Some dogs integrate seamlessly into a family with children. Others not so much. If you’re wondering, “How can I make sure my dog likes my kids?” Try these six strategies.
If you welcomed a dog into your family during the pandemic, you are definitely not alone. Since last March, when we were asked to stay home, there has been a large spike in dog purchases and adoptions. While this is great news for the dogs that have sprung from animal shelters, many families are discovering that dog ownership isn’t always a walk in the park.
Rescue dogs and puppies from non-reputable breeders may have had a difficult early start in life, making it harder for them to learn and feel secure in the world. The pandemic has made it harder to give puppies the kind of careful socialization they need to grow into calm and confident adults. Many first-time dog owners find that raising happy, well-socialized dogs is a lot harder than they anticipated. Successfully navigating a dog’s developmental stages can be challenging enough – add children and things get a lot more interesting.
As a developmental psychologist and canine behavior expert, I get a lot of questions about how families can solve canine and child problems. Many of the problems can be solved by using the following six strategies for successful co-parenting of children and dogs.
1. Actively supervise dogs and children
It is important to the safety of both that their interactions are closely monitored. How tight? It depends on both your children and your dog.
Do your children have the necessary social and emotional skills to behave respectfully with the dog at all times? Do you know how to avoid behaving in a way that makes your dog uncomfortable? Have they been taught how to recognize when your dog is stressed or asking for space? If the answers to these questions are no, an active care plan should be in place until your children learn these skills.
A lot also depends on your dog. Some dogs are much better suited to living with children than others, but dogs can also become more or less tolerant of children over time. Puppies and growing dogs can be easily agitated and unpredictable. Fears and phobias tend to emerge in the teens and early adult stages, and so some dogs progress from confident puppies who enjoy children’s energy to anxious young adults who need more space. As dogs age, physical and cognitive decline can also lead to changes in dogs’ behavior and ability to handle children. You may find that at some stages of your children’s and dogs’ development, you relax supervision schedules, and there may be other times when the situation changes and more supervision is needed.
What does the “active care” of your dog and your children look like? This infographic should give you a good idea.
2. Learn how to read dog body language
Dogs use their bodies to communicate their feelings and recognizing what your dog is telling you is important to keep children safe. It is also important to ensure that our dogs are not placed in situations that make them uncomfortable or anxious.
For example, did you know that a wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean a dog is happy? There are different dares to signal joy, an invitation to play, interest, stress, and even a threat of aggression. Dogs use many different parts of their body to signal when they are uncomfortable or anxious. You can see them licking their lips, turning away, showing the whites of their eyes (we call this “whale eye”), yawning when not tired, stiffening through the neck, flattening their ears, or frowning . If these attempts at communication are ignored, dogs may escalate to growling and/or biting.
It’s really important to teach children to understand and respect your dog’s body language. Like any other skill, it takes time and practice to develop. The ability to “read” dog body language requires empathy and perspective-taking skills, and these rely on cognitive skills that take years to develop. Many children will be able to distinguish their own thoughts and feelings from those of others by around the age of seven, but there are many individual differences in these abilities. With support and reminders from their parents, many preschoolers will be able to recognize some basic dog body language. However, we can assume that children will not use these skills consistently for at least a few years. Parents must take an active role as interpreters for the family dog.
There are a lot of great books and tools out there. I recommend the dog decoder app, the book dog language and for younger children the Dog detective coloring pages from Family Paws parenting education. I also encourage parents to check out the resources below thefamilydog.com/stop-the-77/.
3. Create a dog cave
A dog den is a cozy place just for your dog. This is not a place to lock up the puppy as a punishment, but a special sanctuary where your dog can retreat if necessary. For added security, you can use baby gates or playpens to create a safe space for your dog that is a strict “no-go” zone for your children. It’s important that you take the time to gently introduce your dog to his new den with treats and toys so it’s a happy place for him. Some dogs need a little extra help learning to relax and calm down, and you can use the techniques as they do so Kikopup video to help your dog develop these skills.
4. Offer enrichment activities
Dogs need activities that engage their senses, especially their sense of smell. Dogs’ olfactory system is closely linked to the emotional centers in their brain, and being able to use their nose is important to a dog’s mental health. Being outside and sniffing is essential to a dog’s well-being, but there are ways to enrich their environment indoors, too. Things like stuffed kongs, puzzles, and treats hidden in towels can help keep dogs busy and happy in their special place. I like to have a few Frozen Stuffed Kongs or Toppl toys on hand to keep my pups occupied when someone comes to the door, when the kids are extra wild, or when I’m getting dinner ready. For enrichment ideas, I recommend checking out the Canine Enrichment Facebook group and the book Canine Enrichment: The Book Your Dog Needs to Read.
5. Know that you must teach the behaviors you want to see
This can be challenging – for most people it is easy to think of who we are not want our dogs to do (e.g. pounce on visitors, chase and pinch children, etc.) but more difficult to figure out what you want them to do instead (e.g. stand and watch calmly while children run around). You have to find out and then actively teach it. It’s also very important to consider breed characteristics and be realistic about what you can teach. If you have a Rat Terrier, your dog is genetically programmed to find, stalk, hunt and kill rats on his own and this will make it terribly difficult to train the dog to listen to you instead of chasing squirrels! There are some great courses to learn more about dog behavior and training thedogenius.com.
6. Take care of your dog’s physical health
When dogs develop new undesirable behaviors, it may be related to normal developmental stages (puppies change a much when they hit their teens!) or typical breed behavior (we shouldn’t be surprised if dogs bred to herd livestock try to herd the children). But it can also be related to physical factors such as hunger (dogs get hungry too), inadequate nutrition, poor sleep, inappropriate exercise for their age and breed, and underlying pain. Just like us, dogs get headaches and toothaches, itchy skin can make them miserable, they can have upset stomachs and achy joints. Pain makes dogs more likely to have issues with everything from housebreaking to separation anxiety and aggression.
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