The stereotypical American dream is the white picket fence gently surrounding a cozy house with a perfectly cut green sheet of grass. The door to the house opens and out comes two smiling children and the well behaved family dog following behind them.
That’s kind of the image that the media has painted in our heads and the one that most of us think about. We don’t imagine the house door bursting open as the kids and dog explode into the yard in uncontrolled abandon, jumping and climbing on anyone that has made the mistake of entering the yard.
Nobody wants that, yet that’s what I see all too much. In addition, I see very risky behaviors happening with both kids and dogs that too many parents overlook or enable.
Getting our dogs and our children to have a safe, healthy and happy relationship is not something that just happens by chance. And contrary to what many dog owners think it’s not the default outcome.
It takes time and training – for both your dog and your kids.
Here’s a video I shot with my dog and my kids to show the end result of teaching the kids and the dog how to behave around each other.
Training Your Dog
There are a few things you must teach your dog in order to set him up to have a good encounter with children.
Reward a calm state of mind
First and foremost always make sure you’re rewarding a calm state of mind and not encouraging excitement. Make sure that all rewards that you dog gets (food, going out in the yard, going out for a walk, play time, affection, etc.) are ONLY given when he’s calm.
Too many people inadvertently reward excitement without realizing it. Remember whatever you reward, will be repeated. If you’re rewarding a hyper crazy dog, that’s exactly what you’ll see more of. And those are the pooches the bulldoze over the kids and can get a bit mouthy.
Teach impulse control
You need to make sure your dog knows that rewards (especially food) come on your terms and not his. You can’t enable your dog to be pushy when getting his food or treats. Young children are often running around with snacks and if your dog is used to taking the food on his own without any direction from you, he will take some liberties with you son’s granola bar.
The key thing when teaching impulse control is to make sure that the food goes to your dog – never the other way around. Watch this video to see exactly how to teach your pooch some impulse control with food.
Kids are not just playmates
It’s great that the kids want to play and run with the dog but if that’s all they do just the mere sight of the kids will give your dog the zoomies. Instead have your kids start every encounter with the dog in a calm state of mind. That means no play time until Fido is chill. Then ask your dog to do something simple (when you kids are old enough have them do it) like a sit and then initiate play – on your terms.
It must be your idea to start playtime, not your dog’s. This structure then becomes the foundation of his relationship with the kids instead of a relationship based on play and excitement.
Every dog should know the basics and it’s nice to have a good solid sit to go to when kids are present. When in doubt, have your dog sit. Sitting is a nice way to facilitate that calm state of mind we want your pooch in and you can use it like check points as your dog and kids are interacting.
Do some playtime, then sit, wait for calm, them more play. As you and your dog learn more commands and tricks you can add them in as well. This puts the encounter on your agenda and not your dog’s (which could be a doggie agenda of mayhem) and makes it easy for him to do the right thing.
Training the Kids
Okay, now for the other half of the equation – those pesky kids. They need just as much guidance and structure as your dog does.
Here are a few things to teach your children:
How to pet a dog
Do you know the best way to pet a dog? Maybe not (most people don’t) so how can your kids know? Let me let you in on a little secret: for the most part, dogs really don’t like being pet on the top of the head. Nope, sorry, the don’t.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t pet your dog on the head. Very well socialized dogs don’t mind being touched anywhere, and many family dogs will tolerate just about anything. However, it’s a very good idea to teach kids where dogs like getting touched instead of where we want to touch them.
The best place to pet a dog for kids is under the chin and on the back. If they roll over and initiate it, a belly rub is nice too.
How to play with your dog
Even if your dog is a rough and tumble Lab I would highly recommend that you don’t allow your kids to wrestle, tackle or man-handle your pooch. In the excitement of rough play tails can get grabbed and eyes can get poked – and dogs will react like dogs. And since they don’t have hands they will send their message of discomfort with those pointy things in their mouth.
Make all play with a toy and structure it like everything else. Play should have rules and it should be done on your terms.
To respect your dog’s space
Kids are like Pit Bulls – they have no concept of personal space and think everyone likes to be jumped on and licked (yeah, I’ve seen kids do it). They assume that dogs like to be up close and personal and want to hug and cuddle.
This is why most dog bites happen to kids. We need to teach children to approach dogs with caution and let the dog decide how up close and personal an encounter will be. When in doubt always let the dog come to the child and don’t let the kids constantly go into the dog’s face – especially when they are in possession of a resource like food, toys and in their bed.
Not all dogs like the same things
If you’ve got a happy go lucky pooch that lets the kids ride him like a mechanical bull, great. But if that’s the case you better teach them that not all dogs are like that – and you should make it a priority.
This is especially important when meeting unknown dogs outside. If the kids rush up to a dog that someone is walking on leash, you have no idea how the dog will respond. And worse, he’s tethered so he can’t withdraw even if he wanted to, so that leaves him only one way to get his space back – assertively.
The bottom line here is that it’s very important to train both your kids and your dog how to safely interact with one another. The responsibility is all yours and the consequences of not doing this are pretty dramatic, so lets do it.
So all you parents out there, I’ve got homework for you. Start teaching your kids and your dog the basics of safe and healthy interactions with one another. Don’t put it off, do it now little by little and day by day.
And don’t be upset if you call me to do a session and I say your kids need some training – I mean well.