Most children LOVE dogs. We all love dogs! But not all kids are dog-friendly. (Did you know kids may or may not be dog-friendly?) Whether you’re a parent, a dog owner or both, you’ll want to sit, stay and shake hands with the idea of teaching children how to interact with – and love- the dogs they meet.
“Can my son pet your dog?”
Those words are some of the most stressful a dog owner can hear.
The answer can be complicated.
I don’t know, can he? Is this little boy going to actually pet my dog? Will he scream or yell? Is he gentle? Will he accidently step on my dog’s feet? Does he know how to pet a dog correctly? Will he try and hug my dog? How is my dog feeling about things right now? Is she calm? Is she anxious? Is she tired or full of energy? Are there things happening around us that are distracting?
Even under the best of circumstances, even with a dog that has the patience of a saint around children, things can go wrong.
I will never forget the time a mom with a little girl who looked to be about three or four years of age, approached Chloe and I at a trailhead. They politely asked if the little girl could pet her. And they stood back and waited for an answer. All good signs of parents raising their children to respect dogs.
Time for me to do a quick evaluation. You see, Chloe is very hesitant around small children – you’ll understand why in a bit. Over time, she’s come to be more trusting and is comfortable with a pat on the head.
Chloe was pretty tired out from the hike we just finished and her body language was calm. I gave my permission.
The little girl approached very sweetly and calmly…and then proceeded to reach out, grab Chloe’s ear and pull!!!
Dog-friendly child? Nope!!!
It still amazes me. With the immense amount of safety information we have from the likes of The American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations, most parents STILL want to lay all the responsibility for good child-dog interactions on…the dog.
Children are not born dog-friendly. With very few exceptions, it’s the rare child who innately “gets” animals and can connect with them on their own terms.
And dogs are not born child-friendly. As much as we love them like our own kids, they are first and foremost animals. It’s amazing, actually, that our two species can live, work and play together in the ways we do!
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Truth be told, our media gives a very unrealistic portrayal of dogs. Disney-fied, anyone?
Children and parents watch movies and television programs where dogs can sit, shake, roll over, wash the dishes, save you from a burning building and protect you from the evil villain – and be your best friend no matter what.
Holy Heck – no wonder our expectations are sky-high!
Another reason kids (and parents) can interact inappropriately with dogs?
Kids are often not dog-friendly because of cultural entitlement. Roll your eyes, but it’s true!
Personal story here. I had a friend (okay, young friend) who came back from a festival. She was mad because there was a dog in attendance she reached out to pet. The owner asked her not to touch his dog. Her response? “I can’t believe that! Why would you bring a dog out in public if people can’t pet it!”
Ohh – the stories we have! I could fill up a book, like:
- The time we were chased around an outdoor market by two moms, strollers and crying toddlers who wanted to pet Chloe…
- The countless children who asked to pet her but didn’t wait for the answer…
- Kids on the hiking trail who simply reached out to touch her when they walked by…
And finally, sometimes kids are just kids.
They can be thoughtless and sometimes unintentionally cruel. Young children don’t have the maturity to control their impulses and may act out to create a dangerous situation.
Which brings us to why Chloe is gun-shy around small children. Here’s the sitch…
When she was just about a year old, Chloe and I were on a neighborhood walk. As we rounded a corner, a group of about six children, none of them over the age of five, spotted us and began running straight towards us, screaming and yelling “Dog! Dog!!”
Chloe, of course, was completely overwhelmed. Imagine having a pack of small, face-level, screaming animals coming directly at you as fast as they could. She panicked and began barking, while I quickly tried to get us across the street (assuming the kids wouldn’t try to cross a street without a parent – and where WERE their parents, anyway?!?)
Luckily, the children didn’t try and cross, but they followed along with us on the other side, screaming “Bad dog!! Bad dog!!” and barking at us. Chloe was barking, lunging in fear while I attempted to get us out of there.
We eventually saw an adult outside the house the children came from. He was totally ignoring what was going on. He might have been laughing, but I’m gonna give him the benefit of the doubt that I mistook his look. Maybe.
