Kids and Dogs

The formula for keeping children and canines safe is simple: Parents need to be attentive, assiduous about management, and quick to separate them at the first sign of the dog’s discomfort.

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These days, it seems that every time someone posts a picture on social media of a child with a dog it is immediately followed by a spate of posts expressing horror at the anticipated savage attack likely to follow.

Granted, some of those photos do, indeed, show dogs displaying body language signals that suggest a significant amount of discomfort at the proximity of the child, and real potential for injury. But many of them also, in my opinion, depict normal, healthy interactions between dogs and young humans.

Dogs and kids have been happy buddies for centuries. While dog bites to children are nothing new (I was bitten by a stray puppy at age five, in 1956) we seem to be much more reactive to them as a culture than we used to be. When did we become a society so phobic about any dog/kid interaction? And, perhaps more important, how do we help people recognize and create safe, healthy relationships between dogs and children?

It’s Not Cute, It’s Abuse

There is a truly horrendous video on YouTube of parents encouraging their very young child to abuse their Rottweiler. The child runs over to the dog, who is lying on the floor, climbs on his back, hugs him violently – and when the dog gets up to try to move away from the abuse, the adults call him back and make him lie down for more child torture. Meanwhile the child has lost interest and walked away and the parents insist that he come back and interact with the dog more.

This time the dog is lying on his side, and for the remainder of the two-minute clip the child climbs on and violently bounces up and down on the dog’s ribcage; grabs his jowls, cheek, and nose; and puts his face directly in the dog’s face, all the while with encouragement and laughter from the parents. Through it all, the dog is giving off constant signs of stress and distress – whale eye, panting, tongue flicks, gasping for air, and more. (If you really want to see it, we made a shortcut to a copy of the original video that someone captioned with notes about the dog’s warning signs: tinyurl.com/WDJ-abuse.)

This should be prosecutable child endangerment as well as animal abuse. Someday, if the incredibly tolerant Rottweiler has finally had enough and bites the child, the parents will be aghast. “We don’t know what happened – he was always so good with little Bobby!” And if the defensive bite is serious enough, the dog is likely to lose his life as a result . Meanwhile, if the child tries this incredibly inappropriate behavior with a less tolerant dog (which would include most dogs on the planet), he’s likely to be very badly bitten, and again, the unfortunate dog might easily pay with his life. What were these parents thinking?

A commonly quoted statistic states that some 4.7 million dog bites occur in the U.S. annually, with 42% of the victims age 14 or under.

As staggering as though those numbers may be, and as sensational as the “Dog Mauls Toddler” headlines are, they are also somewhat misleading. A very large percentage of those millions of bites are relatively minor, so the situation isn’t nearly as dire as it first appears.

Still, even one preventable child-mauling incident is one too many, and many of them are, in fact, quite preventable.

Supervisor Needed

Supervision of interactions between dogs and children is, indeed, critically important, at least until it is crystal clear that the child and dog are safe together. The “You must supervise kids and dogs!” mantra has been repeated so many times I would be surprised if there’s even one parent in the Western world who hasn’t heard it.

But here’s the rub: A significant number of kids suffer from dog bites even when the parent or other caretaker is directly supervising the interaction. If “supervision” is the holy grail of dog-kid interactions, how does this happen?

It seems that, over the years, as we trainers and behaviorists have repeated “Supervise, supervise, supervise!” until we’re blue in the face, we have somehow neglected to do a thorough job of helping parents and caretakers understand exactly what they are looking for when they are supervising.

It’s not just about being present, it’s also about watching closely, preventing the child from interacting inappropriately with the dog, and watching the dog for body language signals that communicate some level of discomfort with the child’s presence and/or interactions.

Upper Level Management

Management – controlling your dog’s enviroment and access to unsafe or undesirable things or practices – is a vital part of any successful behavior and training program. With kids and dogs, it’s even more critical. When you aren’t able to actively supervise (no TV! no texting!), you must manage. The price for management failure is simply too high.

