Kids and Dogs

A Parent’s Guide

Starting off with the right expectation
Though your rescue dog may have been around small children, it does not automatically mean she will like all children. What it does mean is that she may have had positive experiences with small children. She needs time and patience and consistent supervision to build a trust in her new home, with her new owners and with the new children in her life. This trust will allow her to feel secure, loved and confident. Take it slowly. She wants to please and will want to please you.

The best way to make this happen is to reinforce her vocabulary every day, exercise her, praise her lavishly when she does things you like and be consistent. You are responsible for establishing the acceptable interactions between your new dog and the children she will be exposed to. Supervise closely and NEVER leave a child alone for any length of time with a dog. Not with your dog, not with any dog — especially during the transition period into her new home. As her alpha (leader), you will be giving your new dog cues immediately on what behavior is acceptable. As her new owner, it is your job is to show her.

Allow space and time to get comfortable
Initially when your new dog enters your family home, encourage the children to let her explore her new surroundings quietly — on her own. Discourage them from chasing her or following her every move. She needs to not feel trapped or cornered. Dogs that are nervous or sense they are trapped feel threatened and may snap out of fear. Given the freedom to explore, and the space the time to do so, she will soon gain confidence and trust in her new environment. The goal is for her to gain enough confidence to approach family members on her own. Minimize the petting and touching until she appears calm and submissive. Give her a chance to get comfortable, to approach you and the children for attention.

How to pet and give affection
Dogs tend to see very small children as other animals, not as humans. This is why there can be problems in households with small children and dogs. With time, she will likely have a bond with your children. But that does not mean you should not take precautions. As much as possible in her first few days, sit the children in a quiet place — in your lap or on the sofa — and let the dog approach to “say hi.” When she does, if the interaction goes well and her face is happy and her tail wags, praise, praise, praise. “Good girl to say hi, Ginger.” If she is tentative and only approaches slowly, sniffs a bit then turns away, she is still a good girl to say hi. The second example would merely indicate she is not yet totally comfortable and feels the need to exit quickly to “safety.” This is normal. Give her time. You should see her approaches become more frequent, with less prompting by you, and you should see her body language get more and more relaxed.

Let her come up to the child repeatedly, but at her own pace. This also allows you to supervise how the child touches the dog, which should NEVER be by pounding on her head. Practice little circle touches on her upper shoulder or back. No hitting. No hair pulling. No head butting. To a dog, these are all threatening gestures. Talk to your children about gentle touches, praise them for doing it properly. When your kids touch the dog gently, praise your dog as well. “Good girl to let Kate give you a pet/touch.”

Another gesture that seems innocent but can be interpreted by a dog as a threat is a hug around the neck. Do not let your child or any small children hug your dog around the neck. Hugs are not appropriate for young children with any dog.

Giving treats
Because dogs tend to love treats and tend to get excited at the prospect of getting one, little fingers can be accidentally nipped by a dog’s mouth. Prevent this by having the child put the treat in an open hand (palm up) to give it to the dog. Practice your dog’s command for “now you can take the food.” Say, “Deesh” and let her take the treat. Using her Deesh command will slow her down from taking the treat too fast and reinforce to her that anyone giving her a treat is a higher rank than she is — whether it’s mom, dad, the kids or a stranger. Making her wait to take the treat will help her understand and accept her place in the pack, which is now your family.

Parental supervision of play…………always
Children tend to be unpredictable. They make sudden movements. They are jerky and their screams can reach very high-pitched levels. All these actions are highly stimulating to a dog, and may seem like invitations to jump in the action. She may begin to jump around and get overly excited. She may jump on the screaming child or accidentally knock him over.

To minimize unwanted rowdiness, teach the children to play quietly around the new dog. They should not chase her. They should not hit her with their toys. As a matter of fact, their toys are not her toys. And her toys are not theirs. If you catch your dog with one of the kid’s toys, don’t yell. Don’t make any gesture like you would strike her. Simply use a calm tone, walk over and say, “Ginger, no, that is not your toy. Drop it.” Gently remove the toy from her mouth. IMMEDIATELY give her one of her own toys. If she resists, trade her: one of her toys for the one in her mouth. “Good girl to give or good girl to drop.” Praise her again. “Good girl to play with your toy, Ginger.” This exchange works in reverse if one of the children has one of the dog’s toys. They are not theirs. Take the toy from the child and replace it with one of his/her own. Until the dog and children have developed a trust and a bond, the kids should not be taking toys away from the new dog. You supervise the toys and reinforce whose is whose.

