There are so many times I have watched a clip on Facebook of a child having a “cute” interaction with the family dog and cringed. This is usually a clip that has gone viral because people love seeing the kid riding the dog like a horse, or being pulled along by the dog’s tail. Perhaps a young toddler is “simply” cuddling into the dog in its bed. Most of the time these videos are full of warning signs that things could escalate pretty quickly or the dog is, at least, letting us know that it is very uncomfortable but tolerating the situation as best it can.
The parents usually are completely unaware of the risk they are putting their child at and the fact that they are often teaching their dogs to dislike children. They will perhaps feel that a bite will have come from nowhere.
It is so important to teach children the right way to behave around doggy family members. It doesn’t mean that dogs and kids can’t have any affectionate interactions, it just needs to be managed more carefully.
It will lead to a happier and more comfortable dog, a stronger and more positive bond between the dog and the child, and it will ensure that your child greatly reduces their risk of being snapped at or bitten.
Positive interactions lead to a strong, life-long bond
It also then reduces the chance of a dog being relinquished to a rescue centre for aggressive behaviour, or being euthanised. If a potential adoptee hears that a dog is in the shelter because they have bitten a child, they are much less likely to consider adopting them. Often the dog has only bitten because they have been pushed much further than anyone would normally expect.
1. Positive associations are key
This is true for both the child and the dog. If your child has an unpleasant interaction with a dog at a young age, it can often lead to a lifelong fear or dislike of dogs. For the dog, if they are only having stressful dealings with children it can lead to them becoming fearful and more likely to feel the need to defend themselves.
By teaching a dog that children mean good things, they are much more likely to be relaxed around them.
I have three young nephews, two nieces and lots of other children that visit my house. We always ensured that interactions with the dogs were calm, supervised and positive. The kids loved to get the dogs to do tricks for reward. Even simple things like paw. It is a nice, gentle interaction between them. The kids love to feel they are getting the dogs to do something clever and the dogs learn that children can mean yummy rewards.
If you have a dog that grabs food, it is better to get the kids to throw the treat on the ground for them rather than giving it from the hand.
Positive, reward-based associations are important to help a relationship between a dog and a child blossom
2. Learn to understand the subtle body language that can tell you that your dog is uncomfortable
This is probably the most important of all our tips. A bite rarely comes out of the blue. Usually a dog will have exhibited lots of other subtle signals before they feel they have to resort to a bite.
Some commons signs that your dog is uncomfortable include:
- Avoidance; trying to escape to a safe place or just avoiding eye contact and turning away.
- Frequent lip licking or yawning. This is an appeasement behaviour and a sign that they feel uncomfortable.
- Tucked tail and tense body posture
- Rolling over to expose their belly. This doesn’t always mean they want a tummy tickle. It is a submissive posture and can be a sign that they are feeling uncomfortable.
This dog doesn’t look totally comfortable here. He has a crouched body position, his ears are flat against his head and he is licking his lips
We LOVE this poster from Cattle Dog Publishing for Dr Sophia Yin, illustrated by the wonderful Lili Chin, which shows what we should be looking out for in a fearful dog.
3. Know when a dog needs space
Children should understand that dogs, just like people, do not always want company. We have outlined some times when it is particularly important that we respect a dogs space:
- Let sleeping dogs lie! Just like us humans, dogs like to have a safe space to retreat for quiet time. They can also get a fright if woken suddenly which can result in them reacting defensively
- During doggy meal times
- If a dog is poorly, elderly or injured. A dog that is unwell, just like a human, can be more irritable.
- If they are “hiding”. If a dog retreats to the safety of a hiding place, perhaps under the table or the bed, do not try to encourage them out. Let them have the space and come out on their own terms. The worst thing you could do is let your child try to climb into this space with them.
- When new people are in their space – If there are new children visiting your dog may find this overwhelming.