A DICTIONARY OF CANINE STRESS SIGNALS

  • Anorexia Stress causes the appetite to shut down. A dog who won’t eat moderate- to high-value treats may just be distracted or simply not hungry, but refusal to eat is a common indicator of stress. If your dog ordinarily likes treats, but won’t take them in the presence of children, she is telling you something very important: Kids stress her out!
  • Appeasement/Deference Signals Appeasement and deference aren’t always an indicator of stress. They are important everyday communication tools for keeping peace in social groups and are often presented in calm, stress-free interactions. They are offered in a social interaction to promote the tranquility of the group and the safety of the group’s members. When offered in conjunction with other behaviors, they can be an indicator of stress as well. Appeasement and deference signals include:
    • Lip Licking: Appeasing/deferent dog licks at the mouth of the more assertive/threatening/intimidating member of the social group.
    • Turning Head Away, Averting Eyes: Appeasing/deferent dog avoids eye contact, exposes neck.
    • Slow movement: Appeasing/deferent dog appears to be moving in slow-motion.
    • Sitting/Lying Down/Exposing Underside: Appeasing/deferent dog lowers body posture, exposing vulnerable parts.
  • Avoidance Dog turns away, shuts down, evades touch, and won’t take treats.
  • Barking In context, can be a “distance-increasing” stress signal – an attempt to make the stressor go away.
  • Brow Ridges Furrows or muscle ridges in the dog’s forehead and around the eyes.
  • Difficulty Learning Dogs (and other organisms) are unable to learn well or easily when under significant stress.
  • Digestive Disturbances Vomiting and diarrhea can be a sign of illness – or of stress; the digestive system reacts strongly to stress. Carsickness is often a stress reaction.
  • Displacement Behaviors These are behaviors performed in an effort to resolve an internal stress conflict for the dog. They may be performed in the actual presence of the stressor. They also may be observed in a dog who is stressed and in isolation – for example a dog left alone in an exam room in a veterinary hospital.
    • Blinking: Eyes blink at a faster-than normal rate
    • Nose-Licking: Dog’s tongue flicks out once or multiple times
    • Chattering Teeth
    • Scratching (as if the dog suddenly is very itchy)
    • Shaking off (as if wet, but dog is dry)
    • Yawning
  • Drooling May be an indication of stress – or response to the presence of food, an indication of a mouth injury, or digestive distress.
  • Excessive Grooming Dog may lick or chew paws, legs, flank, tail, and genital areas, even to the point of self-mutilation.
  • Hyperactivity Frantic behavior, pacing, sometimes misinterpreted as ignoring, “fooling around,” or “blowing off” owner.
  • Immune System Disorders Long-term stress weakens the immune system. Reduce dog’s overall stress to improve immune-related problems.
  • Lack of Attention/Focus The brain has difficulty processing information when stressed.
  • Leaning/Clinging The stressed dog seeks contact with human as reassurance.
  • Lowered Body Posture “Slinking,” acting “guilty” or “sneaky” (all misinterpretations of dog body language) can be indicators of stress.
  • Mouthing Willingness to use mouth on human skin – can be puppy exploration or adult poor manners, but can also be an expression of stress, ranging from gentle nibbling (flea biting) to hard taking of treats to painfully hard mouthing, snapping, or biting.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders These include compulsive imaginary fly-snapping behavior, light and shadow chasing, tail chasing, pica (eating non-food objects), flank-sucking, self-mutilation and more. While OCDs probably have a strong genetic component, the behavior itself is usually triggered by stress.
  • Panting Rapid shallow or heavy breathing – normal if the dog is warm or has been exercising, otherwise can be stress-related. Stress may be external (environment) or internal (pain, other medical issues).
  • Stretching To relax stress-related tension in muscles. May also occur as a non-stress behavior after sleeping or staying in one place for extended period.
  • Stiff Movement Tension can cause a noticeable stiffness in leg, body, and tail movements.
  • Sweaty Paws Damp footprints can be seen on floors, exam tables, rubber mats.
  • Trembling May be due to stress – or cold.
  • Whining High-pitched vocalization, irritating to most humans; an indication of stress. While some may interpret it as excitement, a dog who’s excited to the point of whining is also stressed.
  • Yawning Your dog may yawn because he’s tired – or as an appeasement signal or displacement behavior.
  • Whale Eye Dog rolls eyes, flashing the whites of his eyes.

