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Pet Column: Kids and dogs

By Elle Williams, CPDT-KA  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider 

Do you know who gets bitten by dogs the most? Kids. Do you know whose dogs are more likely to bite kids? Their own dog.

Strong intro for a reason, it happens far too often and could easily be prevented. The majority of bite cases I take on are bites involving kids. Each time I take on one of these cases, I start with the fact that professional dog trainers do not train dogs to put up with kids, they teach kids how to respect a dog and teach adults how to know the signs of an uncomfortable dog.

Kids who get bit usually have a good relationship with the dog on the surface, but the dog may have been stressed with interactions for a long time before finally biting. Parents are caught off guard once their kid gets bitten because in their mind, their child and dog are best friends, up until that point.

It’s easy to play the blame game since the dog may bite seemingly “unprovoked.” In reality, there are signals a dog gives far before a bite and this is what I want to bring awareness to.

See, dogs communicate stress and anxiety in ways that are easy to miss and misread. What looks like a happy smile on a dog could very well be stress panting. Or those puppy dog’s eyes, with the whites prominent, may really be the eyes of a very uncomfortable dog. We usually look for more obvious signs like growling or barring their front teeth (snarling). But those usually happen right before a bite. We need to be aware of stress far before growls and snarling.

The first thing to establish is a dog is not a toy. Do not allow kids to pull their fur, ears, tail, or legs. Dogs don’t enjoy having costumes, sunglasses, and makeup put on them, with the exception of being positively conditioned to have such articles of clothing put on them.

Dogs don’t view hugs and kisses as signs of affection, and although some dogs tolerate it, they most certainly are not enjoying it. Pretty broad statement but it holds true for every single dog I have seen being hugged, even my own dogs. 

Dogs don’t appreciate being stared down either. Although in the right context, a dog will deeply and lovingly gaze into a person’s eyes when they are comfortable, dogs will be the ones to initiate such gazing. 

Dogs can grow increasingly uncomfortable with how unpredictable a child moves, especially how a child vocalizes when upset or overly excited. While living under the same roof, dogs will most often choose to leave the presence of a child during times of high energy.

During interactions, please look for the signs of stress. Many subtle body cues can easily be overlooked. Here are ways to tell when a dog is becoming stressed and/or anxious: 

  • They remove themselves from the situation.
  • They lean away with either their body, head, or both.
  • They avoid eye contact or squint. 
  • Its ears are tight against the back of its head.
  • Its forehead creases, usually on the brow line above the eyes.
  • Its eyes widen where you can see the whites of the eyes clearly, also known as Whale Eye.
  • It licks its lips and nose out of context.
  • It yawns out of context.
  • It starts to pant sometimes accompanied by an outstretched tongue usually curling upwards.
  • A tight closed mouth.
  • Its tail tucks close to its hind legs or in between.
  • Its body stiffens.
  • It lowers its head and neck.

A stressed dog may show one or multiple of these cues together. Each cue serves the purpose of communicating that it needs space. As adults, it’s up to us to not only look for these signs but teach them to our kids. There a many fabulous kid-friendly books with illustrations of canine body language and how to interact appropriately with dogs. My personal favorite is “Doggie Language: A Dog Lover’s Guide to Understanding Your Best Friend” by Lili Chin. It’s great for young kids, older kids, and adults.

When it comes down to dogs and kids, there are a couple of recommendations I have so that both parties have a good time.

  • Keep play at a distance, this means games like fetch, catch, or the use of a flirt poll. 
  • Have multiple toys to make trades with the dog rather than trying to take it from the dog’s mouth.
  • Discourage kids from trying to imitate being a dog while around a dog. A kid trying to bark or growl may be misread as conflict by a dog.
  • Keep petting time short. Pet for five seconds then stop. Wait for the dog to come in for more before petting again.
  • Pet the dog from under the chin, side of the neck, and back of the ears to avoid hovering above them.
  • Let the dog have a safe place to go while around kids. This could be a crate or room where the kids do not go.
  • Keep feeding times separate. Once a dog is done with dinner, remove the bowl so that kids don’t play in it or with it. The same goes for kids. Dogs may get pushy to receive food while kids are eating. Avoid conflict of resources by keeping both kid and dog separate at meal times.
  • Teach kids how to do tricks with the dog. If training for treats, it’s best to have the kid toss the treat on the ground rather than from their hand if they are young or if the dog takes treats too enthusiastically.
  • Always supervise kids while interacting with dogs.

It’s the responsibility of parents to set up both their human kids and fur kids for success. It’s important that kids and canines feel safe in the presence of one another. If you have any concerns or doubts in the relationship your dog and kid have, reach out to a qualified pet professional for help. 

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.

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