An Interview with Donna Duford on Kids and Dogs

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Like peanut butter and jelly…like macaroni and cheese…like Lassie and Timmy, dogs and kids just naturally seem to go together. Still, for every heartwarming story we hear where a loyal Shep pushes his toddler out of the path of a speeding car, it seems we read about an equally bone-chilling tragedy where Cujo mauls a child.

Dog bites are responsible for a minuscule number of fatalities per year – an average of 19 per year over the last 20 years, not all of them children – compared to thousands of children’s deaths from auto accidents, house fires, and domestic abuse. According to the Centers For Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, however, non-fatal dog bites are the number one health problem for children in this country, outpacing measles, mumps, and whooping cough combined.

It is an unusual child who does not, at some point in his childhood, want a puppy more than anything else in the whole wide world, and it is an unusual parent who does not, at some point, succumb to those wishes. It’s also unusual for a child to reach the 12th grade without having been bitten by a dog on at least one occasion. Since, thank goodness, kids will have and love dogs, it is critically important for parents – and the dogs’ juvenile caretakers as well – to do all the right things to make sure they end up with a Shep rather than a Cujo.

Donna Duford is an internationally-known positive dog trainer and behavior consultant. Her dog training business, Companion Dog Training, is based in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, where she frequently sees clients with kids and dogs. Duford has a special interest in child/dog relationships, and has presented information on the subject to other dog trainers at the annual conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), a professional organization that promotes dog-friendly training and ongoing trainer education.

Duford says there are so many wonderful things that happen in positive dog/kid relationships, that it’s hard to know where to begin! “Children who have good relationships with dogs often learn about responsibility and develop great empathy for a species different from their own,” she says. “I have seen many children gain self-esteem from caring for and/or training their dogs.”

On the other hand, Duford recognizes that there are myriad ways that the child/dog relationship can turn sour. She has seen dogs with every conceivable negative reaction to children, and has been consulted by countless families to solve problems between dogs and kids in a household. WDJ caught up with Duford at November 2000 APDT meeting in Houston, where we discussed ways to train dogs and kids to build the strongest and safest relationship possible.

WDJ: What are some of the problems you see occuring between kids and dogs?

Duford: The negative aspects of the dog/child paradigm that I see most frequently are children teasing dogs, and dogs chasing, mouthing, and sometimes mounting children. The good news is that these problems are quite treatable if the family is motivated to work on them.

The worst thing I see in child/dog relationships is antagonism, deliberate or not, that results in aggression. When the family dog bites a child it is a traumatic event. It is scary, there may be injuries, and it causes great emotional upheaval for the family, not to mention financial liability.

WDJ: Clearly, the largest part of the responsibility to create good dog/kid relationships falls on human shoulders. What are the most important things that you teach parents to do to dog-proof their kids?

Duford: Dog-proofing falls into three categories: dogs in general, the family dog, and strange dogs.

To be dog-proofed, kids need to have respect for dogs, and they need to understand strict rules about dog safety. Parents should teach their children empathy and respectful behavior to all dogs.

Parents also need to teach dog safety much the way they teach fire safety – with a clear, strong message. Children need to know that they must not bother dogs when they’re eating, chewing on a bone, or playing with other dogs. They must never approach or run from an unknown dog. They should be taught to ask owners of unknown dogs if they may pet the dog, and they need to be taught the correct way to pet.

Also, all children need to know that all dogs can bite. Dog bites are serious and the topic should not be sugarcoated.

With respect to the family dog, very young children – under five years of age – should not be encouraged to hug or kiss the dog. Even if the family dog tolerates or likes it, children of this age are impulsive and not old enough to understand one set of rules for one dog and different rules for others. If a young child routinely hugs and kisses her dog, she will be more likely to try it with strange dogs, which could have devastating results. Older children can be taught, if it is appropriate, that there are different rules for the family dog and other dogs.

WDJ: Let’s turn it around. What can dog owners do to kid-proof their dogs?

Duford: Socialization to children is paramount. Building a positive association with children by exposing the dog to friendly, polite children is a great start. Playing the dog’s favorite game or giving her special food treats when children are around is even better.

Another child-proofing measure I teach all my clients is to help the dog to have positive associations with all kinds of handling. We do this by pairing various types of touching with something the dog loves, like a special food-treat or toy. This should be done systematically, starting with very gentle handling and working up to rough, toddler-like handling such as tail-pulling, hair grabbing, and poking. The handling should not actually hurt the dog, and is best done under the supervision of a qualified dog trainer.

WDJ: Are some breeds of dogs better choices for kids dogs?

Duford: This is a tough one I hesitate to classify dogs by breed. There certainly are tendencies, within breeds, but each dog is an individual and I would hate to deprive a dog or a kid of a great companion based on a generalization. Instead, I would look at temperament qualities.

Good qualities for family dogs are high sociability and responsiveness, and low to moderate energy and excitability. This is somewhat dependent on the age and number of children and the family lifestyle, of course, but you stack the deck in your favor by choosing a dog who likes people, one who actively seeks them out. A social dog chooses to be with people when given the chance. This is different from a dog who likes people but doesn’t actively engage with them.

Dogs who are responsive take direction easily and are easy to train. Energy level and excitability are especially important considerations for families with small children. Dogs who are easily aroused and have a high energy level are likely to get overstimulated by children running, playing, and squealing.

If there is one breed category I would steer clear of with young children it would be toy dogs. Bigger dogs are sturdier and will fare better when accidentally stepped on or tripped over.

Also, with young families, I usually suggest adopting an adult dog. Most families with young children do not need the extra work required to raise a puppy or adolescent dog. It is also often easier to evaluate the temperament of an adult dog and its suitability to living with children.

WDJ: What are some of the worst things a parent can do in a dog/kid relationship?

Duford: Lack of supervision is a big problem. Dogs and kids should not be left unsupervised. Even the best-behaved children and dogs slip up. Accidents happen. Forcing dogs to interact with kids is also a big no-no. If the dog doesn’t want to be with kids, she is sending a clear message.

Pushing kids to take too much responsibility for the dog is also something I discourage. Unless we are talking about a teenager, dogs should always be the total responsibility of the adults in the household. Children do not have the maturity or self-discipline to care for another being, and parents need to understand that the kids should, at best, play a supporting role in dog care and training.

WDJ: Once a dog has bitten a child, can he ever be trusted with children again?

Duford: This is a loaded question. It depends on the severity of the bite and the circumstances surrounding the incident. Some dogs are fine with the family children but not with strange children. Some dogs are wonderful with children of a certain age and not with others.

Occasionally, the dog will be fine in all situations except the one in which the bite occurred. For instance, a dog may be wonderful with the kids except when they approach the dog’s food dish. Regardless, if the dog has bitten, or even growled at a child, everyone should sit up and take notice. This is not a fluke. The dog is communicating something and there is every reason to expect that if she finds herself in the same situation she will bite again.

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.