Even if your dog adores children (and especially if she doesn’t!), management and supervision are vitally important elements of successful dog/baby/child-keeping. There are a staggering number of serious child-bite cases (and fatalities) where the adult left the room “just for a minute.”

That’s why dog training and behavior professionals are well-known for repeating the warning, “Never leave dogs and small children together unattended.” This means, not for a moment. Not while you take a quick bathroom break, or run to the kitchen to grab a snack. Even if the baby is sleeping! Take the dog with you if you leave the room where the baby is sleeping or the child is watching a video. Put the dog in her crate. Shut her in another room.

 Training

Of course, you want to do everything you can to help your dog love children. Even if you don’t have small humans of your own, your dog is likely to encounter them at some point in her life, and things will go better for all involved if she already thinks kids are wonderful.

Ideally, every dog should be well socialized with babies and children from puppyhood. Many young adults adopt a pup at a time when children are, if anything, a distant prospect, without thinking about the fact that kids could easily arrive within the 10 to 15 years of their dog’s lifespan. Even if there will never be children in the dog’s immediate family, chances are she will encounter small humans at some point in her life. By convincing her very early on that children are wonderful, you greatly reduce the risk that she will ever feel compelled to bite one.

If an adult-dog adoption is in the works and there will be (or are) children in your world, remember this critically important caveat: Dogs who are going to be around babies and/or children must adore kids, not just tolerate them. A dog who adores children will forgive many of the inappropriate things young humans will inevitably do to dogs, despite your best efforts at supervision and management. A dog who merely tolerates them will not.

Teach Your Children

Safe child-dog interactions start with teaching children – even very young children – how to respect and interact appropriately with dogs. If a child is too young to grasp the information, then the supervising adult must physically prevent the child from being inappropriate.

Babies and toddlers often flail their hands at new or exciting stimuli – like dogs. Not surprisingly, many dogs are likely to find this quite aversive! When young children are introduced to dogs, the adult needs to hold the child’s hand(s) and guide them in appropriately using their hands to touch the dog appropriately (gently and slowly) and without any flailing.

It’s equally important to teach children that dogs are not toys to be treated roughly. Even if your family dog tolerates – or even loves – being hugged, allowing your young child to hug your dog can prompt her to hug the next dog she meets – with possibly disastrous results. Until your child is old enough to understand that some things that are okay with your dog are not okay with other dogs, you are far safer not allowing her to do those things with your dog, either.

Ideally, engage your child to assist with your dog’s training at the earliest possible age using positive reinforcement-based methods that teach your child the importance of cooperation and respect, so your child learns how to interact appropriately with other sentient creatures. At the same time, you will be strengthening the positive association between your dog and your child.

Watch that Body Talk

Any time your dog shows any sign of being uncomfortable with your child’s presence, you must separate the dog and child to protect them both. Of course, in order to do this you must understand dog body language well enough to recognize when a dog is expressing discomfort.

People often say, “If my dog could only talk…” They actually do communicate! But their mode of communication is body language – and too few humans take the time to learn that language, or “listen” to what the dog is telling us.

In the sidebar below, we share  some different ways your dog may be telling you she’s uncomfortable. This is an extensive list, albeit not necessarily a complete one. Study it, and then watch your dog for any of these behaviors, both with children present and absent. Any time you observe stress signals from your dog in the presence of children (or elsewhere!) it’s wise to take immediate steps to reduce her stress.

If, while you’re managing, supervising, and training your dog around kids, you’re having trouble determining what your dog is trying to tell you with his body language communications, ask a force-free dog training professional to help you. It could save your dog’s life. And your child’s.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Just watched that video of the Rottweiler and the toddler. It’s horrendous!! It can only be hoped that the appropriate child and animal welfare authorities will see it and act accordingly!

