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!
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 dogs advocate, and, even though
I love children, my purpose in this article is to give you the dogs perspective.
Lets back up for a moment to the beginning of a puppys
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 puppys 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
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 dogs perspective it may go something like this: Oh, no!
Here comes Johnny again. I just
know hes going to run all over my territory with his toys, get right in my face like
hes 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 (Johnnys mom). Every time I interact with this small human
something bad happens in my life. I
dont 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, lets 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, its 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
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 dogs
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.
tease each other, they often tease adults and they often tease dogs. They grab the dogs 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
its 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.
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 dogs 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.
partly due to a natural curiosity, often get right in the dogs 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 dogs mind), his reaction may be a bark or a growl. Heed the warning, look away and get thee to
Now that we have Johnny staring right in the dogs face, Johnny
gives the nice doggy a real big smile. To
people this is the most friendly of expressions, only dogs dont 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 its a little more serious. Its called aggression. Smiling is OK, just dont show so much white
and dont 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 cant 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.
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.
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 dogs 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.