I can’t stress how important it is from an early age to teach your child to interact with dogs correctly and the importance of learning to read a dogs warning signs! As a mum and dog trainer, I often see people unknowingly doing silly things involving kids and dogs. Being unaware of the danger that these simple things can cause is potentially putting your child or dog at risk.
There have been too many dog attacks on kids in the news lately and it saddens me to think that in many cases with a bit of education, some of these things could have been avoided. Bites are usually a last resort, so it is likely that the dog has given some kind of warning that they are stressed or unhappy in a situation, but the signs have been missed. I am here to help educate you guys as parents so you can educate your children and learn to understand your dog and other dogs a bit better.
As soon as your baby is no longer a fragile new born and starts to see your dog and becomes interested, start teaching them how to safely interact with your dog. Click here for the Family Paws Baby and Dog Safety Handout – it’s a great visual with the do’s and don’ts.
Here are the most important skills you can teach your child to interact with dogs safely.
Teach them to always ask before patting a dog, ask the owner and ask the dog – this goes for your own dog too.
Don’t approach a dog without asking for permission; permission from the owner (if it’s not your dog) and permission from the dog. If either of them say no, then we leave the dog alone. How do we know if the dog says no? Dogs don’t use words but instead rely on body language. So we are going to ask the dog and see what his body language tells us…
Have the children make a fist with the palm pointed down. Then they can slowly extend their arm for the dog to sniff their hand. Teaching the kids to curl their fingers in minimizes the risk of a dog nipping their finger. Or if it’s your own dog, ask you child to tap their leg and call the dogs name in a happy high pitch voice…
When the dog is being given the opportunity to sniff or approach, watch his body language.
- Does he come forward with loose, waggy motions? That’s definitely a yes.
- Does he lean forward for a quick sniff and seem comfortable? Also a yes.
- Does he turn his face away from your child’s hand? Back away? Bark? Move behind the owner? Look anxious and unsettled? Growl? These are all no’s.
This is a big one I am teaching my children every day and I can’t stress it enough! My children have no fear of dogs, they love them! But they need to learn that not all dogs are as happy-go-lucky as ours is. If a dog is tied up at school or outside a shop and the owner is not there and you do not know the dog, you should teach your child not to pat them. Even if a dog appears to be friendly, you just don’t know. It may be stressed because it can’t see its owner, it might be anxious, etc. It’s not worth the risk. Unfortunately some owners don’t understand or respect their dog’s decision and will drag the dog forward saying, “Oh, he’s fine. He loves kids. You can pat him.” DON’T! Do not ever allow children to pat a dog that does not approach them willingly.
Teach them to be gentle.
This is an obvious one… but again, so often I see kids being rough with dogs and their parents just watching them do it. This isn’t good enough! Once the dog has given permission to be patted, teach your child how to be gentle with a dog. Show them how to pat them nicely. From neck to bum is best, slow gentle strokes. Tell them that the dog likes it when we are nice and gentle with them. Show them by example and give your child lots of praise, reward and encouragement when they are doing the right thing. You can also reward your dog with a treat for remaining calm and letting the child pat him.
Teach them that not all dogs like to be patted on the head.
Very few dogs actually like being patted on the head, most hate it. Some will tolerate it. Our dog, Cooper, doesn’t like being patted on his head. He won’t do anything to harm you but he will duck his head, which is his form of communication to let us know that he doesn’t like it. It can be quite threatening for a dog if you come straight for the head. As mentioned above, if asking to pat a stranger’s dog, once the owner and the dog have given permission, make sure to also ask where the dog likes to be patted.
Teach them that most dogs don’t actually like hugs and kisses like we do.
Humans and dogs are different species. Humans show affection with hugs and kisses but to a dog that can actually be quite a scary thing. One of the most important messages I hope to get out to all dog owners, parents, expecting parents, grandparents, etc is that dogs and humans communicate differently. Dogs use posture, facial expressions, and other body language to communicate. Understanding your dog body language is a key aspect of responsible ownership. Watch your dogs body language next time your child goes in for a hug or a kiss – I guarantee you that their facial muscles will either tense up, or they will pull their ears back, they will yawn, try to move back or they will lick their lips – these are all subtle signs that your dog is not comfortable with what is happening.
