I have been reading quite a few posts lately about kids and dogs, and seeing photos of kids and dogs, and videos of kids and dogs that are being shown as proof of how scary watching kids and dogs together can be. Whew, that was even hard to type!
It is interesting how many opinions there are on what is considered "safe" when it comes to the pairing of kids and dogs. There are a few things to consider when viewing kids and dogs together in photos or even in video. The problem with snapshots is that they only show one moment in time. Reading body language is contextual and can change in an instant with dogs or in between the frames of a few photos. Is the dogs ear really back as body language or did they flick a fly off the ear in the moment before the photo was taken? In video do we know the normal body language of the dog in question? What is normal for that particular dog? Does the dog already know the kid they are being videoed with? Is there audio in the video or are background sounds masking a potential problem? A low warning growl from a dog may not be audible enough for us to hear or may be unrecognised as a warning signal by an owner as such.
I think as dog trainers we are programed to sometimes see all the potential dangers and pitfalls of kids and dogs together because of what we do and the things we see. Not all interactions of kids and dogs have happy endings after all. We would hope that a parent would never do anything that would intentionally hurt their child, but there are so many dog owners who simply misread their dogs cues. Being a parent, or even a dog owner, doesn't automatically give you the skills needed to keep everyone safe. Just like owning a car doesn't give me the skills needed to fix it when it breaks down. Having something and knowing what makes it tick are two separate things.
There are just a few rules that can help keep everyone safe when it comes to children and dogs.
1) Teach your children to always ask to pet a dog they do not live with and wait for permission to do so. Not all dogs are good with people and some are even afraid of children if they haven't been exposed to them in a positive way.
2) Teach children to never bother a dog that is eating or chewing a bone. Possessive aggression is very common in dogs and can result in a bite if the child does not see/hear and heed the dogs warning. Many adults miss the cues to resource guarding so we can't expect a child to recognise them. Teach them a growl from a dog means "Go Away!
3) Teach children to never bother a dog that is asleep. Startling a dog awake is another thing that can result in a bite. Desensitize your dogs to being startled awake if that may be a potential problem in a busy household.
4) Teach children to never bother a dog in a crate (sticking fingers in or poking) or approach any dog that is tied or chained out. Some dogs are territorial or can become overstimulated if left out on a tether. Many dogs tied out don't get alot of attention so they become a little wild if given an opportunity for some.
5) Train your dogs to greet people politely. Sometimes children get hurt by over exuberant dogs trying to say hello. When in doubt of your dogs skills simply say no to the greeting and walk away. Protect your dog! Some dogs need to be counter conditioned to the presence of children. Not all dogs grow up with kids after all. (or may have had negative experiences with kids in the past) And some children may not be appropriate with your dog either. If the child looks hard to control avoid the interaction.
6) Teach children how to pat a dog appropriately. Pounding them on the head isn't most dogs favorite. Nice gentle strokes along the back is the best spot to teach kids to touch them.
7) Supervise all interactions with kids and dogs. Unfortunately this will not prevent all bites if you are unaware of warning signals. If a dog stiffens it's body when a child comes near or growls that means " I am uncomfortable" or "Go away". Remove the dog from the situation and contact a trainer that can help you remedy the situation. Do NOT teach the dog not to growl. If you do this you are only taking away the warning communication and can end up with a dog that bites without warning in the future.
Bites can happen in an instant. For some dogs that bite results in its death. I don't think it is fair to put a dog down if no one witnessed the incident. Sometimes kids do things to dogs that provokes a bite in self defense and if it is the kids word against a dog with no other witness the dog may lose. Kids will lie if they think they are going to get into trouble. Thinking a dog needs to tolerate all things from all people just isn't fair nor realistic.
My favorite tool in a home with dogs and really young children is baby gates. They help give both the dog and the kids a safe zone when close supervision isn't possible. I also highly recommend parents to be find out how to acclimate their dog to the coming arrival. Check out this post with some tips by my trainer friend Nancy on ways to begin doing that:
Moment of truth: Some of the online photos and videos of kids with dogs do make my heart leap into my throat sometimes. It is the downside to dealing with some of the fallout of my job as a trainer. I want to prevent ALL bites to children. Aside from the physical damage a bite can cause, it can also cause long term psychological damage as well. Ask most people that don't like dogs why that is and most will tell you it was because they were either bitten as a child, or scared by a dog as a child. I prefer to live in a dog friendly world. Keeping kids safe is just one of the ways we can ALL make that possible.