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Children and Dogs – Part 1, February 22, 2011

Children and dogs can make great companions for one another. Dogs can help kids learn to respect life and to care responsibly for another being. Children can enrich dogs’ lives by being social companions, friends, and playmates. However, if both are not taught to behave properly around each other, dogs and kids can frighten and injure one another.

Potential Problems Between Children and Dogs
Dogs often view children’s quick and unpredictable movements as either threatening or an invitation to play. Dogs may think of small children as playmates because kids are often at eye level with dogs. Either the child or the dog, or both, may become too excited and out of control during play, and either may be injured or frightened. For example, when children and dogs play chase with each other (not a recommended game!), the dog may jump on the child and knock him down or the child is frightened, falls on the dog, and the dog is hurt.

In addition, children are still learning about their world, and may pull a dog’s tail, ears, or otherwise handle him roughly without realizing they are hurting the dog. Children may throw things at the dog, just as they would throw things at each other, again without realizing this will frighten the dog or even cause the dog to bite them. These examples illustrate why constant parental supervision and guidance is critical to ensure children and dogs can be safe with each other.

Helping Children Be Good to Dogs
Children must be taught how to approach and interact gently with dogs. Tell your children to always ask the dog’s owner if they can pet the dog. They should stand still and let the dog come to them rather than walk into the dog’s space. Dogs communicate through body postures and to dogs, reaching over their heads, facing them, leaning over them and staring are all threatening behaviors. Instead, a child should allow the dog to sniff a closed hand held close to the body and then scratch the dog under the chin instead of reaching over the dog’s head.

Teach children how to play fetch with dogs and to use toys to play rather than wrestling or playing physical games with the dog. You will also need to train your dog to “drop” a toy when requested. While there is nothing inherently wrong with tug-of-war games (contrary to popular media, this doesn’t cause dogs to be aggressive), you’ll need to gauge the temperament of both your dog and your children to determine if both could play tug without becoming uncontrollable. Your dog must know the “drop” or “give” command to play this game and must know to stop when told to do so.

This article was written by Drs. Suzanne Hetts and Daniel Q. Estep, Animal Behavior Associates, Inc. and Ms. Lori Holmberg, M.A. Drs. Hetts and Estep are Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists and international award-winning speakers and authors.

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