He is also a golden retriever, a breed famous for its adoration of all humans, regardless of degree of knowledge. I feel that most stable dogs are Type 2, which is nice. Many dogs can coexist peacefully in a home with children, even if they aren’t naturally magnetized toward them. Eden, from my best observations, is Type 2. She’s interested in children and wants to greet them. Eden doesn’t show any fear of children but neither is she naturally attracted to them (any more than she is to other strangers). Pyrrha, sadly, is Type 3, as are many dogs whose fears span a wide range of beings/things.
Despite these categories, I feel that many parents (especially those of young children) treat ALL dogs as if they were Type 1 (i.e., naturally in love with children). And even if the dogs are Type 1, I see many parents abusing the tolerance of their dogs by letting their children manhandle the dog, hurt them, stress them out, threaten them, etc.
I am often appalled by the photos that circulate on social media of “cute” baby/dog photos, often with the dogs showing extreme calming signals and distress with totally unaware infants draped over them. Such photo ops are downright dangerous. They are NOT adorable, under any circumstances. Even in these vintage photos in this post, only the first dog (that scruffy, cute terrier-looking pup) seems happy to be with a child; his mouth is open and relaxed. The Boston terrier with the boy has a hard mouth and does not look pleased, and the mix on his hind legs with the girl (below) would clearly rather be doing something else. Dogs and Babies has a great post of appropriate child/dog photos; you’ll notice that they are very different from the most popular ones circulating on Pinterest, which tend to treat dogs as props.
If and when we have children, here are some basic guidelines we plan on observing.
- Supervise, supervise, supervise! I’d never leave a small child unattended with any dog. Ever. Dog bites can happen in the blink of an eye, and that is not a risk I’m ever willing to take.
- Watch for stress signals/calming signals in the dog and take action to remedy the situation. Does the dog dislike the fact that the baby is crawling in its direction? Remove the dog to a place where it feels calm, or vice versa, redirect the baby.
- Create havens for dogs to retreat to. For us, these are the dogs’ crates. Our dogs like their crates and we treat them as sacred space. Kids won’t be allowed to tease or poke at dogs while in crates, and the dogs will always have free access to their crates when they need a break.
- Be alert for resource guarding scenarios, in which the dog may feel compelled to guard its food or toys from a curious child. Never let a child approach or touch a dog while the dog is eating.
- Never put the dog in a compromising situation. Even if my dog tolerates a baby pulling its ears or climbing on its back,
- Look for ways to create positive interactions. Pair baby interactions with positive associations for your dog. A wonderfully simple way to do this is food. Babies are messy eaters, and dogs generally love this about them. As an another example, my friend Catherine has an adorable video of her toddler playing fetch with their lab/shepherd mix, Ava. Her daughter, who recently learned to walk, was playing a rudimentary game of fetch with Ava; she’d pick up a ball and throw it, and Ava would politely pick it up and drop it at the child’s feet. Ava was clearly not stressed about the interaction, and it was a great example of a dog and very young child interacting in a way that was safe and fun for both parties.
These are just some ideas. And perhaps another reason I’m not jumping at the gun to procreate is that all of this sounds exhausting. I’m not surprised that parents of young kids who also have dogs just don’t have the time or energy to do these things. It takes a lot of work. And dogs naturally become neglected when a baby enters the household. It’s a sad reality, but there it is.
Importantly, I am not a parent yet, but my husband and I have plans to have children at some point in the future. I am thankful to be aware of these resources now, before we have kids. Furthermore, this research informs the way that I help kids interact with my dogs and help my dogs interact with kids. Supervision is so key, and there seems to be so little of it in dog/child relations. The dogs will always be an important part of our family, and I think it’s only fair to them to treat them with dignity and respect — and in so doing, you are protecting the safety of children. It’s a win-win!
Do you have kids in your home? How do your dogs interact with children? What are some of your success stories?
