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Establishing a positive relationship between canines and kids requires proper supervision but is well worth the effort.

Ham and eggs, apple pie and ice cream, children and puppies – all of these are things that we just naturally understand go together.  Put a little boy and a puppy out to play in the back yard and suddenly we see images of summer afternoons in the park!

If managed properly this can be a truly rewarding experience for all involved – the child, the adults and the dog.  If not managed properly, however, the relationship between children and dogs can quickly turn sour.  It is frequently assumed that it was the dog who was at fault and that “he just turned aggressive.”

 I should make it clear that as a professional trainer, I am writing here as the dog’s advocate, and, even though I love children, my purpose in this article is to give you the dog’s perspective.

Let’s back up for a moment to the beginning of a puppy’s life, back to a time before human contact when it first learns to play.  From about 21 to 49 days of age, your puppy, with its litter mates, learns the social behaviors that make it a dog.  A large portion of this learning experience is the result of fight games played with its brothers and sisters.   A puppy’s playfulness often includes using its teeth.  Before they wrestle with children in the back yard, puppies need to learn the difference between socializing with dogs and socializing with humans.

Contrary to popular opinion, dogs and children do not automatically get along well together.  Quite the opposite.  The normal daily behavior of children has a strong tendency to drive dogs crazy!  Even adults confuse dogs since what we consider to be friendly, normal behavior, the dog often considers to be quite the opposite.

From a dog’s perspective it may go something like this:  “Oh, no!   Here comes Johnny again.  I just know he’s going to run all over my territory with his toys, get right in my face like he’s the top dog or something and probably grab my ears like he did the last time.  You know, it always starts out as fun.  Then when I get tired.  I send him all of the signals that I am finished playing and want to rest, but he keeps it up for hours.   Then he goes into his dominant-aggressive routine, and I just have to let him know what that is all about.  So, I growl or snap at him, and then guess what happens?  I am the one who gets in trouble with the pack leader (Johnny’s mom).  Every time I interact with this small human something bad happens in my life.  I don’t think I like him much anymore.”

Before I go further let me clarify that I am obviously a biased dog person and that I believe every child should grow up with a dog!  The rewards of having a dog in the life of a child, or in the life of an adult for that matter, far outweigh the burdens of making sure that relationship is a positive one.  To accomplish this, however, we must understand how our dog thinks and reacts, we must pick the right dog for our situation and, most importantly, take the proper steps to teach both the dog and the children how to behave in this relationship.

So, let’s return to Johnny in the back yard and analyze what was happening and why the dog is upset.

Excited Agitation.  Children running around in the yard that the dog normally considers his territory has the effect of overly exciting a dog.  This will make a hyperactive dog even more excitable and may cause undue fear in a quieter pet.  Now, it’s true, dogs do love chase games.  Puppies learn to hunt and run with the pack by playing chase games.  They will, however, nip at the heels of the person or child they are chasing.   As he grows, the dog will continue with the chase game even though the puppy now weighs sixty pounds and when he catches you he could send you flying across the yard.

As for adult dogs, they simply find the frantic energy of children a frightening experience.

Fear Reaction.  All dogs are potential biters. In the right situation even the sweetest, most-trusted companion will feel compelled to bite.  Most bites are fear or pain initiated and not an act of  aggression on the part of the dog.  In the dog’s eyes he is simply acting in acceptable self-defense.

Johnny needs to understand the difference between his toys and the family pet.  If Johnny steps on his toy truck and breaks it,  the truck will not turn around and bit him; the dog will!

Positive vs. Negative Association.  Dogs learn by association.  They associate a situation as resulting in either a positive or negative reaction in their life.  This simple fact is the basis for all that we teach in obedience classes.  If every time your child interacts with the dog, the dog ends up getting punished, that association could make your dog begin to see not just your child, but all children, as a cause of punishment.

The end result of this interaction needs to be a positive one for the dog.  As an example, if he plays nice for ten minutes with Johnny in the back yard, Johnny gives him a chew bone or a few treats and some quiet time.

Pack Ranking.  Dogs are pack animals.  In the pack everyone has a rank from top dog all the way to the last dog in the pack.   All humans in the household are pack members and all humans need to have a higher rank than the dog, and this includes the children.

