The family dog – making it work for pets and children
Dogs and children can be best friends with a canine chum quickly becoming a much-loved member of the family. Having a dog can enable children to develop kindness, understanding and respect for living things – and helping to care for a pet can encourage responsibility. All these reasons are why many families have dogs – more than ever since the start of the pandemic. However, it’s vital that parents teach children how to stay safe around dogs – to protect both child and dog.
PDSA states: “We know that having a dog can be really good for so many reasons, but sadly most dog bites occur in children. One of the main reasons that dogs are given up to shelters is because of behaviour and aggression. Being able to read and interact with dogs is a very important skill for children to have and will help all of you settle into family life.”
Learning to understand each other
The RSPCA advises: “From a dog’s point of view, children communicate differently to adults; they cry, yell, shriek, crawl and run about flailing their arms. Dogs find it hard to understand children and even harder to tell them when they want to be left alone. Children often treat dogs as their peers; they hug, cuddle, hold and scold them. Children express affection for their family through close facial contact, for example, kissing. While this may seem sweet, a dog may find this threatening and it can be quite dangerous. For these reasons young children are more likely to be bitten than any other group and research shows that children are far more likely to be bitten by their family dog than any others.”
“As our dogs can’t speak it’s important that we learn to understand their language,” agrees PDSA. “We can understand how our dogs feel by looking at their body language. If you are aware of your dog’s body language, hopefully you can make sure they don’t become uncomfortable and can step in when needed. Helping our children to understand the subtle signs that your dog is feeling uncomfortable, afraid, or anxious can be key to keeping them safe around dogs.”
If a dog your child is interacting with shows any of the following signs, it’s important to teach them to leave the dog alone:
- Having their ears back
- Licking their lips
- Panting and pacing around
- Growling or baring their teeth
- Being submissive and cowering
PDSA adds: “Dogs are great at reading changes in our body language, even subtle cues, however young children tend to be more unpredictable and erratic and can alarm dogs. With older children, if you teach your child to be calm and quiet around dogs this can help, but young children should always be a safe distance from dogs. As parents, it’s important that you monitor these interactions and intervene as soon as your dog shows the first signs that they are uncomfortable.”
How to introduce your new puppy or dog to your family
- Take things slowly and never leave your new pet unattended with your children
- Always start by explaining to everyone in the family how they need to behave with a new pet and help your children understand your dog or puppy's behaviour
- Make the initial introductions in a calm, comfortable environment. Have your children sit quietly and bring the dog in to meet them
- To get things off on the right foot – and paw – it’s vital that these first experiences are positive for your dog or puppy and children
Set some house rules
- Children should learn to always treat dogs with respect and never be rough or boisterous – no pulling, grabbing, heavy patting, teasing, or sitting on
- Dogs may be protective of their toys and bowls or food, so children should always be more careful around these
- Take care that your child doesn’t touch or walk into your dog when they’re eating or chewing. Although your child is unlikely to want to eat the chew, your dog won’t know this and may feel worried and behave defensively
- Train your dog not to jump up on people – it may be cute when they’re a puppy, but not when they grow into a much bigger dog
- Don’t let children disturb your dog when they’re sleeping, teach them to understand that dogs need some quiet time too. If you have a crate, make this into a cosy den and teach your puppy or dog that this is a safe retreat – and explain to your children that this is the dog’s do-not-disturb private area
- Teach your children not to leave their toys lying around – puppies especially will chew anything and everything, which could lead to children getting upset and puppies swallowing small bits of plastic, which may result in an emergency trip to the vets. Likewise, it’s a good idea to pick up your puppy’s toys when they’ve finished playing as this stops your children picking them up – and possibly putting them in their own mouths...
- If you have a new puppy, it’s important to let them interact with children of all ages as part of their socialisation. Always supervise and reward your new pup for calm behaviour with a tasty treat or toy and remove them from the situation if they’re getting afraid or too boisterous. These positive interactions will help your puppy feel less afraid of children and as an adult dog they should be relaxed and happy to be around them
- Ensure your new puppy or dog has all their correct vaccines and parasite prevention – certain diseases can be passed from animals to people, (known as zoonosis), meaning some parasites or worms can be passed from your pet to people, which can be dangerous, especially to children or pregnant women. For example, roundworms in dogs infect people by worm eggs and, while adult immune systems may kill these parasites, children are more susceptible as their immune system is more vulnerable. Roundworm larvae can migrate through the body and, if they reach the retina, they can cause blindness
Young children should never interact with a dog without very close adult supervision. Blue Cross advises: “If either your puppy or child is having one of those days (too excitable, easily frustrated or just a bit boisterous!), then management is the key to avoiding accidents. Use your stair gate or dog crate and keep your puppy safely occupied with a tasty chew or stuffed Kong. When your baby, toddler or young child is napping or at nursery / pre-school, take this opportunity to ensure your puppy’s needs are met by having some fun playing and training together.
“When your child is old enough to get involved, show them how to play safely and help with training. Both your puppy or dog and child will enjoy this immensely and it’s a fantastic way of them interacting with each other and developing a bond, that doesn’t involve too much physical interaction. Most importantly, actively supervise. When your child and puppy are together, make sure you pay attention to what is happening at all times as you’ll want to intervene at the earliest opportunity should either look worried or you see that things are getting out of hand.”
See things from the dog’s perspective
Blue Cross advises: “Just like your puppy is learning about the world in which they live in, babies and toddlers are too. Young children’s natural instincts mean that are likely to want to touch, pull, grab at, and pick up items they come into contact with – and this is likely to include your new puppy. Unlike us, dogs are not primates and will instinctively find hugs and being in close proximity to faces a frightening experience.
“Very young children can also be very ‘unpredictable’ in their behaviour (particularly from a dog’s point of view) and squeals of delight, temper tantrums and boisterous play can be an exciting or frightening experience for puppies and dogs. Even if your puppy appears to be ‘fine’ with more hands-on contact, never assume that they are enjoying it or will always be so tolerant. Many puppies and dogs will put up with a great deal before showing any obvious behaviours that they are uncomfortable and it’s just not fair or responsible to expect them to cope with boisterous or rough handling.”
Teaching children how to safely approach a dog
Follow the PDSA’s simple steps:
- Always ask first. When teaching children to approach a dog, always make sure they ask (both you and the dog’s owner)
- Let them come to you and stay calm. Let the dog come to your child and sniff them, then pet them calmly and gently on back or chest. It’s a good idea to teach children not to touch dogs on their head or face or try to hug them
- Give them space. Many people believe they should reach their hand out toward a dog, but this can be threatening for the dog and enters their personal space. Make sure children keep their arms by their side when greeting a dog
- Make sure the dog is happy and comfortable. Once your child pets the dog, they should stop to ‘ask’ the dog if they want to continue being fussed. If the dog moves away or freezes, that’s a sign that the dog doesn’t want to be petted at the moment, so it’s important your child can recognise this and move away from them. If the dog pushes their head or body into the child’s hand, seems happy and ‘wiggly’ and keen to continue getting pets then it’s okay to keep petting them
If you notice any behavioural changes in your dog, speak to your vet. They can check to see if there’s a medical issue, give you advice and refer you to a behaviourist if needed.
- RSPCA has a useful leaflet: Children and dogs - guide to staying safe
- For information on how to prevent and manage problem behaviours, visit Dogs Trust Change the Tale.
- You can also find lots of advice and training videos through Dogs Trust YouTube
- Visit the pet advice section of Battersea’s website for lots of tips and techniques
- Find out more about The Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Dog Training Scheme
- Canine Principles runs several ‘Dog Skills for Humans’ courses and workshops
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