It may come as a surprise to some, but a healthy, balanced relationship between a child and an animal doesn’t just happen. It takes work, and guidance from responsible adults. When an animal is not treated respectfully, it can result with aggression on their part, which can lead to serious injuries for a child in the worst-case scenarios. So it’s best to avoid situations in which this kind of behaviour could be displayed and reduce tensions all around.
As a responsible dog owner and parent, it is your responsibility to teach your children to respect dogs. If you are able to achieve this, what you will end up with is a long-lasting, loving bond between your dog and child, and as a plus, your child won’t grow up with a fear of dogs!
Children should be taught never to touch or interfere with a dog who is eating
Even the most patient of pooches can feel overwhelmed if someone is too close to their food. Dogs are scavengers, they are instinctively wired to eat anything they can as fast as they can - they don’t know when their next meal will be and they’re not willing to take any chances. While family dogs are used to our presence, food is always a touchy subject. This is especially the case when dealing with a dominant individual, or a dog with resource-guarding issues. This is sometimes seen of ex-stray or neglected dogs that have known hunger before. In any case, your dog should always eat his meals undisturbed. You should never try to ‘habituate’ your dog to being disturbed during mealtimes, as this is actually more likely to develop a resource-guarding issue than it is to prevent one. A dog may withstand this for some time, but will actually be accumulating frustration and eventually crack.
A child can feed a dog treats, but this should be outside of mealtimes and away from the food bowl. This can actually bring your pet and child together, as your dog will start to associate your child with a positive feeling (receiving treats). This can be especially fun and rewarding for both parties when it involves trick training. However, feeding and training should only be reserved for older children who are at least in their pre-teen years. Indeed, dogs can get over-excited with food and may be too rambunctious for small children.
Children should learn how to appropriately touch a dog
Dogs have boundaries, just like humans. The best way to explain this to children is to remind them that if they wouldn’t like it done to them, then they shouldn’t do it to others.
For instance, every dog needs its safe space: an area they can recoil to when they want to have some alone time and relax (this is usually a small, quiet space of the house with a crate or dog bed). Children should be taught that this space is sacred and reserved for the dog only. They should never enter this safe space, and should especially never try to wake their dog if he is sleeping. Doing this may surprise or disturb the dog which may result in the same behaviours mentioned above.
Children may want to show love and affection towards their dog. If growing up in a family where hugs and kisses are a-plenty, then chances are children will try to recreate the same with their pet. However, dogs are not naturally predisposed to being held and kissed on the face. This is something that they get used to over time. If a dog has been within its family since puppyhood, has been appropriately socialised, and has always associated positive emotions to being cuddled, then there is no reason they wouldn’t enjoy it. However, dogs that have had a difficult past may not enjoy this as much and again, could accumulate frustration and eventually lash out.
As a general rule, no matter where the dog comes from, children should be taught to touch dogs appropriately. This means they should never hug or kiss their dog’s face or head. They should never approach their own face to their dog’s face and should treat their pet with the uttermost respect. There should be absolutely no poking the face, pulling the ears, or yanking the tail. Instead, show your child that it is alright to pet the dog on its back and at the base of the tail. It is also appropriate to scratch them behind the ears or on the neck if they like it, as well as on the belly if they roll over for you.
Children must play respectfully with their pets
Play is probably where dogs and children agree the most. However, children should know a few basic guidelines to playing with a dog safely. Firstly, no dog, no matter how big he is, should ever be ridden or climbed on. This is bad for the dog’s back, but can also be very overwhelming for the animal, whose personal space is not in this case, being respected at all. Similarly, games of wrestling should not be allowed. Furthermore, children should be taught to never take a toy from a dog’s mouth. The dog may not be in the mood to share, and could guard his toy aggressively. Plus, playing tug of war with a large dog can end in falling or even dragging - this is definitely a game to be avoided.
Finally, children should be taught to contain their excitement when playing with their pet. Dogs have sensitive hearing and can get easily irritated with children running around and screaming around them. However, this doesn’t mean children can’t play with their dogs. As long as they are respectfully quiet and gentle during play sessions, children can engage in a variety of games with their pup. The best games to play are hide and seek, scenting games, and trick training (for the older children). Fetch is also a great game to play if your dog knows how to ‘drop it’, this way there is no physical contact between the child and the animal, and all little fingers remain safe.
Involving a child in a pet’s care
Involving children in pet care is a terrific idea as it can teach them not only about animal behaviour, but also about responsibility. It will help your pet and child bond, and encourage mutual empathy.
Children can help groom a dog for instance, as long as this is done in a gentle way. Holding the leash with you in a quiet area (and considering you have a small enough dog that won’t drag your child away!) is also a great way to encourage children to care for their pet.
A word about strange dogs
At home, your dog may be the perfect pooch. However it's important as a parent to teach your child that this is not the case with every dog he/she will come across. Some dogs are extremely fearful or are not used to being around young boisterous humans. Children should be taught not to run towards or even approach dogs that they don’t know, and certainly never to pet them unless they’ve asked for and been granted their owner’s permission.
Know your dog and always supervise
The most important rule to follow when you have a child and a dog in the home is to always supervise interactions. Never leave a child alone with the family pet, no matter how much you trust either of them. Learn to read your dog’s behaviour and remind your child of the rules that need to be respected when dealing with their pet. As a result, they’ll have a rich, loving bond that will last them a lifetime!