As a side note, it took over six months for Chloe to be able to walk down that street without being on constant guard. That incident formed an impression in her canine mind that children were scary and dangerous. It took lots of effort to work through this fear.
This reminds me so much of a passage from the book One Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith.
No, not the movie but the book. If you’ve not read it, it is a delight and has much more insight into dog behavior than the Disney version. In the passage, Pongo has just been injured by a young child who teased him with the promise of food and then threw a stone at him. He is determined to go back and bite the child! But Missus (called Perdita in the movie) responds:
“No, Pongo, no!” cried Missus, horrified. “Remember, he is only a very young human. All very young creatures are ignorantly cruel – often our dear puppies hurt me badly, not knowing they were doing so. To bite a human is the greatest crime a dog can commit…”
So parents and dog-owners, are you willing to step up to the plate? Here’s some quick and easy things you can implement and think about.
Parents – how can you help your kids be dog-friendly?
- Be real. Kids love Paw Patrol. But yep, your kids have to understand the difference between movie-dog and real-life dog. Stuffed animals don’t have sharp teeth.
- Model. It’s up to YOU to show your kids how to interact appropriately with animals. Explain that every dog is different. Not all dogs will be as friendly as your own dog.
- Personal space. At home with young children, supervision is key with your dog. For older children, try this. Kids are taught about personal space. Apply that teaching to dogs. Explain that dogs need their space, too.
- Stranger danger. Kids understand how that works. But explain to them when they meet a new dog, THEY are the stranger. Mind blown for some kids.
- Safe touch/unsafe touch. Again, our kids get that concept. It can be applied to the dogs they meet. Show them that dogs can feel very unsafe in certain instances. Some touches can feel okay (chest rub) and some feel unsafe (over the head, etc.) Quick movements and loud noises can make some dogs feel unsafe. Ask your child to imagine how they would feel if a stranger came running and yelling at them.
- Respect. Asking permission to pet a dog is one thing. Respecting the answer, whether it is yes or no, is also part of the deal. Just as important: do not tell your kids “That is a MEAN dog” if the owner says no. That owner was helping to keep your child safe.
- Exceptions to the rule. Your kids need to understand that no matter how much they love animals, no matter how “good” they are with dogs, they cannot be the exception to the rule if the dog’s owner says no. I know, it can be heartbreaking to some kids. But no is no.
- Expectations. Better than asking to pet a strange dog is NOT expecting to be able to interact with every dog you see. Teach your children to admire dogs from a distance. They should never expect they have the right to interact with a dog.
- Read. Dog body language, that is. Teach your kids and yourself to interpret how dogs talk with their body and energy. Dogs are communicating with us all the time. Make it a fun game to figure out how they’re feeling.
- Parents, this is on you, but… ask yourself: just because the owner said yes, do I really want to risk my child possibly being bitten by a strange dog with an owner I don’t really know? Is it really worth it?
Dog owners, what can you do?
- Empathize. Weren’t expecting that, were you? Frustration is easy if you are put on the spot when kids approach. Remind yourself why they want to see your dog. They probably love dogs as much as you do.
- Evaluate. You know your dog’s behavior better than anyone. But do you know the child’s behavior? Again: is it worth the risk of what could possibly happen if your call is wrong?
- Redirect. Not comfortable with letting a child interact with your dog? Or is your dog not comfortable with kids? How about saying, “Jackson doesn’t really like to be pet. But he LOVES to: do tricks for you/have you toss him a treat/wave to you, etc.
- Educate. If you have time and the situation allows, consider talking to a child that is not understanding boundaries or dog-appropriate behaviors. Keep it simple. Some kids just need dog skills.
- Step in. Run across a persistent child that is not dog-friendly? Step between the two of them and remove yourself and your dog from the situation. Don’t worry about hurt feelings.
- Expect respect. You have every right to be out in public and not be approached by people who want to interject themselves into your space. You wouldn’t run up to a child and give her a hug and say, “Oh, you’re so cute! I LOVE kids!!” You could get arrested for that! You and your dog have the right to not be bothered.
Want more good info? Check out the following…
Dog Body Language poster from Dr. Sophia Yin