Boy Meets Dog: It's Not Always a Love Story
It’s perfectly natural for a loving parent to bring a dog into the family home. After all, dogs are not only great companions for kids but a wonderful instructive tool. They teach your child responsibility, respect, empathy, tolerance and yes, in the end (heartbreakingly) how to deal with loss.
The bond between child and dog is beautiful, but it’s not always one which is easily arrived at. Some kids love dogs and have a natural affinity for them. Some dogs love kids and have a natural affinity for them. But there’s a lot of space in between.
A great many parents trust in luck, yet act surprised when the relationship between their child and their pet is ever less than harmonious. Never forget that you are dealing with an emerging mind that is trying to figure out how to be a person and a domesticated wolf that is trying to establish itself in a new pack.
While it’s human nature to hope for the best, the responsible parent should always do the best to prime both their children and their dogs for this new arrangement. We’ll guide you through some steps you can take here, and Doggone Safe also offers tips on how to promote a safe and happy relationship between dogs and kids.
Managing the relationship
Okay, I get that this is starting to sound like work now, but to sow the seeds for what will grow into a loving reciprocal relationship between your child and your pet takes work, just like any relationship.
The simplest way of putting is that you need to supervise and facilitate any interaction between child and dog and take steps to prevent either becoming scared or apprehensive and unintentionally leading to negative interactions (in the worst case, a bite). Many dog owners might consider muzzling cruel or overkill but if you take the time to research what are the best dog muzzles you quickly learn that there are many reasons why owners muzzle their dogs and that provided you have the right muzzle for your dog it is neither painful nor uncomfortable.
Likewise ensure that your child, however excitable, needs to respect the dog and understand its perspective. Your son or daughter might be so happy to meet their furry new friend that they want to rush at it, laughing with their hands outstretched… But you can imagine how terrifying that might be for a dog, especially a rehomed dog that may not have had the best experience with humans.
Once you’ve made efforts to manage the interactions you can look at ways of training the two to get used to being around each other.
Training the dog
As soon as you bring the dog into your home you have a moral (and legal) responsibility for it. While you can’t prepare the world for your dog, you can prepare your dog for the world. Your new pet is likely to garner a lot of attention which humans, let’s face it, have a tendency to demonstrate physically.
If you have a trusting relationship with your dog then you’re ideally placed to prepare them for this kind of interaction. Dogs are natural predators and scavengers and they are hard wired to have to fight for their food, so any act of physical connection (especially if it comes in fast) is likely to be mistook for aggression.
Get them used to being petted and hugged, and after a while gently tug on their ears or fur. Try combining this with a treat so that they will build positive associations with physical contact.
Dogs, especially puppies, are excitable and in these instances they will exhibit signs of playfulness. For those who have little boys, these signs are instantly recognizable. When playing together dogs will “play fight”, bouncing, growling, snarling and playfully biting at each other.
Needless to say, this is not a behavior you want them to exhibit around a young child, so you need to train them to respond appropriately to your child’s presence. The “sit” command is a great starting point as it is easy to teach and can be used as a default to reset their behavior when it becomes inappropriate.
Training the child
Training your child is somewhat easier as you have the luxury of verbal communication. Often, children escalate the risk of an accidental nip or bite by getting too excited when playing with their new friend. Likewise, if your child starts to feel threatened, pushing the dog away, running or shouting will likely only excite the dog more so the most important lesson you can teach them is stillness. Teach them to stand straight, stiff and still like a tree no matter how much the dog may pounce and prance around them. After a while the dog will grow bored at the lack of attention and return all four paws to the ground. At this point you should encourage your child to give the dog a treat for rewarding this appropriate behavior.
As your child develops they glean a working understanding of the nuances of body language and facial expression in other humans. You should also teach them to recognize this in their canine friends too. Most of the time when children run afoul of their pet’s it’s because they didn’t know how to read the signs that the dog was broadcasting. If your child is petting or playing with the dog encourage them to stop experimentally. If the pet comes back for more, they’re into it.
If the dog exhibits any of these behaviors:
- Licking their lips
- Body freezing
- Turning their head away
- Twitching whiskers
- Raised fur on the back of the neck and spine
- Low tail carriage
Any of these can be a sign of nervousness or annoyance which will be exacerbated if your child tries to smother them in affection.
Now that both your child and dog understand and respect the parameters they have to work in they can start bonding by playing together, and you will have sown the seeds for a friendship that will last for years and years.