When it comes to children and dogs, some people boast about how their dog tolerates their baby crawling on them, pulling their ears or grabbing their feet. Our dogs seek out our son’s attention and that attention usually comes with some rough love from his little baby hands. I’m constantly holding his hand and showing him how to gently pet the dogs. Even though our dogs don’t seem to care when he is rough. However, the problem is while they can tolerate a lot, should they have to?
The answer is really, a very certain “no”. Many dog bites happen from dogs who “never showed any signs”, but the problem is many times those signs are often misunderstood or not even seen. Simple signs like yawning, tensing up, licking their lips or looking away can easily get missed. Even more signs go misunderstood by well meaning parents. While dogs can show affection by licking, they can also be showing discomfort when they frantically lick a baby or child. It can be a way of trying to communicate a discomfort in a very appeasing way – “Please, I don’t mean any harm, but can you leave me alone.”
Recently the internet was a buzz with images of kids standing on dogs while they reached the sink. The supporters said, “the dog is so good natured, if he didn’t like it he would move.” But the reality is that dogs have such a strong desire to please that sometimes they won’t move. The dog may be under stress in that situation and a simple trip could send the child falling on their dog and cause a reaction from the dog that no one wants. Is the dog tolerating it? It seems so. Should they? No.
A few weeks ago a video circulated of a little girl feeding a pack of dogs. Again the question of can or should circled around in my mind. Sure the imagery was impressive in what the family can do with their dogs, but should they? Should a little girl be barking orders at a pack of dogs, while they are in an aroused state around food? Should she be dumping a pile of food on the floor for the dogs to share? Should she be patting a dog on the back end while the dog is eating? Is this safe? In no unquestionable terms, my answer is no. It’s not. It’s a situation that no one should be trying to achieve. There are just too many things that could go wrong. Maybe not with that pack of dogs, as the owner boasts, maybe they are perfect. However if that situation went bad – it would go very bad, very quickly.
Can the child do this? It appears she can. Should she? No.
Older children can participate in caring for dogs, absolutely. The participation should be safe, gentle and controlled. If you want your child to participate in feeding your dog, ask them to put food in the dish and then you give the dog the bowl. When they get older you can practice your sit stays with your dog, have your child place the bowl down several feet away, then come to you and give the release command. Together you can leave the dog in peace to eat their dinner. When helping you feed your dog, your child needs to be calm, relaxed and able to follow direction to keep them safe. If this is not possible then your child is not ready for this task.
Testing a dog’s tolerance has no place in a home that is safe for kids and dogs. As a parent your job is to set up every interaction so both dog and baby enjoy it. Here’s some guidelines:
(1) Always give your dog an option or a way out. Never force your dog to stay or participate. If they are leaving, there is probably a reason. If they were truly enjoying the interaction, they would stay.
(2) Model gentle handling to your children. Rough play, corrections and barking commands are things that you don’t want your child to imitate when interacting with your dog – so don’t do those things yourself.
(3) Give your dog opportunities to smell, see and watch an infant with the infant safely in your arms. Let them approach on their terms, in their time. Don’t force it. If your dog is unsure offer praise or rewards for calm behaviour around the baby – lying at your feet while you are holding the baby or even peacefully sleeping across the room.
(4) Never, ever leave a child or infant alone in a room with a dog. Baby gates are for more than just staircases. Use a gate to section off an area or room in the house where your dog can go if you have to leave the baby to use the washroom or get the laundry.
(5) Learn more about clicker training! There are lots of fun games that children can play with your dog using a clicker. It will teach the child a lot about learning and patience – as well as offering the dog fun ways to earn rewards from your child and see them as a leader.
(6) Supervision of a child and dog is not just being in the same room as the dog and child. It is being within arm’s reach of your child and carefully monitoring your dog for stress signals.
(7) If you are not 100% sure what a dog’s stress signals are, you have to take the time to learn. I highly recommend the book “On Talking Terms with Dogs” by Turid Rugaas (available in at the Haus), Dr. Sophia Yin’s site, the Dog Decoder app or look for videos on “Calming Signals” on YouTube.
Dog and babies can enjoy great relationships. You can trust your dog around your baby or child, but that does not take away the need for supervision and knowledge on the part of the parents to ensure your dog is in a situation they should be in, not just one they can be in.
So always ask yourself “Should I be asking this of my dog?”
Ayella Grossman BSc
Owner of BauHound Haus Inc.