Kids and dogs: a match made in heaven, right? Absolutely – as long as your children are properly educated, says Caroline Applebee, a certified professional dog trainer and owner of Raising Rover in Toronto. Whether they’re approaching a dog at the park, or bringing one home as a pet, kids need to know some basic protocol and doggy etiquette to ensure everyone’s safety and happiness.
The proper doggy encounter
“With toddlers, parents should model the proper behaviour, rather than just telling the child what to do,” says Caroline. When approaching a dog, always start by asking the owner if it’s okay to say hello. (And never approach if the dog’s owner is not around.) If the owner says yes, hold your hand out in a fist, with the palm facing the ground – don’t hold your hand straight out, as the dog might see that as an invasion of his space.
Say “hi puppy” in a friendly voice, and then watch the dog’s reaction: if its tail and body are wagging, and it has a relaxed expression, it’s giving the green light. But if the dog backs away, turns its head, sniffs the ground or shows signs of mild anxiety (like licking its lips or yawning), it is probably not comfortable with being approached.
“The parent has to have a degree of comfort with the dog to allow a toddler to approach at all,” says Caroline. “Unfortunately, many dog owners are oblivious to their dog’s behaviour, so parents really need to be focused on the interaction.”
Once the dog gives the green light, children should pat with long, gentle strokes, not the vigorous, flat-palmed tap favoured by many toddlers. Be part of the interaction without correcting the child. “Instead of saying, ‘Don’t do that,’ say, ‘Look how the dog loves it when we do this,’” suggests Caroline.
Teach your child to follow these basic rules when interacting with a dog they do not know:
Don’t approach the dog if it is eating resting or chewing on something.
Stand when interacting with the dog – especially no lying on the floor, face-to-face.
Minimize running around the house and yelling.
Teach the “tree game”. If the dog gets too excited – barking, nipping and jumping up – “teach your child to stand with his branches (arms) folded up, and look at either the sky or their feet – not the dog,” says Caroline. “With absolutely no reaction, the dog will usually stop the behaviour. Your kids should also do this if an unknown dog approaches.”
Tips for being a responsible dog owner
Consider your children’s ages – Many families start thinking about getting a dog once their kids are walking, but Toronto dog trainer Caroline Applebee advises waiting until your youngest child is five. “The first reason is safety. Most dogs don’t really do well with toddlers. Toddlers can be unpredictable, rough and erratic, and they often lurch or fall around the dog, which can be disconcerting. Toddlers like to hug, but dogs don’t really like being hugged. Toddlers don’t have the empathy to be able to read when a dog wants to be left alone. And they are at more of a face-to-face level, which means bites to the face are more common with toddlers.
Make sure you have enough time – “A young dog needs a lot of investment, timewise. A busy family with very young children probably doesn’t have the time to devote to a puppy as well. You want to set everyone up for success when you bring a dog into your family. That’s not to say it can’t be done – but if you can hold off for a few years, that’s probably your best bet.”
Don’t put too much on your kids – Even five-year-olds are too young to be responsible for feeding, brushing or walking the dog, but they can assist in these chores.
Teach your dog the basics – Teach him to drop items willingly and to go over to a mat or a bed when asked. “You don’t want him jumping in the middle of the kids’ play area when they are on the floor – you want him to lie nearby and be part of things.”
Invest in obedience classes – Here you will learn to socialize your dog and teach him basic manners and commands. Caroline prefers those that use positive reinforcement. “Steer clear of force-based methods. Aggression just leads to more aggression.”
Make a space for you dog – Crate train your dog or use baby gates to give him his own space away from the children when he needs it.
Be vigilant – The most important thing to remember, according to Caroline? “Parents should always supervise the dog and child. That doesn’t mean cooking while the dog and child play on the other side of the room – the parent needs to watch the situation. I wouldn’t leave even the most tolerant dog with a child under 12.”
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2012.