by Hannah Blumenfeld of Pup Star Training
CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Let's talk about A Boy and His Dog. It is not only science fiction (literally, in the case of the 1975 film), but also a prevailing cultural fantasy. While children and their canine companions can have wonderful bonds, it is dangerous to just throw a child and dog together and expect a magical outcome. Make sure to set everyone up for success and safety by taking a thoughtful and intentional approach!
Here are the facts:
- Children are the most common victims of dog bites and are far more likely to be severely injured.
- Most dog bites affecting young children occur during everyday activities and while interacting with familiar dogs.
Children are impulsive and noisy. They move in unpredictable ways. They greet head-on with eye contact, which is very appropriate in our primate world. In the canine world, however, these greetings can be very threatening.
So what can you do, as a responsible parent and pet guardian?
Infants or toddlers and dogs must always be supervised. No exceptions. None.
Watch your dog! Is he inquisitive? That's great. Is he fixating on your kiddo? Is he shaking or tight-bodied? Are you unable to redirect him? Those are red flags and professional intervention is warranted. Separate kiddo and dog immediately.
Here are the four components of safe dog-kid interactions:
- Create a “safe zone” for each of them. Kiddo can't follow your dog into his, and he can't follow kiddo into hers. Your dog should have access to his safe zone whenever the family is together. Your dog's safe zone could be a crate, an exercise pen, a comfy dog bed, an area blocked by baby gates, etc. Your kiddo's safe zone could be her bedroom or an area blocked by baby gates.
- Learn all about your dog's body language! Lili Chin has a wonderful book called Doggie Language. I suggest you read it as a family. Present it like this: “okay, we have this other species living with us now, and if he's going to stay here, we have to all learn how he communicates.” Pay special attention to signs of stress and common behaviors that indicate your dog might prefer to be left alone, such as:
Shifting weight away
Licking or “kissing” kiddo
Rolling on back, exposing belly
I leave my puppy alone when he's eating or sleeping.
I try my best to be calm and quiet around my puppy.
When my puppy ___, I always walk away from him. (Fill in the blank with anything your dog does when he's feeling uncomfortable, like the examples given above. As you read the book, see which body signals look like his.)
Your dog gets to decide what is and isn't appropriate for kiddo to do. The adults in your home – yes, you! – have to help translate your dog's preferences for your kids and enforce those preferences.
Kids model adult behavior. Make sure you're demonstrating safe, appropriate, consensual interaction with your dog!