So, you’ve socialized and trained your new dog, and you may be under the impression he or she is up for anything, but even the best-behaved animals may be challenged by young children. The last thing you want is to have your dog responsible for permanently disfiguring a child. Here’s our guide to keeping everyone safe when you introduce your dog to small children.
The younger the child, the less likely they will know how to treat a dog nicely. If you know ahead of time that you will be soon introducing your dog to toddlers, you might want to find a somewhat older child before the event to give your dog some practice.
Always start a new experience with a fence or baby gate between your dog and the child. You never know what trauma your dog may have experienced with children before he or she came to live with you, so it’s best to be overly cautious at the beginning.
Bring your dog to his or her side of the fence, then ask the school-aged child to approach slowly and quietly from the opposite side. Watch carefully to gauge your dog’s response. Is he leaning forward in anticipation or backwards in fear? Is his tail high and wagging with excitement or between his legs? Has he raised the hair on the back of his neck or raised the sides of his muzzle to show his teeth? Both are signs of aggression.
If your dog appears to welcome the child’s presence, have the child put the palm of his or her hand flat against the fence or baby gage and allow the dog to sniff it. Again, watch your dog’s reaction.
If your dog has done well with the fence-line interaction, you are ready to try a closer introduction to the child with no barrier. However, you will still need to keep the dog under close control by using a short leash. Have the dog sit or lie down, then pull up most of the slack in the leash so the dog will be unable to lunge or jump on the child. Ask the child to enter your home or yard, again being calm and quiet.
Ask the child to present his or her hand to your dog, palm down with the fingers curled in so the dog cannot easily tear them off. Once the dog has sniffed the child’s hand, and if the dog appears to want the interaction to continue, the child should scratch the dog’s neck area, then slowly work either up and around to the top of the head or down toward the belly.
Some dogs are head shy and do not appreciate anyone reaching toward the top of their head. Always start with the chin and work your way to the top of the head or down to scratch the tender and vulnerable belly.
If all previous interactions have gone well, your dog is now ready to have unobstructed, unrestrained access to the older child. Walk your dog a short distance away from the child, then remove the leash, and ask the child to call the dog.
Stay close by and encourage your dog to keep all four feet on the floor while the child pets him or her. A big dog, especially, can cause real damage by knocking over a child. Ask the child to play with your dog with a favorite toy or to give the dog a treat.
Make sure the child offers the treat flat on his or her palm, not holding it between fingers and thumb. Your dog most likely cannot see past his nose to distinguish between the treat and the child’s fingers.
Assuming your dog has done well with the older child, you’re now ready to introduce the dog to toddlers. However, you may need to spend some time educating young children on proper behavior around dogs. Of course, you will educate them about not pulling hair, ears, or tails, but it goes beyond that.
Children need to know to keep their hands and faces away from the dog’s mouth. They also need to understand that squealing, running children look very much like dinner to a dog who has a high prey drive. Teach young children to sit quietly and let the dog approach them until you see how things go.
Lastly, depending on the size and age of your dog, you may need the child to take special care to avoid hurting your dog. Very young dogs can easily be injured by well-meaning, but rambunctious children. Very old dogs may just not be interested in being bothered. Out of an abundance of safety, never leave your dog alone with a child, particularly if the dog and the child are strangers to each other.
If at any point during your dog’s interaction with children of any age, the animal becomes upset or frightened, it may be prudent to decide you have an adults-only dog. Put the dog in a bedroom or leave him at home when you go visiting if children will be around. You will feel a million times worse if your dog bites a child than your dog can ever make you feel with his sad, brown “please don’t leave me behind” eyes.
Find the Best Dog Breeds for Children here.
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