Do not let the children or any child stare into your dog’s face, or the face of any dog. That also is a threatening gesture, how one dog challenges another to fight. Because small children are often at eye level with the dogs in their home, this staring behavior by the child can cause serious problems. The child thinks it’s a game, the dog thinks it’s a challenge and instinctively, may bite.

These are simple precautions that can prevent a dog from misreading a child’s intent and protect the child from an unwanted defensive reaction by the animal. As an adult, you must be close by and you must always be watching carefully.

Establish toys and possessions
Coming into a brand new world, your dog will not know what is hers and what is yours. She will not be able to distinguish between appropriate items and inappropriate ones. Help her out on this. Show her what her toys are, where they are, praise her for going to them, using them, playing with them, etc. Immediately correct her if she gets one of the child’s toys or things……if you see it happening. You cannot correct the dog for a mistake after the fact. All she will glean from a punishment or correction an hour after she chews up one of the kid’s toys is that you are mad at her. She will NOT make the association that your frustration is because of a toy. This can eventually make her fear you, though it would not have been your intent. So always correct at the time a behavior is witnessed. Approach her calmly, say no, this is not yours, and give her something appropriate to have. Be persistent. Be consistent. Don’t let her have the child’s toys for weeks then decide they are off limits. She will not understand. Have a game plan and stick with it.

Don’t let her have items of clothing or shoes or old toys that would confuse her. Think how she is responding to her new rules. If it looks like this, I can have it. If it looks like that, I can also have it. Your dog cannot distinguish between a brand new pair of shoes and an old beat up pair. Therefore, in this example, she gets NO SHOES to play with. The same applies to the kids’ old toys. She cannot tell what is old from what is new. The best prevention here is removal of anything that looks like she might be interested in chewing. Best to remove items and avoid the situation all together.

Dogs tend to be possessive about their food, their toys and their possessions. As leaders of her pack, you are entitled to touch or have anything of hers. Initially, to resist your taking something away from her would be natural, but not acceptable. You are the boss, her alpha. There are training exercises to teach a dog to give it, drop it, take it………………should your dog exhibit possessiveness over her things. What you should not do is test this basic instinct with a child. Keep the child away from her food, in particular while she is eating. Do not let the child approach the dog asleep. She may startle, growl or even snap simply out of fear. Eventually, she will get to know the smells and noises in the house and be much less likely to startle if approached while sleeping. The children need to learn to respect her space while she sleeps and leave her undisturbed. You must enforce this.

Proper toys for your dog
Toys for dogs vary widely, and in particular they vary by breed. Good toys are tennis balls and tennis ball-like toys (rings, dummies, etc.) provided she does not shred the covering and eat it, and Frisbees. Other good toys are the hard rubber toys she can chew on, the Kong-type toys that you can fill with treats, Nyla bones and others. Some dogs can handle playing with stuffed animals, some simply tear them apart, which is dangerous because they ingest indigestible filler that can be fatal. Watch for destruction of toys and remove any toy that poses a danger to the dog’s health.

Do not give the dog rawhides or bones around the children. Rawhides can bring out the basic survival instinct in domestic dogs [ie, protecting my kill (the bone)]. Family pets can turn into biters when a child approaches if it has a bone or rawhide nearby. It is an instinct, not an emotion. For this reason, do not give your dog or any dog around your children bones or bone products. Caution is always the best approach when children are involved. There are many other products your dog can have to fulfill her need to chew.


Facts and Suggested Reading Materials

Every year nearly 2.8 million children are bitten by a dog. Boys are bitten nearly twice as often as girls, and children between 5 and 9 years old are the most at risk. Most of these bites come from a dog that belongs to the family or a friend. Sixty-one percent of dog bites to children occur in a familiar setting: at home or at a friend or relative’s home. *
*This information comes from the CDC’s 1998 National SAFE KIDS Campaign.

“Living with Kids and Dogs . . . without losing your mind” by Colleen Pelar.

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