Sandy nose dog

Children and Dogs

When I think back to my childhood I believed that I had a close relationship with the family dog, Sally, but I wonder whether she would have agreed with me! She ran off frequently, possibly because she was a mixture of Labrador and boxer and so felt compelled to go in search of the neighbours’ food or to check out family picnics in the park. With hindsight, Sally’s escaping was more than likely due to there being four children in our family whose virtually constant company she had to endure on a daily basis.

Being children, we used to play with Sally far too much, setting up obstacle courses, throwing balls for her, hitching her up to a bike and trailer, running with her, expecting her to be always ‘on’ and ready to entertain us. It’s no wonder she would try to escape occasionally – she needed some peace and quiet!

Child interacting with dog 1
A series of photos showing a dog reacting to a child. Click to view.

How often have you heard “the dog just bit, he was not provoked”? Few would have noticed the series of signals leading to such an event, as a dog’s communication happens so quickly and is subtle. We can learn how to read it, but it takes time. Keeping stress levels to a minimum helps some dogs cope with situations like the one in this photo series, but they can be avoided altogether. This was too close to Hagrid’s bed and he felt uncomfortable. The computer, mother and daughter could have been moved into another room.

Nowadays, in my consulting work, I often encounter situations where the family dog is chasing its tail, chewing its bedding, behaving manically and destructively, all in a vain attempt to try and cope with the continuous adrenalin rush of being played with too much. These warning signals from the dog can sometimes go unrecognised, leading to escalation of what the owner interprets as ‘bad behaviour’, growling, biting and, sadly often end in a totally innocent misunderstood dog being destroyed.

Isn’t it time we educated ourselves and, most importantly, our children to have an understanding of our ‘best friends’? In most countries we have a policy of accepting people from other cultures and take steps to make them feel welcome and understood. If we visit a foreign country, it is only right that we comply with their cultural rules and traditions, and, if not, the consequences, particularly in some places, can be severe. We need to regard dogs in a similar way, to develop an appreciation of “canine culture” and how our pet dog is coping with living with humans. Then it becomes our responsibility to teach our children that animals are sentient beings (not toys) that need their space and have to be respected.

If children are familiar with the dog’s calming signals (canine communication system), signs of stress in dogs and how to use correct body language, behaviour and movement around dogs, they are much better equipped and know how to react, not only with their own pet, but also if they should come into contact with a loose frightened dog. By acting appropriately, they can avoid a confrontation or cause the dog to panic, due to fear on the child’s part and thus be much safer themselves.

Choice is important

If our children exhibit behaviours that are unacceptable we have a choice of either resorting to issuing an on the spot reprimand, which may cause a temporary halt of the activity but often results in the child doing the same thing again in the future. We are then forced to work out what is the cause of their misbehaviour and work on amending it. The other option is to lose our temper and possibly overreact which has a negative effect on our relationship with them.

When dealing with their children, many parents feel it is fairer to offer choices, for example we can play with them in various ways; offering either indoor games, if it’s raining and, on a fine day, different outdoor activities. By allowing them a say in what we do together it is more likely that confrontation is avoided compared to times when we select only what we think is appropriate. In most instances, when suggestions are put forward the child is more likely to happily comply by choosing something within the boundaries of what is on offer.

When children live with dogs it is imperative that we lay down similar boundaries for both of them as neither have the ability to understand what the rules are until we have set and taught limits. Just as you would not accept a dog pestering your child when the youngster is clearly indicating that he doesn’t like it, the same should apply to the child who will not leave the dog alone.

Most of us are not that skilled in understanding canine communication, so not always able to understand the subtle signals a dog uses to indicate when he is not happy with a situation and we wonder why our dog suddenly produces much more overt unwanted behaviour. Before such a situation arises, it is up to us to put firm boundaries in place to protect both children and dogs, which also teaches them important lessons in life – respect for other beings.

Children and dogs can and do live happily together once the rules are established; where bullying and exploitation are not options for either. For the sake of safety and peace in the household, it’s only fair that we know how to put these boundaries in place while remembering to never leave child and dog without adult supervision.

If your family dog starts showing unwanted behaviours, particularly in the presence of children, it’s time to ask for help.