My three kids have pretty well all grown up with dogs, cats and various other “critters”. Along the way, my journey as a dog trainer and mother has gained new insight, taken new – and sometimes unexpected turns regarding “do’s” and “don’ts” when it comes to living with kids and dogs. I thought I should share some of what I have learned; some thoughts about maintaining peace between kids and four-legged beasts.
Todays’ instalment will mainly be about management and stepping in to help the dog before there is trouble. There is a lot that could be said about the “Dogs and Kids” topic – here, examples are mainly intended for families where there is already a family dog or a new puppy, but not a problem. I am neither intending to address already existing problems nor giving suggestions for situations for a dog with a history of biting – those are problems needing different kind of intervention, way beyond the scope of an article.
Parents’ #1 Friend should be management tools and devices (baby gates, crates, ex-pens, long lines, harnesses, head halters – that kind of thing). Installing a few permanent baby gates in strategic places around the house should be on every parent’s list! Baby gates are not just fantastic for babies – they are equally fantastic for dogs. They are so handy for maintaining safe spaces for whoever needs the space / keeping toddlers and kids away from dog / keeping dog away from (fill in blank) – you name it. Baby gates are truly a blessing!
Secondly: using a combination of these management tools should really be seen as RELIEF for parents. It’s not a cop-out or being lazy. It is being smart – and preventing potential future problems! Management is not the same thing as training.
The whole idea with good and clever management is just that: to manage a situation, ensuring that nothing unwanted can occur. We don’t want our dogs to practise problematic behaviours – so let’s be proactive and smart about how we manage the dog in the environment instead!
With really busy households, sometimes “less is actually better”. Rough and noisy kids and play-dates for example…perhaps the dog is OK to come and visit the kids for a short period of time (might need to be on leash?) – but if you tried to have the dog free in the midst of all of that activity and commotion for too long – you’d run into problems and issues. It’s way better to make it short, sweet and successful, put the dog away in his safe zone before any problems occur.
With really young and busy kids, a safe zone for the dog is a must. This is a place for the dog to go/ or for you to put the dog/ where kids are taught to respect the no-go rule. There should be no walking up to the crate to talk to the dog or sticking a face to the crate while the dog is in there…but leaving the dog completely alone and at peace.
Parents need to actively parent children around dogs and be prepared to actively help the dog out.
The better parents can get at reading dog body language to notice early signs of stress in the dog, the sooner parents will be able to intervene and “save the dog”. Sadly some of these so called “calming signals” – early signs of stress – often go unnoticed; such as when the dog is lip licking, yawning, looking away/ turning head away…those are typically all signs where the dog is communicating stress and trying to say “This is stressful – please help me!” THAT would be the time for a parent to intervene and help the dog, not waiting until the behaviours escalate. If we don’t help the dog out when he is communicating with these early signs, we’re taking a chance to see how much the dog can tolerate (? yikes!) and especially if he feels cornered – he may feel that he has no choice but to “behave more”…and will thus escalate – and this is where people can run into issues …
The often mentioned vague words “actively supervise” should be understood to be a short form for something like “Be present in the moment with your child and dog; Try to ensure that child-dog interactions are good and safe experiences for both to begin with but be ready to help the dog out as SOON as/ IF and WHEN you see signs of stress”. Of course; don’t allow kids to treat the dog roughly, loudly or “in their face” – but beyond that, dogs tolerance of kids varies incredibly. Some dogs, even the breeds that have a reputation of “being great with kids” – may be able to TOLERATE a lot – but when you observe the dog closely – he is showing a lot of stress.
(Some of these dogs will repeatedly yawn, turn and look away – and when you know that the yawn and look-away is a sign of stress, is it fair to the dog to not intervene when he clearly is not enjoying the interaction?)
Other dogs (just like people) have low tolerance and a very short fuse…there may be a few stress-indicating signals and then that’s that: a quick escalation into full warnings? As a parent; try to intervene before it ever gets there.
It’s the parents’ responsibility to be completely present in these interactions and be in tuned with what the dog is communicating with his body language. Don’t delay with stepping in to help the dog out!
The next instalment will talk about child to dog play and some thoughts on how kids can be involved in the dogs’ lives even if they are not old enough or capable to do it all…