November 10, 2009

Dogs are not four-legged humans and their methods of communication are entirely different. The “language” of dogs – their body language – has to be taught to children like any foreign language so that signals from the dog are not misinterpreted. It’s so important for a child be taught from an early age how a dog thinks, what makes him tick and how to avoid provoking him into unwanted behavior. Ironically, the more that adults treat a dog with affection and dignity, speaking about the dog’s feelings and needs, it may be hard for a child to understand that the dog who loves her can also harm her.

Ways You Can Protect Children with Dogs

Children will copy the way adults behave toward a dog, just as they mimic everything around them. To make sure that the children in your dog’s life do not raise their voices or their hands to a dog, take care that no adults ever show overt anger or aggression to an animal (displays of aggression to humans are an equally poor example).

  • Ironically, visiting children who already own a dog can be at risk because they may be too comfortable – making them casual around a dog they don’t know. These children probably know nothing about the warning signs and signals that dogs send to other dogs and to people to keep give them some space.
  • Kids often aren’t taught the way to approach and handle a dog. They may provoke a dog by petting him while he is eating. They may startle a dog who is sleeping. They may want to hug or kiss a dog who naturally experiences these actions as aggressive. It’s rare for a young child to be able to see things from another point of view – especially that of a pet. – so you have to find a way to get these ideas across.
  • An older dog may have little patience. As dogs age, they may feel achy or grumpy part of the time. A senior citizen can have the pain of arthritic joints, eyesight and hearing that are failing, and slower responses. A child can’t understand the discomforts of aging, making it even harder for him to understand that a dog wants to be left alone.
  • Some children may tease and taunt a dog for fun. Any teasing is ultimately unpleasant for a dog, even if he seems to go along with it at first. Excessive teasing can cause a dog to lash out in frustration. Kids from 9 to 12 years old may experiment with the limits of a dog’s tolerance by restraining the dog and then calling him, by playing monkey-in-the-middle or by getting the dog to bark or growl by holding a toy or treat just out of his reach. Children need to be taught that these games are cruel: one way to do this would be to ask how they would feel if someone did the same thing to them.
  • Take your child to obedience training classes with you and the dog. Depending on how young (and short) the child is, you might want to hold the leash together with the child so that when the child gives a command (“sit,” “down” and “come” are the ones he can try most successfully) you also have hold of the leash to reinforce the dog’s compliance. However, at the end of the day, the dog has to pay attention to the child (even though you are the one with treats). Once the dog does accept and obey commands from the child, the child will automatically be in a higher position than the dog.
  • Desensitize your dog to childish interruptions. Without children actually around, you can practice every few days for your dog to accept surprises. When he’s eating, put your hand near the bowl and put some treats in with his food and pat him. When he’s sleeping, gently wake him up and give him a little rubbing, then leave him alone again. When he’s chewing on a toy, slowly take it away from him, give him praise and a treat, then give him back the toy. Don’t do any of this too frequently or you’ll wear out your welcome, but teaching your dog to happily accept anything a human does around him or to him will prepare him for the random behavior of a child. (It’s a good habit to practice even without children in the picture.)
  • Do not expect a child under six to be responsible for a pet or to have a full understanding of the risks involved in handling a dog.

Having said all this, there’s still no sweeter return home from a day at school than to have a trusty pooch waiting with your milk and cookies when you get off the bus!

Tracie Hotchner, the author of this article, is the host of Dog Talk - The Radio Show. You can visit DOG TALK™, here!.

Tracie is also the author of THE DOG BIBLE: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know . Click here to go to The Dog Bible website. www.thedogbible.com