  2. I totally agree with everything on here, I am not a trainer, but I have spent a lifetime reading and observing my dogs with my kids and grandkids. Whenever dogs are present I have tried to train my grandkids to respect their feelings and space. We always have them hand feed them, from the time they are puppy’s, we teach the dog and kids the appropriate way to interact. No jumping on them, pulling their hair, yelling in their face, even ruff play, like rough housing, getting the dog all worked up and growling, treat them with respect. We do encourage healthy play, the kind the dog enjoys but won’t learn to be aggressive. Even then I am still on constant watch for inappropriate behavior. I also teach them, mistreating a dog in anyway is unacceptable. I teach them why they shouldn’t treat the dog that way, not just don’t, I explain to them that if they mistreat a dog and get bitten, it is their fault for not listening and watching for their discomfort. They are dogs after all. We have, so far, in my many years of having dogs as pets, been successful in raising dogs that absolutely love children. In fact our big dog, a pit bull mix, allows no aggression whatsoever. Even from other dogs. My kids all have small dogs and they bring them over when they come, we have sometimes, my 2 and 5 other dogs here all together, we are even asked to dog sit from time to time. One time, my granddaughter who has very long hair, was laying on the floor and she was showing how her dog grabs and pulls her hair like it’s a toy, my big dog Emma was on the couch, she very slowly gets off the couch and walks towards them, her little dog, immediately stopped. Then Emma returned to her spot on the couch. I explained to my granddaughter, if Emma, another dog, thought it was inappropriate behavior, she shouldn’t let her dog do that. Emma allows no rough housing from the kids or other dogs, she is always gentle with policing, she either gets between them or licks them until they stop, again I am ever vigilant. I interpret her actions for the kids until they learned them. Emma loves kids and is extremely tolerant and protective of them. We had another pit mix before Emma, that was the same way. However we were vigilant in teaching both the dogs and children in our lives the correct way to interact. We also have a Lhasa apso mix, she too, loves kids. When we were going to the shelters looking for a small dog, we took 2 of our grandchildren, I wanted to see how the dog reacted to children, before we adopted. The safety of my grandkids is always my first consideration, you don’t want to start out with a dog that is afraid of kids. I am happy to say we made a great choice, Bella has always loved kids. We have kept it that way, by teaching them to respect each other. I am sharing my experience only to give others some insight. Something I always appreciate. That’s why I read your articles!

  3. Ugh! What are a lot of parents thinking?!?!?! I received a call not long about about people who wanted to give up their Great Dane. The dog had “bitten” their child. The bite was very inhibited (the child didn’t even need medical intervention). Come now, I Great Dane biting a 3 year old? That dog could have killed the child if he’d wanted to. I asked what happened. Of course, the parents were encouraging the child to continuously take toys out of the dog’s mouth, to stick her hands in the dogs’ food, they would put her on the dog’s back to “ride” the dog, etc. etc. etc. I was so angry! And all this dog did was an inhibited bite! I tried my best to stifle my irateness at these parents and tried to explain that thier child was old enough to begin to learn how to interact a dog. I got yelled at for trying to tell these people how to raise their child. The dog came into rescue and he’s a real sweetheart. Because of his history, he was adopted to an adult-only home, but I would have felt fine adopting to a home with children if the parents are responsible parents and take the time to a) supervise the interaction between child and dog, and b) teach the child to interact appropriately with the dog. On the other hand, I was speaking to some adoptors who adopted a dog from us. They have a very active 3 year old boy (yes, we will adopt Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds to appropriate homes with children; some rescue groups won’t, but we do because a wonderful home is a wonderful home, whether there are children in it or not). During our conversation, the mother excused herself to go tell the three-year-old that pulling the dog’s ears wasn’t appropriate and that it hurt the dog and she suggested a better way to interact with the dog that didn’t hurt the dog. There was no yelling, no screaming (at either dog or child), there was no crying on the child’s part. Just a mother being a responsible parent. I knew then we’d made the right decision to put that dog in that home. That dog stayed in that home and was well loved until he died at a very ripe old age.

