Teaching kids and dogs how to behave with one another

Click for source.

NOTE: This is a piece I wrote a while ago, and since I don’t have any good photos of Pyrrha or any good updates lately, I thought I’d post it to start a conversation. Pyrrha is pretty scared of children, especially infants and toddlers, and this is an area I really want to work on with her. I welcome your thoughts, comments, and advice! — Abby

Despite what this adorable picture suggests, in general, kids are pretty terrible with dogs.

Kids like to tease dogs. Even if they’re just babies and unaware of what they’re doing, kids like to mess with dogs. They like to stick their hands in the dog’s eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. They like pulling the dog’s tail. They like riding on the dog’s back. They like squeezing dogs around the neck to express affection, even though the dog interprets this as invasive and frightening. This doesn’t mean that kids themselves are terrible. They’re often unaware of what they’re doing and how to read a dog’s body language.

Kids have a tendency to freak dogs out, for all the reasons listed above. Kids are really noisy. Their body language can be erratic and unpredictable to a dog. They like to get right up in dog’s faces, in their food, in their beds, on their backs. It’s no wonder that many dogs are afraid of children and that many, unfortunately, lash out in fear-based aggression.

But dogs, undoubtedly, bring (most) children an immense amount of glee. Even babies will light up at the sight of a dog. It always warms my heart when I see this. And there are many dogs who seem to love nothing more than children. (Bo is one of them: He drags me after strollers and runs up to every kid we see, beside himself with excitement, or with the prospect of food crumbs on grubby faces.)

There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that dogs and kids were “made for each other,” but that’s not always the case, and the majority of dogs AND kids need to be taught how to behave around one another. So how do we train them to behave well with each other? It’s not something that exactly comes naturally to either species.

TRAINING KIDS

As someone who doesn’t have kids, I often worry about those parents who don’t train their kids well with regard to dogs. I have responsibility for training my future dog how to act around kids; I expect that parents have the responsibility to train their children how to act around dogs. When we’re out walking, I can’t tell you how many times parents have let their little children run up to Bo to pet, squeeze, or hug him, without so much as a glance at me or a question if my dog is even friendly toward children. Thankfully, Bo is wonderful with kids, as I mentioned before. But what if he wasn’t?

I always walk Pyrrha very carefully around playgrounds and around people with young children. Thankfully, we haven’t had any parents let their tots run up to us (and I think this has a lot to do with breed; Pyrrha looks “scarier” than Bo, the golden retriever, does) and if a kid wants to pet her, they usually ask first. But this certainly wasn’t always the case with Bo. Parents would let their little children run right up to him without asking me.

But: Have you ever had to intervene in a situation between children and your dog? What would you tell the parents, perhaps by way of educating their kids?

Karen London posted a great short list of things she tells children about dogs, covered by the funny but true heading: “Don’t lick the dog,” from Wendy Wahman’s picture book for kids. That book sounds like a great resource for any parent of young children. I feel like I should buy a bunch of copies to hand out to parents on the downtown pedestrian mall here…

The Lab babysitter. Click for source.

TRAINING DOGS

One of Pyrrha’s last remaining big fear thresholds is little children. We seem to have ameliorated her previous big fear, which was greeting other dogs, and she hasn’t snarled or raised her hackles at a dog in two months. I consider this a huge victory! But the kid thing is another issue entirely.

Pyrrha is OK with kids who are calm and move slowly. This, unfortunately, is not many children. She’s submitted to attention from older children, perhaps 5-7 years of age, and she doesn’t seem bothered by pre-teens or teenagers.

It’s the babies and toddlers who really make her anxious. This is, obviously, a really difficult thing to work on. I wouldn’t let my infant around a German shepherd who was scared of babies, and I always keep Pyrrha removed and completely controlled when she’s in the presence of small children. So what do we do? How do I work on exposing her and acclimating her to this fear? It’s not like you can ask an infant to work with you, to make all of its movements calm and controlled, to stop squealing erratically.

She once growled at a toddler who tried to come near her. I removed Pyrrha from the situation and put her inside. It was a scary and disheartening moment. I want a dog who’s OK with little children. But how do we get there?

For those of you who adopted an adult dog, how did you expose your dog to kids? How can we help Pyrrha overcome her fear of small children, without endangering babies or eclipsing Pyrrha’s fear threshold?

As always, I’m very open to your suggestions!

Waiting her out

Downtown mall walk
Sniffing around Court Square.

Last Wednesday, Pyrrha and I took a long walk downtown–to visit Guion at work, and just to get out and stretch our legs for a few hours. I love these long, quiet walks with her. I feel like my mind is able to unwind after a day at work. I love watching her gain confidence on our walks, with her mouth hanging open and her tail swishing back and forth.