Allowing the dog to have a safe space that they can retreat to for some quiet time is important
4. Keep the toys separate
To avoid any future problems we always recommend careful management when it comes to toys. It is difficult for your dog to know which toys they can and can’t play with. If your children have their toys out for play and your dog is showing a lot of interest it may be a good idea to get them to settle in their own space with an appropriate toy of their own. A toy which will keep them occupied and stimulated like a stuffed Kong is perfect.
Don’t encourage your dog to get into a game with your child and their toy. Not only could there end up being a chewed up favourite toy, but it is not great in terms of hygiene or if the child trying to take the toy back from the dog, perhaps directly from their mouth.
We would also recommend working on a reliable drop . Substitute whatever your dog has in their mouth for a tasty reward so that they will readily give up whatever they may have found. This also reduces the chance of your dog becoming possessive over items.
5. No rough housing allowed
Keep any interactions calm. Boisterous play can get out of control easily and this is when accidents can happen.
Encouraging calm and gentle interactions is key
6. “Stay outta my face”: don’t encourage kids to put their face into a dogs face
This is when the worst type of bite can happen. If a child sticks their face into a dogs suddenly or forces them into the situation it could end in disaster. If your child is interacting with the dog, ask them to wait for the dog to come to them and then give them a rub under their chin or on the side of their neck.
7. Turn down the volume
Just like us, dogs can get to the end of their tether when things are very noisy for a prolonged period. If they are sound-sensitive it can be extremely unsettling. Encourage your children to keep the volume down around the dog. Let the dog have the option to go somewhere quieter too.
8. Not all dogs like to be hugged
There are dogs that like this kind of enclosed contact, but often dogs will only be tolerating it. Many dogs like to have contact but not to feel trapped in a hug. Don’t let your child do this unless you are 100% sure that the dog is comfortable with this kind of interaction. Watch the body language closely.
Just because a dog allows a child to cuddle them, or pick them up, or lie in their bed, it doesn’t mean this is the right thing. Not only is it not fair to force a dog into a situation they are not comfortable with but some dogs will only tolerate something for so long and then may, eventually, decide they have had enough.
Not all dogs like to be hugged – it is important to closely monitor their body language
9. Encourage the right kind of games
Games such as chase and tug-of-war are not ideal for encouraging safe interactions between dogs and children. They can quickly become too high energy and accidents can happen.
Games such as fetch are a great option as the child is stationary and there is less excitement and movement. My nephews adored playing fetch with my dog Daisy and it encouraged a really strong bond between them all.
A calm game of fetch with a ball can be a good game to play (photo credit: https://pixabay.com/en/football-boy-kids-dog-soccer-fun-3503750/)
10. Sometimes management is the best option
We would always recommend closely supervising interactions between young children and the dog. If this is not possible, then separating them may be the safest option.
Using a baby gate can be a great option. You may need to work on getting your dog used to being behind the gate and build up their time being separated with the use of rewards and treat dispensing toys.
This can also be useful when your kids are eating. If you have a very foody dog , they may be tempted to grab food from dangling hands.
If your dog is crate trained this can also be another solution, as long as your dog is not trapped in there for prolonged periods.
If your dog retreats to the crate for some peace and quiet, it is very important to teach your kids to respect their private space and not disturb them.
11. “But I have a Labrador and they are so good with children”: Any breed can react to inappropriate treatment
When you look at the statistics, dog bites come from a wide range of breeds. Every dog has its limits. You may feel you have a dog that will put up with a lot, but that doesn’t make it fair and any dog can react when pushed to their limits.
By setting boundaries for our children, teaching them the right and positive way to interact and giving your dog a safe space, a beautiful relationship can develop!
Gemma is an official dog nut and passionate traveller. Originally from the wonderful city of Edinburgh in Scotland, Gemma is now wandering across Europe with her rescue dog Annie. For ten years Gemma loved being surrounded by all things canine 24/7 whilst she ran a specialist doggy shop. The shop was a great community hub and, along with working closely with local rescues, Gemma provided customer support relating to canine behaviour and nutrition. It was a passion project and one that Gemma felt privileged to have created. She is also studying towards an Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour and is a huge advocate of dog rescue and promoting scientific methods of dog training.