    • I am glad you have faith in people with kids that they will do the right thing and teach their kids the right way to interact with dogs. I, however, do not share your sentiment as I do not agree with placing any kind of big dog/high prey instinct dog in a home with small children OR small dogs.

      Just my opinion.

  4. Junie and my great-niece adore each other… until great-niece begins to cry. Then Junie gets very distressed and I have to crate her.

  5. I have a rescue catahoula mix that I adopted at 5 months old and who is now 3. She is very afraid of kids and I have to be very aware and keep her at a distance when kids get too close. She will not hurt, but as she is a herding dog and people are so very sensitive these days, I’m deathly afraid that if a child gets too close or wants to pet her (since she is only 40 pounds and seems so cute and gentle) and she either shows her teeth or goes to snap that they’ll take her away from me, even though she hasn’t really hurt the child, but mostly has scared him or her. So, this is a long way of asking, how to you train a dog not to do that around kids if you no longer have one? My daughter is now 19 years old and my dog adores her (even more than me), but I’m so afraid that even with good supervision that my dog, Hazel, will get me in trouble or worse, have her taken away from me. Where and how can I find training for how to deal with kids, especially when she’s on the leash? (She can lunge at a child if they get too close.) She seems to have less anxiety off the leash, but I don’t want to take that chance.

    • Wendy – getting your dog comfortable around kids can be SO challenging, I had this problem with my shephard/pit mix. She was a rescue and I was told that the previous family had a lot of kids and they would rough house her quite a bit because they were “playing” with her. The parents clearly did not keep a very good eye on this behavior so I had to try and get her trust and understand her triggers, as well as make her have confidence in me regardless of if I was right next to her or not!

      One thing that I did was find a good online course to do so (without having to break the bank with a personal trainer. I came across this course that was (fairly) cheap compared to any trainer I could find. It seemed weird to try a course, but I figured it may be a big game changer for the long run – so I gave it a shot. I’m sure there are a lot of good long-term focused courses our there you could try, but I used this one: shorturl.at/efrRV

      If you give it a shot I’d love to hear if you find the same success as I did with it! Adrienne is a licensed trainer and my little girl is doing SO good now with obedience, confidence, and trust around other people in general and my little cousins! Hope it helps 🙂 Good luck!!

  6. Totally agree with you. I recently saw a video on Pinterest of a corgi in a big swimming pool with a rope tied to it’s collar pulling a huge floating pool toy with another corgi on the toy. The first corgi was not having a good time. I want to say stop it right now, this is not funny. You are putting your dog in danger. It’s so frustrating and I feel incapable of being able to help.

  7. I have been a nurse for 22 years and live in a very rural area. I work in a transfer center where we get calls to move patients from one hospital to another for care. We get dog bites on and off and 99.9% of them are human error. They are about 75% children and when you get the whole story it is because the child has pulled, hit, stepped, pushed, poked, or taken something away from Ruffy. I will say that I am not a big fan of most children in today’s world because 90% of the parents in this day and age do not teach them right from wrong. Most parents have their noses buried in their phones ignoring what is going on around them. I love my dogs, my animals, and feel that they deserve to be respected and treated with respect. Always have. I do not think that any animal should be put to sleep because they are defending themselves, their home, or their person(s). I also think that any person who deserts their animals anywhere because they are moving, pregnant, bored, or any other reason is as horrible as an abuser. I have done a lot to keep and take care of my Furbabies and would expect nothing less from any other Human Being!!!

    • Amen, Sunny! I agree wholeheartedly!! Infuriates me when folks desert their pets for one reason or another! Would they give their children away because they’re moving??

  8. This article is right on point and hits a lot of important points! On top of taking away awesome points mentioned in this article, I actually started an online course tailored to helping train my dog obedience, commands, and listening skills. The course is from a registered trainer and has been a game changer! You can find it here if interested: shorturl.at/efrRV, it has helped me and I just hope to help someone else – especially when it comes to dealing with your furbaby being around your children! 🙂

    Thanks for the great read!!

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