Dogs and Kids

With Halloween right around the corner and lots of two-legged and four-legged creatures coming around, we wanted to remind everyone of some basics of kid/dog interaction and how to make these safe for everyone.

As a rescue organization, we have dogs that are surrendered for many different reasons. One common reason is that a dog has snapped at a child and “can no longer be trusted.”  We have seen first-hand the consequences of this, and we know it can be prevented. That is why the relationship between the dog and the child should be part of your everyday training. It is important not only train your dog to respect your child as above them in the family “pack order,” but to train your child to treat a dog with respect and understand what is acceptable interaction and when (and for younger children, this means always when accompanied by an adult).

Why? It’s as simple as this… The best dogs for children are dogs with appropriate temperament and training, but who live in an environment where the children have also been trained properly. One without the other is a recipe for potential tragedy.
Chances are, you’ve heard of a child being bitten by a family dog. Of course you have… otherwise you wouldn’t be researching the best dogs for children. In these situations, parents or guardians cannot believe it has happened because the dog has always been so good with the children. It comes as a total shock. But if they had stepped back and taken an informed and objective view, they may have seen it coming. We hope we can help provide that view.

Let’s look at the interaction between the family dog and the children. The dog’s behaviour is very revealing if you now how to read it. Many parents think it’s so cute when the child follows the dog as he moves away from the child, pulls his tail or ears, sits on him, pulls his coat, and maybe even sticks something in his ear. It must be okay… after all, the dog doesn’t appear to mind. Or does he? Would you expect your child to tolerate that behavior from another child?

How about this? What they didn’t see was the dog’s body language. Did they see the ears go back or the grimacing facial expression?  Did they notice the dog’s head go down… the dog trying to walk, run or skulk away? Did they notice his tail go between his legs? There may have even been a growl. Did they notice? Dogs speak with their body language. An enlarged version of the “Dog to English” chart (right) is available here.

Some would say that anyone with common sense would see by the dog’s body language that the bite was going to happen. It was just a matter of time. But it is more than common sense. It is a matter of knowing what to look for. So be very observant of not only your dog’s behaviour, but your children’s behaviour as well. The dog often retreats to his “safe space,” his bed or his crate, but the child has never been taught that the crate is completely off-limits, that is the dog’s one sacred space where he goes to sleep, get away from noise or high activity or in some cases, to eat. No child should be allowed in a dog’s crate. Ever. (Read more about “kids and dogs” on pages 9-11 of NGPR’s Your New Rescue Dog guide.)

We have seen cases where the family dog is expected to tolerate behaviours that would certainly test a human’s patience to the point of exploding. How reasonable is that? At what point does having disrespect for the dog and the dog’s needs result in a nasty outcome? Sadly, it’s too often.

Dogs communicate very clearly. It’s our responsibility to understand them. When you see a dog continuing to walk away from a child who is following him, the dog is telling the child that he wants to be left alone. It’s imperative that you ensure that your child knows that. If your child is young, they should never be left unsupervised with a dog, even for a minute, even if they’ve been around dogs all their life.
If a dog has something he wants you to know and you ignore him, chances are he will escalate his behaviour to get your attention and to get the result he wants. So, when the dog has no place left to go, he might turn and snap, growl, bark and snarl to try, yet again, to tell the child to leave him alone. And far too often, the dog is blamed and worse, treated as being a dangerous dog.

So think about it… if someone incessantly followed you as you tried to get away, then backed you into a corner with nowhere to go, you might turn and yell and maybe even become aggressive or violent.

As a parent or guardian of the child, you must know the signs. You must know what the dog is trying to communicate. If all signs are ignored by the guardians in charge of the child, a dog at the end of its wits may cause irreparable damage to a child which may even result in death.

And sadly, in many cases, the dog pays the price. He will be quarantined and probably euthanized. And the tragedy is, understanding how to interpret the dog’s behaviour could probably have prevented the bite.

More importantly, teaching children the proper behaviour around the dog could have prevented the bite. And most important, if a responsible adult had been supervising the child and the dog, the bite could have been prevented.

It is no surprise that when a dog feels bullied or cornered and threatened and has no other option; his instinct is to stop the threat.  And, because none of his warnings have been heard, his natural response is to bite.

That is why simply choosing the best dogs for children is not enough to ensure a child’s safety.  It also requires a guardian who knows how to read the dog’s behaviour, who knows how to teach their children respect for dogs and who will intervene when needed.


Reprinted by permission of the Great Pyrenees Club of Southern Ontario