On our way downtown, we encountered a woman and her gorgeous malamute/shepherd mix. He had the coloring and build of a light sable wolf, although he was about Pyrrha’s height. As they approached, Pyrrha tucked her tail and bared her teeth at the dog. I started to apologize to the woman, but she said, “He used to do that all the time, too,” pointing to her handsome dog. I was surprised. He looked so calm and friendly.

We started talking, and it turned out that she’d adopted Chino about three months ago and he’d made great progress since then. I loosened Pyrrha’s leash as I talked to the woman. We discussed rescuing, our shy dogs, and the progress they gradually make. Throughout this conversation, Chino was placid and unconcerned by Pyrrha’s toothy display–and, as I was relieved to note, his human seemed to be equally nonplussed.

Downtown mall walk
Nearing the downtown mall.

Perhaps two minutes passed, and suddenly Pyrrha’s tail unwound; her hackles released; and she threw down a goofy play-bow in front of Chino. He responded in kind, and then the two were happily romping along the sidewalk (while we were trying to keep them from darting into the road). She even started kissing his ears. My dog, in a state of utter fear just a minute ago, was now smitten with this stud of a canine. We had to actually drag them apart, so we could continue on our merry way.

As I walked away, I turned to Chino’s human and said, “Thank you for waiting her out. That means a lot to me!”

I explained. Most dog owners, when they see Pyrrha’s lips curled back in fear and those bared teeth, gasp and run in the opposite direction, trailing their dogs behind them. I don’t blame them. A German shepherd in that posture is a fearful sight to behold. Because of this, however, Pyrrha rarely gets to move beyond that threshold of fear into that state of initiating play. Most people aren’t willing to wait it out.

But Chino’s lady was–and I was so grateful to her for that. Pyrrha needs all the positive dog-on-dog interactions she can get. They are hard to come by. I hope we’ll continue to run into Chino and his person, so my girl continues to learn that there isn’t anything to be afraid of after all.

Have you ever been grateful for someone–even a stranger–who understood your dog’s special needs?

What I’ve learned this week

Sweet puppy
Bo on a hot day. Source: Me

What I learned this week: Don’t walk a dog down an extremely crowded pedestrian mall on a 95-degree afternoon.

I should have thought more carefully about this one. Even though it was very hot, I was enjoying my weekly walk with Bo on Saturday. We usually walk through the downtown mall–a bricked walk through a row of shops that runs seven or eight blocks–and so I wasn’t thinking very clearly about it as I crossed over the bridge.

When we reached downtown, I was wondering why it was so crowded. Then I remembered that the big photography festival was concluding and all of the lectures and galleries centered around the mall. That’s why the streets were packed.

Poor Bo was a good sport for most of the walk. He was greeted by a friendly Frenchman, who whispered to him in French. He sat politely when a little girl came up to him and kissed him. He even voluntarily sat down–as I’ve trained him to do on our walks–when he saw other dogs approaching.

However, as the heat wore on and the crowds pressed even closer, Bo had had enough. I paused for a minute to greet a friend and when I turned around, Bo was lying on the ground, head between his paws. He looked at me imploringly, as if to say, “Do we have to go any further?” Poor thing. He was not going to budge. I stroked his head, spoke kindly to him, apologized for putting him through this hellish afternoon. But he didn’t care; he was done. I felt kind of terrible and tugging on his leash wasn’t accomplishing anything. The dog weighs almost as much as I do and there was no way I could carry him home.

Thankfully, I remembered that I still had a liver treat in my pocket (something that was not lost on him) and thankfully, this was a dog who was highly motivated by food. I pulled it out, waved it briefly in front of his nose, and he looked up and slowly picked himself off the ground to follow me. In this manner, we successfully made our way out of the mall and back to his home.

Overall, Bo handled the afternoon well. He is a submissive dog, but not shy; he wants to greet everyone and every moving thing. However, I think the noise and pressure of the crowds, plus the heat, were overly taxing even for this friendliest of all pooches. I was also worried about the hot asphalt on his paw pads, so we tried to take the most shady and grass-lined routes. All in all, not our most successful walk, but he’s an extremely forgiving companion, as far as I can tell.

I couldn’t help but wonder, though, what people do to exercise their dogs in sweltering climates. Even though I’m sure it was good for him to have an hour-long walk, he didn’t seem to enjoy it very much because of the heat. Do you live in a humid, hot climate? If so, how do you keep your dog fit and physically happy in the summer? I’m all ears!