Creating a safe home for dogs and children

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.

A toddler and a floofy-looking terrier mix

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.

Boy with a Boston terrier.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.

Two very charming faces

If and when we have children, here are some basic guidelines we plan on observing.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Never put the dog in a compromising situation. Even if my dog tolerates a baby pulling its ears or climbing on its back,
  6. 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

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2 thoughts on “Creating a safe home for dogs and children

  1. These are awesome tips & I totally agree with you about people not properly reading signs from dogs’ body language. Then they insist the dog snapped “out of the blue” and everyone involved it hurt. It’s sad that parents don’t use pets in the house as an opportunity to teach their kids to be gentle, kind and responsible. I adopted out a cat once with a toddler in the house. After a few weeks the mom told me that the cat was being aggressive towards the child and the dad wanted to give him back. A week later she reported that they were teaching her to feed the cat & pet him nicely & they were getting along great. I thought it was pretty impressive for a 3 year old kid & super awesome of the parents!

    Kaya & Norman are totally type 1 and Zoey is a type 2 but I still watch them the entire time when we have kids over. Our neighbors’ 3 little girls were over recently which Kaya & Norman found very exciting. Still, there was little things I had to do like tell Kaya when to stop licking them because she gets too pushy and excited at times. Also, we have a giant sized teddy bear that Norman was scared of when one girl walked it towards him so I asked her not to do that anymore. She easily stopped doing it & Norman commenced to licking her & lying on the floor with her & the big bear.

    It’s also scary when people think it’s hilarious to rough house with their dogs using their own hands & arms. Then dogs do the same thing to kids when they flail around & it’s the dog’s fault for biting. Or dogs that reach for the thing right when you are about to pick it up to throw it. Zoey does this & we are always very careful not to let kids play fetch with her.

  2. I find there are a couple different types of parents in this context: the smart ones, the ignorant ones (who can still learn), and the ones who will vociferously defend what they are doing with their kids and dogs as absolutely correct and nobody else can possibly know anything.

    Nearly every “cute” video or picture I see people crowing about just kind of makes me nervous instead. Your dog doesn’t NEED to play with your baby. And probably shouldn’t. So stop.

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