Kids or dogs. Who’s scarier?

December 9, 2014 at 9:43 am

Dogs are creatures of habit. To survive, they need to be able to predict their environment and control it within their group as best they can. Unfortunately, children; particularly those of toddler age can be both unpredictable and uncontrollable. Therefore, to a dog, a child can be very scary.

Think from a dog’s perspective. Imagine being confronted by a small human stranger who runs up to you, throws their hands in front and touches you everywhere without being asked, who squeals without reason, and whose movements are as predictable as the Melbourne weather. Imagine, you are attached to someone who is not listening to you and has complete control over the safety and well-being of your whole entire life. What would you do?

Often a mum or dad with their child will approach me and ask if they can pat my dog Chester. I always say,  ‘ask Chester’. Sometimes people look at me like I am crazy, but really it is Chester’s decision. He tells me how he is feeling through his body language, his eyes and his behaviour. I know he is great with children and has an exceptional temperament, but by the same token, he is not a robot. If he tells me he doesn’t want to be cornered by children, then I respect that. By respecting his communication, I am able to ensure he trusts me to keep him safe, maintaining his wonderful temperament and behaviour.

There are two sides to this advice, one from the owners’ perspective and the other from the parent or guardians’ perspective. I want to address these separately, as although they are both responsible for the safety of all those involved, they require very different actions.

If you are a parent/guardian:

  1. Never allow your child to approach a dog. It doesn’t matter if that dog is a Golden Retriever puppy who is wagging his tail. This is not only about what the child learns in life, but also about what that dog learns. Firstly, it is important that a child learns that approaching a dog without requesting permission from the owner does not teach them empathy or respect for others. Secondly, for that dog, especially a puppy, it can teach them that people of all sizes may unpredictably approach them at any time, becoming a punishment that they look out for every time someone walks towards them. Dogs need to learn social manners with other dogs and so we also have a duty to learn their social language too.
  2. Once you have asked permission from the owner, allow the dog to approach the child. This will help you to understand and respect where the dog is coming from. If they don’t come to the child, it tells you that they don’t feel comfortable to do so. Respect that and allow the child to understand from the dog’s perspective.
  3. Never pat the head. Scratches under the chin, the chest or on the side of the body closest to the child are friendliest. No cuddling. That is a primate behaviour, not a dog behaviour.
  4. Move away from the dog before the dog moves away from the child. It should be positive, short and sweet.
  5. Quiet, calm and gentle… NEVER loud, excited and rough.

If you are a dog owner:

  1. Two words I always go on about is ‘body language’. Get to know your dog. Understand their means of communicating to you. Can you tell if they are anxious or relaxed? Dogs give us signs! From the subtleties of licking their lips, or their tail between their legs, to obvious signs such as lunging toward or even away from something. Spend some time just observing your dog and find the indicators of their emotions.
  2. Ideally, in every situation, you want to set your dog up to win, so if your dog shows any signs of anxiety around children, watch his body language and behaviours. If his tail is in between his legs, if he is trying to avoid the child, jumping on you, crying or panting, these are just some of the visible signs that he is not comfortable. If a dog feels threatened by a child, enforcing them to interact is setting both your dog and the child up to fail.
  3. Make children positive. Children should be associated with yummy treats, with praise and fun, and even a game or two. Children need to be seen as non threatening. This is your responsibility to ensure that your dog is never put in a position where they do feel threatened. If your dog is anxious around children, allow them to be at a distance where they are comfortable, without reacting in any way. Begin training there.
  4. Don’t ever leave a child unsupervised with a dog, no matter what breed or age of dog. Even if she is a family dog who has grown up with children around her, it’s not the dog I worry about so much, but the child making a mistake with the dog whilst you are unable to see or prevent it.
  5. You are responsible for your dog’s behaviours. If there is a child who you do not think will be calm and gentle, don’t be afraid to stand in and let the child know that dogs need calm and gentle people around them. If you don’t think they understand, politely cue your dog to move away and allow them to relax. You have to listen and be the voice for your dog. If someone asks to touch your dog, make the decision based on what your dog is feeling. If he is happy to approach the child, then he has made a positive decision to interact. If he doesn’t volunteer to approach, don’t force the engagement.

Dog training really is so simple once you understand your dog. Awareness of their emotions, interests and anxieties in life strengthens your bond together, building mutual trust and respect. It is also great personal development as you learn to think from your dog’s point of view, becoming empathic and accepting of who they are. Now that’s what I call a true friendship!