We love the idea of kids growing up with or around dogs. But what seems like a match made in heaven can become a source of stress and anxiety. I receive a lot of questions in my classes about the best way to make interactions between kids and dogs as positive as possible. Challenges occur when dogs are nervous or hyperactive with kids, and when kids haven’t learned how to interact in a calm and respectful manner with dogs.
Why is it important for kids to interact with dogs in a calm and respectful manner?
There are 4.5 million dog bites reported every year in the United States, and approximately half of those reported bites are directed at children. The majority of dog bites occur in the home with a dog that belongs to family or friends. Toddlers in particular can be unpredictable with dogs. They might grab lips, ears, hair or tails. They may try to lay on top of a dog, take the dog’s toy, or chase nervous dogs into small, confined spaces. All of these interactions can test the tolerance of the most patient dogs. The goal is to set the stage for healthy, predictable interactions between kids and dogs at different stages of child development, let’s look at a few different ways we can make that happen.
Teach Your Kids to Understand Dog Body Language.
The same body language applies to petting.
Dog bites can happen when we decide to pet a dog, but ignore their body language. Dogs are more likely to bite when they’re not feeling well physically or emotionally. If a dog is experiencing an upset stomach, an undiagnosed ear infection, or if they are feeling stressed or nervous with noise or activity in the environment.
Any dog can bite. To reduce risk of dog bites and to promote healthy relationships between kids and dogs it’s important to teach kids to read, recognize and respect what your dog is trying to communicate.
Before we jump into the next exercise, let’s start off with some simple facts.
- Not all dogs want to be pet.
- Most dogs do not like to be pet on top of their head.
- Respect your dog’s individual preferences, there’s no benefit to forcing unwanted attention.
- Petting can be contextual. This means your dog’s preferences may change depending on the time, place and person. We’re the same. Sometimes we want a hug, and sometimes we don’t. We might value a hug from a trusted friend, but feel uncomfortable being hugged by a stranger. And sometimes we just want space. Dogs are like that too.
- If a dog says “no thank you” to petting – don’t take it personally.
Try this next exercise.
If you have a dog that enjoys petting, and seems comfortable with your kids – try this next exercise. You can also take a mental note of this exercise and apply these concepts the next time you or your kids meet a social dog at a family member or friend’s house.
Sit down with your kids and invite your dog to approach. If your dog approaches you can gently pet their shoulder or beneath their ear. Stop regularly and see what your dog says. If your dog steps forward or nudges your hand they are most likely saying “yes, more petting please.”
If at any point your dog backs away, licks their lips, pulls their ears back or tucks their tail – these are nervous behaviors. Teach your kids that this is your dog’s way of saying “no, thank you.” The same would hold true if they showed any hesitation or reluctance to approach in the first place. It’s ok for your dog to opt out. This is your cue to move on to a new activity.
Reading to Your Dog.
Set up a reading space where you can sit with your kids and read stories to your dog. Older kids can practice their reading skills by reading familiar books. This is a great calming activity for young or excitable dogs, and it’s a great trust building exercise for nervous dogs. Encouraging this activity can also help kids develop a more positive attitude towards reading. In the end, it’s a win-win for everyone.
Have your dog wait on a training mat or platform while your kid hides a high value piece of food. It’s important to pick something that your dog loves. Once the item is hidden you can have your kid walk back to your dog and say “Find it.” Then encourage your dog to find the hidden item. You can play a similar game with one of your dog’s favorite toys. Beatrix loves search games that involve her blue dumbbell. If your dog doesn’t have a solid “wait” or “stay” you can keep your dog on a harness and leash instead. Start with easy finds and gradually build up in level of difficulty as your dog shows you they understand the game.
Next, I want to show you different games that are well suited to different age groups. A 4 year old will need games with simple rule structures that focus on easy to understand concepts. As kids grow they will be able to practice games with multiple steps and advancing mechanical skills. You might even find that these games will improve your dog’s ability to walk on a loose leash, or teach your dog to be more reliable at coming when called. I’m a big fan of fun training games with real world carry over.
Kids love the idea of training with dogs. And it’s easy to understand why, as one of my kids once said “it’s like we speak the same language!” And this truly is the best part of training – the more you do, the closer you become, especially if you are implementing positive reinforcement based methods. That being said, it’s important that adults spend the time training with dogs first. Once the training is well rehearsed it can then be generalized with kids with a much higher level of success.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to teaching kids how to train with a dog is that they are quick and erratic in their movements. This is especially pronounced if kids are nervous about a dog taking food from their hand. It’s important to respect each individual’s comfort level and find an exercise that meets everyone’s needs and abilities.
“Hopping Lily Pads” – A game for ages 3 to 5.
Young kids, ages 3 to 5 will love this training game. I call it “Hopping Lily Pads.” Show your little one how to deliver treats one at a time on a Lily Pad. These are actually called Poly Spots that are commonly used for kids in athletic programs. Have your kid deliver 3-5 treats at each Poly Spot. Then call out a new color and have your kid move to the next spot. The reason this game is so helpful is because it teaches kids to invite dogs to approach them, instead of advancing on their space. Interactions should always be posed as an invitation, never forced. Delivering treats to a spot will also promote confidence in kids that might be nervous about delivering treats directly to a dog’s mouth. This is also a great idea for dogs that might be uncertain or “grabby” when taking treats. The Poly Spots create a physical target that will make the rules of the training easier to understand. A parent or guardian should actively supervise these interactions so that they can offer guidance as necessary.
A game for ages 6 to 9.
Older or more confident kids, ages 6 to 9, may do better with moving exercises. Set the Poly Spots in a line about 2-3 feet from a fence line or wall. The Poly Spots should be spaced out at 4 foot intervals. Your kid can walk from Poly Spot to Poly Spot, stopping at each one. Once your kid stops, your dog will likely stop also. Have your kid deliver food to your dog when they stop. It doesn’t matter if your dog is standing or sitting, as long as your dog has four paws on the ground. This exercise encourages calm, indirect body language and will improve trust and communication between dogs and kids. You may also find that this exercise can carry over to a better connection and synchronization of movement when out for walks or on a hike.
Hide and Seek.
Another fun game is to show your dog a favorite treat, and then hide. This is a variation of the search game we talked about earlier. Be careful not to do this with kids that are nervous with dogs, or dogs that are nervous with kids. Some kids might find it scary to have a dog dashing in their direction. And dogs might become scared if kids unexpectedly jump out from a hiding spot.
Toddlers and young children should be actively supervised whenever they interact. Make sure that your dog has access to safe spaces where they can relax without the constant worry of kids interrupting their naps or forcing unwanted petting. Sit down and talk to your kids about what it means to give a dog space when napping or resting. Baby gates can provide peace of mind when you are on a phone call, preparing food or if you are unable to actively supervise for any reason.
There are 4.5 million dog bites reported in the United States every year, half of those bites are directed at kids. Those bites are predictable and preventable. We can make this better – so if you find the information in this video helpful, please share it. Teach your kids to be more aware of what your dog is telling them through body language and behavior, and encourage others to do the same. Harmonious interactions between kids and dogs is all about planting seeds of respect and kindness early on. It takes time, patience and understanding, but there is nothing more beautiful than watching those relationships flourish.
If you liked this video and you want to learn more about positive and effective methods to address behavioral issues in dogs, check out these playlists. These playlists provide insights into behavior modification training for dogs that exhibit anxious, reactive, hyperactive or aggressive behavior.
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