By Courtney Emken
co-written by Jen Larson, KPA-CTP
As much as we love them, our kids and our dogs don’t always get along. It’s one thing to teach your child how to play with other children, and another thing entirely to teach them how to treat and safely play with a canine!
Of course, many children get along fabulously with dogs. It’s up to parents and trainers to ensure that their relationship stays safe, fun, and playful. With the proper training, supervision, and patience, kids and dogs can become lifelong friends.
Adult Supervision Required: Early Child-Canine Interactions
First meetings between children and dogs must be closely monitored by an adult. There are no exceptions: even for the sweetest dog or most polite toddler. Any dog, no matter how well trained, can bite if provoked.
Never allow children unrestricted access to a dog. Monitor their actions constantly, and make sure the child is appropriately handling the dog. Children can get excited and start playing with dogs in a way that’s frightening or threatening. This can cause the dog to bark or bite in response.
However, know that dogs will only bite as a last resort. They almost always send humans a plethora of signals and body language to warn us before resorting to any physical reactivity. Adults should watch for these sure-fire signs that a dog has had too much:
- Stiffening their body
- Displaying “whale-eye”
- Barking and retreating
- Attempting to hide
The dog is saying: “You’re making me uncomfortable, please give me some space.” Even if kids know these cues, they may not remember them or take them seriously enough, especially if they’re toddler-age. It’s up to the adults to remove them from the situation.
Adults need to establish firm boundaries as soon as possible. Begin with teaching children how to respect a dog’s space and how certain things upset them, like:
- Grabbing their food bowl while they’re eating
- Disturbing them during sleep
- Following them while they’re trying to get away
These may sound trivial, but they can have dangerous consequences if ignored. As we said in a previous post, our son Mason had to learn this the hard way.
Every parent with dogs should teach their children the essentials of how to prevent miscommunication with canines. This includes understanding:
Even after a child is shown proper behavior with dogs, it’s still best to have an adult on the scene. You can reinforce your previous instructions by praising both the dog and your child for good behavior, and you can make sure no one gets into trouble.
You might be wondering: “how the heck is my kid going to remember all this?” We thought the same thing too. At the Ranch, we tell children that it pretty much boils down to this: let the dog guide your interaction. The basic steps for success are:
- Don’t approach the dog, they’ll come to you when they’re comfortable
- Use gentle and calming body language and don’t startle the dog
- Speak softly and quietly, no yelling or getting too excited
- Always watch to see if the dog is getting uncomfortable, scared, or anxious
Just tell your kids to treat the dog the way they would want to be treated. It’s not fun when someone runs up and yells at you right? Well dogs feel the same way! If it’s a stranger’s dog, make sure they know that you always have to ask for permission before petting or playing.
If you want even more direction, check out this awesome infographic from Dr. Sophia Yen on how kids SHOULD NOT interact with dogs:
How To Be Safe Around Your Own Dog At Home
If you’re having trouble keeping track of where the kids and the dogs are all the time, you can manage the environment with tools like baby gates. This allows you to control who has access to certain rooms and keep the kids separated from the dogs.
A great tactic to teach kids is to “be a tree” when a dog comes sniffing. They should keep their arms down, don’t look the dog in the eyes, and stand still. When we remain still, we’re not sending any threatening signals to dogs, and they’ll go about their business.
It’s also important to know what kinds of games are appropriate for kids to play with dogs. Most are harmless, like fetch. However, games like tug-of-war can easily excite dogs and make them play rough. In fact, we recommend that only adults are allowed to play tug, and we never recommend wrestling with your dog.
When your child is playing with a dog, chasing is off-limits. Most of the time, the child finds this immensely entertaining, but the dog feels much differently. They may be trying to police that behavior, or communicating that it’s making them uncomfortable. Chasing also overstimulates dogs, which can lead to potentially dangerous situations.
Instead of these games, plan some fun activities for your kids and the dogs to participate in. For instance, take the dog on a walk and let them feed the dog treats while you hold the leash. They can ask for a sit or rollover, and everyone has a good time.
Most children love animals and really enjoy being around dogs. Teaching your child proper dog etiquette will allow them to grow up comfortably and safely alongside household pets.
If you have any questions about how we’ve managed to make our kids and dogs peacefully coexist, please contact us today. We’d love to share the tips and tricks we’ve learned.
Dog’s Ear by Donnie Ray Jones
Kid and Dog by Rob Bixby