Teaching kids and dogs how to behave with one another

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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!

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