Resources for Parents Raising Kids and Dogs
When it is time I follow the black dog
into the darkness that is the mind of day
I can see nothing there but the black dog
the dog I know going ahead of me
not looking back oh it is the black dog
I trust now in my turn after the years
when I had all the trust of the black dog
through an age of brightness and through shadow
on into the blindness of the black dog
where the rooms of the dark were already known
and had no fear in them for the black dog
leading me carefully up the blind stairs
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Merwin! Who can be compared with thee?
I feel like I can say this here and be heard with compassion and understanding, even though I still feel afraid to say it.
I want to tell you my biggest fear, the potential moment that causes me the most dread and anticipated heartache.
So, biggest fear: I am afraid that if and when we have children, we won’t be able to keep Pyrrha.
I can barely even write about this without wanting to cry, but it’s been weighing on my mind and heart lately — even though I still think we’re a few years away from having children.
Pyrrha is extremely afraid of children, especially small ones. This has been a long-standing phobia of hers. The first family that adopted her returned her to the rescue after just a few days because of her extreme fear of their small children, which had the potential to slide into aggression. Without my intervention, I think she could have bitten several children, and she has already nipped my cousin, which I saw as a serious warning (it was not playful). She is overly interested in toddlers, and not in a sweet way, but in a way that makes me extremely nervous, so much so that she is always crated behind a closed door if there are small kids afoot. I cannot trust her in any environment in which children are loose. Kids themselves are unpredictable, but her behavior around them is not encouraging. She is able to coexist in a room with calm, quiet kids over the age of 8 or 9, so long as they don’t try to interact with her, but that seems to be her limit.
I adopted Pyrrha heart-first, not thinking very rationally that we’d probably have children one day and that her phobia of them could pose a problem. I wasn’t even thinking about the future when I saw her; all I saw was a sweet, shy, beautiful dog who needed a home, and I said YES and didn’t think anymore about it.
Practically, I am thankful that we have great resources, in our trainer and in her connections to behaviorists, who could help us navigate the perils of simultaneous child- and dog-rearing. I think Pyrrha could learn how to adapt to a home with noisy, scary little humans, but she wouldn’t be happy in such a home — and we’d have to really limit her life and interactions with the family to keep a child safe. And I don’t know if I could live with myself, seeing her so removed from our lives. Naturally, this is all very subjective and hypothetical, but I don’t think I’m overstating my fears — or hers, for that matter.
If I’m honest with myself, Pyrrha is one of the main reasons I haven’t wanted to have children. Because I know how unhappy they would make her.
The thought of having to give Pyrrha to someone else, to a stranger, KILLS me, as much as I’d feel if I had to give my own child to a stranger. Furthermore, the thought of surrendering her back to her rescue, who would slap a shock collar on her as soon as they could, makes me want to pull a Beloved. Yes, really. (English majors will get this reference? It’s too dark/sad to explain…)
Obviously, I’m not going to make any decisions about her future before we have children. Who knows? Maybe the miraculous will happen, and she’ll be able to coexist in a household with small kids. I don’t even want or expect her to like children, because I don’t think that will ever be possible; I’d just want her to feel happy and secure and have the wherewithal to remove herself from stressful situations. Naturally, we’d protect Pyrrha AND our potential child. But part of me wonders if it would be possible to do both simultaneously, as I’m not sure Pyrrha would ever be happy in a home with small children.
I don’t think I’m looking for any answers, necessarily, but I’m always happy to hear counsel. This makes me heart feel so heavy.
Man and Dog
Who’s this—alone with stone and sky?
It’s only my old dog and I—
It’s only him; it’s only me;
Alone with stone and grass and tree.
What share we most—we two together?
Smells, and awareness of the weather.
What is it makes us more than dust?
My trust in him; in me his trust.
Here’s anyhow one decent thing
That life to man and dog can bring;
One decent thing, remultiplied
Till earth’s last dog and man have died.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Good old Sassoon! Remember reading him in English class? All those sad poems about WWI? I like this one much more than the battlefield ones. (And isn’t that photo of Sendak and his dog sweet? He had German shepherds all his life, apparently.)