Three steps to Teach your children how to safely say hello to dogs

Dog bites to children are far too common. So let’s teach our children how to be safe around dogs. Dog bites occur when dogs feel threatened, frightened, or defensive. Space is important to dogs. When they feel cornered they are more likely to bite. Understanding dog body language is the single best tool for eliminating dog bites. The perception is sometimes that a dog “bit without warning,” but the reality is usually that the people did not understand the dog’s warning or take the necessary measures to resolve the situation peacefully.

So, in saying all of this, it’s so important as parents that we teach our kids these three steps for meeting a dog safely. Our children copy our every move too so it’s important that you model these steps and show them how it’s done. These steps can also be applied to your own family dog…

Three steps to Teach your child how to safely say hello to dogs

STEP 1: Always Ask the Owner first

It’s very important to teach kids how to interact with dogs they are interested in and to not just run up to them. Childish excitement could be interpreted as a threat by inexperienced dogs.

Teach kids not to rush toward a dog. Encourage them to stop about 3 steps away and ask the owner, “May I pat your dog?” Sometimes the answer will be no. Many dogs don’t live with kids and are not comfortable with them. So if the dog’s owner says no, that’s okay. In fact, good on them, for standing up for their dog and being their advocate. This owner is just protecting you and protecting their dog who might not enjoy being patted by children or strangers. Remind your child that there are lots of other dogs who would love to be patted by them but this dog just doesn’t feel like a pat right now. You could suggest that they wave to the dog or blow a kiss instead.

If the owner says yes, then the children must ask the dog.

Please teach your child that if there is no owner in site, they should never pat the dog. For example if the dog is tied up to the fence outside school or at the supermarket, you must leave them alone. A dog who is tied up without their owner in site, might be feeling stressed, scared or anxious. They have no way to escape the situation if a stranger approached them and they are feeling uncomfortable. so they could react with a bite.

Three steps to Teach your child how to safely say hello to dogsSTEP 2: Always ask the Dog

Do Not Skip This Step! Tell kids that 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.

If it’s your own dog that your child would like to pat, your child should also ask the dog for permission first before approaching. Ask your 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.

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 pet a dog that does not approach them willingly.

Three steps to Teach your child how to safely say hello to dogs

STEP 3: How to Pat the Dog

If the owner said yes and the dog said yes, the kids can pat the dog. Tell the kids that they need to be careful of a dog’s sensitive eyes and ears. Most dogs don’t like to be patted on top of their heads, but nearly all people do it —it’s a hardwired human behaviour. There is a blind spot on top of a dog’s head. If he sees a child’s hand moving toward that area, the natural inclination is for him to tilt his head up and watch where the hand is going. Now the child’s hand is reaching right over the dog’s teeth—not a very good place for that hand to be. Suggest that the children stroke the side of the dog’s neck, rub under his chin, scratch his chest, or pat along his back. Most dogs prefer slow, gentle strokes to rapid pat-pat-patting. Alternatively your child can ask the owner if the dog has a favourite spot to be patted. Let your child pat the dog for 3 seconds and stop. If the dog’s had enough it will move away, shake off or turn its head. If the dog wants more, your child can continue to pat. At Family Paws, we say ‘one hand enough… two hands too rough’.

Lead by example to show your child how to interact appropriately with dogs

You might not know this but a dog will always communicate if they are feeling stressed in a situation before reacting with a bite. So it is up to you to recognise their signs, and intervene before it’s too late. We don’t ever want to put a dog in a situation where they feel they need to bite a child to escape. If we listen and respond to their subtle signs of communication, we can avoid situations like dog bites happening. 

For more info on child and dog safety and how dogs communicate make sure to have a read of these articles:

As always if you have any questions on this topic, please get in touch.

Mel xox

Disclaimer: Cooper and Kids will not be liable for anything that happens to you, your dog or children by following the advice and tips in this article. If you have real concerns or worries about your dog and/or safety of your children, please seek out a professional to come and assess the situation asap.

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