Dogs… big, small, scruffy, sleek, short-haired, long-haired, big ears, fluffy ears, waggy tails and wet noses, many families consider a dog as the perfect family pet. They are great companions, a real motivator for going outdoors, enjoying fresh air and nature and they’re also a great way to teach a child about caring for another being.
Even if you’re not considering getting a dog any time soon, the chances are that your little one will be meeting dogs on a fairly regular basis, either with friends or family or just on a trip to the park.
So, how do you help introduce dogs to a baby or toddler in a way that’s safe, respectful and happy? We asked our friends at Dogs for Good, a charity supporting children and adults with physical disabilities and families with an autistic child for their top tips on safe interactions with a dog.
First things first; never leave a child unsupervised with a dog. Dogs and children can both be unpredictable and an accident can happen in a split second. Dogs are wonderful creatures and make rewarding companion animals but they are also sensitive and emotional beings with different needs and different ways of communicating than humans. It’s therefore really important that as adults, we are able to understand their cues, signals and body language as this will help us manage and minimise any stress and allow us to build positive relationships between ourselves, our children and our dogs.
Before you meet dogs
You can start creating a positive relationship with a dog, even before your child meets a dog. Talking about dogs, reading story books featuring dogs or using puppets to talk about dogs is a good way to start. You can cover things like how dogs like to be petted, how to say hello to a dog and how dogs are likely to behave. All these things can really help a young child understand about what dogs like, what dogs don’t like and how to support them.
Understanding dog language
Dogs will whine or bark or growl to communicate their needs but these vocal communications are often last resorts; a huge amount of what they are trying to tell us is through their body language. Understanding the subtle cues our dogs give us can help to ensure that we respond appropriately when they are feeling stressed or anxious and enable us to prevent these situations from arising. It also helps us to know when they’re happy and relaxed!
Did you know that dogs will sometimes yawn when they are feeling stressed? Lip-licking and panting can also be signs that a dog is finding a situation difficult and a good response would be to stop what you’re doing and give the dog some space. A dog rolling onto their back might not be a request for a tummy rub; instead it can be to signal that they’re feeling threatened. Dogs for Good have a great article on the subtleties of doggy language in the Good Advice area of their website and this will help you understand what a dog is trying to communicate.
Creating safe spaces for children and dogs
Generally speaking, dogs like their environment to be calm and quiet…not necessarily the natural domain for toddlers and babies! Dogs for Good recommends that a pet dog always has a safe space or area that is their space alone. Ideally, this would be a crate but it could also be a room or area separated by a baby gate. The charity recommends ensuring that everyone in the family (however young) knows that when their dog is in that area, they should be allowed to rest without interruption. You could get your child involved in choosing the safe space; maybe they could draw pictures to show it’s the dog’s area or make some special treats for the dog to have when they are in their safe space.
Saying hello to a dog
When you’re first meeting a dog or a puppy, help your toddler understand how to behave by demonstrating yourself. It’s best to get down to their level – a wriggly puppy being held by someone little could easily be dropped! Let the dog or puppy approach you when they are ready. You don’t need to hold out a hand or pick them up as the puppy or dog will feel more confident if they can approach you on their own terms.
Once the puppy or dog approaches try giving a gentle stroke on the main body area so that the dog can see what’s going on. Talk to your child and guide little hands to help them understand. Make sure you give lots of praise as both the puppy and your child will grow in confidence if they understand they are doing the right thing! Don’t try and force any interactions as it’s best for both child and dog to go at a pace that is comfortable for them.
It’s helpful to know that most dogs don’t actually like being hugged. So, while your toddler may be thinking this cute ball of fur is just like a real-life teddy, it’s good to talk to them about how and where a dog might like to be touched and equally, where they don’t like to be touched.
Obviously, being with a young puppy is fun and exciting and even fully-grown dogs can be excitable and bouncy! This can sometimes make them quite frightening to young children so keep sessions with pups short and sweet. Puppies, like toddlers, will tire quickly! Encourage gentle play and nothing too rough or boisterous as this can quickly get out of control and lead to unwanted behaviours from your dog (and child!).
Loud noises and running can also make a dog think that there is a reason to chase or jump up, which can quickly turn to being intimidating to a child, so try to encourage your child to behave calmly and quietly around dogs.
Meeting dogs out and about
If you regularly see dogs at your local park, it’s good to talk about the most appropriate way to behave around dogs. Never allow your toddler to interact with an unknown dog or greet a dog without asking their owner first as accidents can easily happen. If the owner is happy for you to say ‘hello’, ensure that there is close supervision. Little people and dogs can easily become excitable and toddlers on unsteady feet may easily get knocked over.
For more information about advice around dogs, visit Dogs for Good’s website and go to Good Advice.