Teasing.  Children tease each other, they often tease adults and they often tease dogs.  They grab the dog’s tail, they pull his ears and they get right in his face with all measure of toys, sticks and fingers.  For dogs, such behavior by children, even though it’s meant to be all in fun, causes agitation, fear and confusion, leading to increased anxiety levels and pushing the dog ever closer to a negative reaction.

Domination.  What most of us consider to be normal ways to pet and approach our dog (or worse, a strange dog), dogs see as a dominant posturing.  We pat the dog on the top of the head; we put our hands all over the top of them.  To a dog’s way of thinking, these and other acts are displays of dominance.  As the positioned pack leader the adult family member should be able to do these things.  The children, as other pack members, even though of slightly higher rank than the dog, may not.  The dog may see those same acts by the children as a transgression.

Staring.  Children, partly due to a natural curiosity, often get right in the dog’s face and stare.  They look the dog straight in the eyes and they stare.  You guessed it!  Domination.  Only the pack leader can stare a dog down.  Try it with your dog.  If you are, in his mind, really the pack leader, he will look away after a few seconds, especially if your facial expression is the least bit harsh.  A word of caution here;  if you are not the top dog (in the dog’s mind), his reaction may be a bark or a growl.  Heed the warning, look away and get thee to obedience school!

Now that we have Johnny staring right in the dog’s face, Johnny gives the nice doggy a real big smile.  To people this is the most friendly of expressions, only dogs don’t smile.  To a dog smiling is showing teeth; to a dog it means, “Guess what these big white things are for?”  Domination again, right?  Nope, this time it’s a little more serious.  It’s called aggression.  Smiling is OK, just don’t show so much white and don’t do it when you are staring the dog down.

So, after all of these cautions, is adding a dog to the family so complex and risky that you should just throw in the towel and get Johnny a goldfish?  No, not really.   Goldfish can’t play ball or catch a Frisbee or run with you in the park, and it is tough to curl up on the sofa with Rover on a cold night if Rover is a fish!  We have already discussed the vast majority of negative traps that we need to be aware of, and we have learned that with a little management and training, a dog can be a great experience.

Selection.  In a later article I will be discussing in detail the selection of the right canine companion for your situation and lifestyle.  For now, let me simply say this selection is even more important if there are children in the home and the three most important characteristics to look for in this selection process are temperament, temperament and temperament.

Training.  Both humans and dogs in the canine equation need to be trained.   First, the adults and the dog need a clear understanding of the rules of coexistence.  Next you need to train Johnny in his role, his handling of and his behavior with the family pet.

Obedience training should be a mandatory requirement.  Seek out a competent trainer in your area for professional advice and obedience classes to suit your requirements.  PETsMART obedience classes are an excellent, inexpensive solution to the requirements of your household pet.

Take Johnny to class with you.   Most trainers will not object to children in class if they are quiet, attentive and supervised.  Children should understand, however, that running up to strange dogs is not a good idea.  Remember, your classmates are there for training, too, and their presence is not an indication of a dog who is already well-mannered.  If your child is uncontrolled or continuously interrupts class, we obedience instructors can be a cranky lot.  I have children in most, if not all, of my classes, but adult handlers only please.

Supervision.  When your dog is new to the house all interaction between the dog and the children should be supervised by an adult.  This is true for puppies and adult dogs.

Puppies need supervision because they are also learning behavior patterns and impressions they will carry for all of their lives, and puppies really tend to be “mouthy” and like to play by using their teeth.

Adult dogs need the supervision until they are trained and accept the household pack ranking and until we know more of the temperament of the dog in a given situation.  We need to use caution.  Puppies nip, adult dogs bite!

With a proper understanding of your canine companion, initial caution, supervision and training for both the children and the dog, the relationship can be an unequaled experience of love and companionship.

So now your dog’s backyard monologue goes like this:  “Great!   Here comes Johnny again, my favorite part of the day.  We get to play ball and have a good time and then he will give a chew bone.  Maybe if I am real good today he will take me to the park!  Johnny is sure nice to me and good things always happen whenever he is around.  I really like Johnny!”

This article was copied out of PETsMART News and is written by: John S. Johnson is an obedience instructor and an animal behavior specialist in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  He received his training from the San Francisco SPCA.

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