Living with dogs and children
by Karen Smith
If like me you grew up with dogs you will know how wonderful it can be having a canine friend as a child. Knowing this and just how easily young children can develop a fear of dogs, I wanted my children to grow up knowing how to act around dogs and having the benefit of real unconditional friendship that a dog happily gives. Even if you do not have a dog in your home it is always a good idea to teach your children to be quiet and calm when approached by a dog as a screaming, panicking child will provoke even the friendliest of dogs in to chasing them for a game, which will do nothing to appease a child that is scared of dogs.
Many life lessons can be learnt by having pets with your children, care, love, respect and eventually loss are all part of sharing your lives with a dog. There are highs and lows but hopefully with lots of patience, training and vigilance the highs will far far outweigh the lows of having a family dog. There are few things more heart warming than watching your children and your dog interact and play or just lying together and the obvious enjoyment they are both getting from each other.
The idea of children and puppies can sound quite simple but the reality can be very different and even stressful for a while anyway. Young puppies chew, bite, scratch and toileting can be hit and miss throw in children in to the mix and the madness is multiplied. I doubted I had done the right thing for at least two months after the arrival of our cockapoo puppy, he was of course biting everything and everyone and my 4yr old wasn't taken in by the cute face, she refused to be in the same room as the puppy and would olympic sprint from stairs to sofa and back again in an effort to avoid the needle teeth. Of course a screaming running child became such a fun target for our puppy that it seemed we were going around in circles forever. She would often ask when we could send him back!!!!!! There were disagreements between my partner and I, he was concerned that our puppy was overly aggressive with his biting and questioned him staying if he was going to keep biting the kids and me desperately trying to reassure everyone that this biting, scratching loon of a puppy would grow up and stop all the naughtiness and we can all live happily together................eventually.
Generally a puppy brought up in your house, following your rules and being shown discipline (by this I mean training and consistency, not punishment) as well as lots of love, will be a huge and loving part of your family. They will put up with the odd hair pulling or over enthusiastic cuddling, so long as it is the exception rather than the rule and you are on hand to rescue the situation. If your children are past toddler age then be sure to include them in training, classes and feeding of the family dog, under supervision of course. This will strengthen the bond between your children and your dog.
Here are a few pointers to help with a happy child and dog family.
1. Research and lots of it. Be sure to find a breed that suits your needs and is known for being good family dogs and companions. Also be sure to find a good breeder, that breeds for health and temperament as these will have an influence over any puppies produced by them. Nice even tempered parents will produce the same traits in their off spring. If possible make sure your very young puppy has some experience of family life, there are many good breeders that rear their litters in the home and therefore the puppies will have encountered, TV, vacuum, children, other pets etc all before they even set foot in your house. With dogs early socialisation is everything.
2. When you have found your puppy and are bringing him/her home for the first time, make sure the introductions are calm and reasonably quiet. Your puppy will already be feeling a little anxious about leaving mum and siblings, yelling, over excited children can make a puppy more stressed. Never leave a puppy unsupervised with young children, dropping, squashing, poking and kicking, however unintentional can physically injure a puppy and cause a puppy to build negative associations with children, that can be carried through out a dogs lifetime.
3. It is a good idea to educate yourself in recognising some of the signs of stress and anxiousness in dogs. This will enable you to read situations and in particular react accordingly if the dog is getting uncomfortable while interacting with your child. When dealing with dogs you must be aware that there first language is body language. Although you can teach your dog to respond to and obey vocal commands, body language is the most natural way of communication for them. So when your or other children are interacting with your dog there are six main signs that the dog will give off if they are uncomfortable with what is going on. Being able to recognise these signs will give you time to react and intervene to prevent any escalation in behaviour.
- Yawning: this is a sign of stress and not just tiredness. Something to keep an eye out for in close interaction.
- Mouth closed: if the dog is happy and relaxed then they will have a slack jaw, mouth slightly open. If they then close their mouth it is a sign they are beginning to feel tense.
- Lip licking: same as humans, if a person becomes stressed they will usually get a feeling of a dry moth and lick their lips. A good sign of tension building.
- Half moon eyes: as if the dog is straining to look at something or just looking like there is somewhere else they need to be right now.
- Shaking of the whole body: as if they are wet and shaking off to dry.
- Turning away: the dog is trying to turn away from the person, the person maybe holding or trying to hug the dog and the dog is trying to reclaim some personal space.
Any one or all or a combination of these signs will be your dog communicating that they are feeling uncomfortable, if you miss the hints then the next stage will most likely be a growl. Please teach you children to take heed of a growl and that it means 'back off I am really unhappy about this' tell them to give space to the dog as this is what he is desperately trying to tell them.
The next step from a growl may be a body freeze, lip lick and then a warning bite, this can happen within a split second and as quick as you have seen the coming bite it may be too late to prevent it. This will most probably not be a full force bite but a physical warning to 'get off' this can be enough to cause injury so it is essential to learn these signs and that way you can prevent a situation ever escalating to this level.
The ability to recognise these signs will prevent a situation escalating into a snap or bite if a dog is feeling threatened. They are quite small signs but can give just enough warning for you to act. All dogs have the ability to bite, they may feel unwell, be in pain or acting just to defend themselves. There are many situations of dogs biting children that can be put down to any of these reasons and can cost a normally loving dog to be put down. The dog will always be blamed for biting, this is why it is unfair to leave animals and children unsupervised.
4. There are many people that will rightfully say that a crate is not an essential piece of kit to have but it can be an invaluable tool when integrating a puppy into your family. A crate will give your puppy and children an opportunity to get some peace and rest from each other. All little ones whether 2 or 4 legged need some down time during the day and if a puppy cannot escape somewhere you will find they get over stimulated and so the biting and chewing etc will escalate.
5. Teach your children that not all dogs will react to them in the same way as your own and that they should always err on the side of caution when meeting a new dog. Always get them to ask the owners permission before attempting to touch a strange dog and to never approach a lone dog. What your pet dog may find acceptable treatment from your children may be the complete opposite to another dog and could provoke a reaction.
6. Enjoy it. Your kids may go to school with doggy dribble on them or a goodbye cuddle at the school gates may end up with muddy paws involved but done correctly having a dog grow up with your children is a wonderful experience and definitely one we can recommend.
Thanks to Karen for her article.
For further reading relating to dogs and children The Cockapoo Owners Club recommend 'Living with kids and dogs' by Colleen Pellar.
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