As a parents it is important that we explain this to our kids and from early teach them how to show affection to your dog in a way they will enjoy it. For example, teaching them to blow a kiss to the dog, rather than planting one on their head. Or calling the dog over and giving him a back scratch.
Teach them to read the signs when the dog is uncomfortable or has had enough.
Dogs use body language more than you may realise and it is important for you as a parent and/or dog owner to be able to read a dog’s body language and respond to it, so you can protect him if he is stressed and uncomfortable and to keep your child safe. Let your child pat the dog for 3 seconds and stop. If the dog’s had enough it will move away, shake off, yawn or turn its head. If the dog wants more, your child can continue to pat them. For more on understanding how a dog uses body language to communicate, click here.
Things to avoid that will potentially aggravate, hurt or stress out a dog
Make sure your child does NOT:
- Climb on the dog
- Chase the dog
- Pull hair, ears, tail, etc
- Stick fingers in the dog’s eyes, mouth, nose ears, bum
- Play with the dog’s food or water bowls
- Stand over and watch the dog eat
- Annoy/wake a sleeping dog
- Take the dogs food out of a dog’s food bowl
- Take anything out of a dog’s mouth
- Tease a dog with a toy or food that you know it wants
What are the warning signs to look out for?
A dog will most likely let you know when and if he is stressed in a situation before reacting with a bite. Some of these signs are obvious and sometimes these signs are quite subtle and hard to read if you are not familiar with them.
Subtle signs that a dog may be uncomfortable are:
- A simple yawn
- Rolling their eyes
- Licking the lips
- Turning their head away
- Shaking off
- Excessive grooming such as scratching or licking
- Quick and shallow breathing
- Stiff body
- Tense facial muscles
- Closed mouth
More obvious signs include:
- The dog trying to escape or remove itself from the situation
- A little growl
- Baring their teeth
- A bite
Reward your dog for communicating to you.
Cooper trusts that I will always be there to look out for him around the kids. This is something that I have worked on with him, it doesn’t just come naturally. Often, when he’s had enough in a situation, he’ll just get up and move away. But sometimes, he will literally just look up at me and give me the eye roll or the yawn, sometimes it’s just a look like he’s asking for my help – it’s his way of checking in with me and I will always have his back and reward him for this. At that point, I make sure the kids leave him alone or I let him outside for some space with a nice tasty treat. I always make sure to point it out to the kids when it happens, so they can learn to read his signs too. I don’t just want my dog to tolerate my children, I want him to feel happy and relaxed around them. The more I reward him for the check ins, the more he will do this when he feels uncomfortable. This is much better than him feeling the need to growl or bite. To help avoid your dog from becoming stressed or anxious around children, create positive association and make sure that your dog knows that you have his back, that you love him and will always look out for him.
Implementing management tools (like baby gates, play pens, crates) are really important to help seperate your dog and child when you are unable to actively supervise them. Plus, they are a great tool to help give your dog a break from your child.
How do I know if my dog is happily playing with the kids?
As a general rule, you can tell a dog is ok and feeling comfortable if their body language is loose and relaxed. Dogs that have a loose mouth, tail and eyes are displaying a more relaxed body posture. Dogs that have a stiff body posture and/or a tight mouth are telling you and your children that they are uncomfortable and you must step in by telling the children to give the dog space or calling the dog away. Some dogs will let out a little growl as a warning and some may bite. A bite is usually the last sign your dog will give, it’s their last resort. So, make sure to watch out for the earlier signs as mentioned above and move your child away from your dog before it’s too late.
Finally, and MOST IMPORTANTLY never ever leave your child alone and unattended with a dog. Always make sure to actively supervise and step in if you feel the dog is uncomfortable or the child is at risk. If you are worried about the safety of your child or dog, please seek the help from a positive reward-based dog trainer/behaviourist ASAP.
For more info on child and dog safety and how dogs communicate make sure to have a read of these articles:
- How Dogs Communicate
- Three steps to Teach your child how to safely say hello to dogs
- Five Important Skills to teach your Dog when Around Young Children
- Lead by example to show your child how to interact safely with dogs
- Managing your Dog when having Visitors and Children Coming Over
If you have any questions on this topic or would like some help or guidance with any of it, please feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email. Please spread the word and share this article around to all parents and dog owners.