Well… there is potential for true friendship and the potential for tragedy. How things play out largely depends on the adults supervising. It is the adult’s job to make sure everybody remains safe and that means reading the dogs very carefully, teaching the children how to interact with the dogs safely, and managing situations vigilantly. In the county where I live, according to the bite reports (*more on these in a later post), children are 3 times as likely to be bitten… a significant portion of these bites occur from dogs in the child’s home or dogs in a friend or family member’s home.
Leaving dogs and children together unsupervised is really playing with fire and yet there seems to be tragic news stories yearly. There have been stories in the last few years of puppies/dogs mauling infants who were left in swinging chairs or on entertainment mats. In both cases the humans were not even in the room (and in one case the person was on the complete other end of the house with the door closed). So the parent left the child in a place where the dog had access and let the two fend for themselves. In the end (for the two stories I’m recalling) both baby and dog ultimately paid the price for the parent’s choice.
That being said, I grew up with dogs (quite literally, I was raised with a nanny bulldog) and wouldn’t change that for the world. The bond between child and dog can be extremely close and can be a very important relationship. As an undergrad, I did some research on the role of pets in the lives of children and the information was really quite telling. When children describe their families, they most often place the family pets on the same level as their human siblings. So, I’m definitely not against children and dogs being a pair, only that parents need to take responsibility for both the children and canines in the house because if they make a mistake, both of those parties could pay the price.
About 2 years after I got Shayne, I took her to a “Pups in the Park” baseball game (major league ball game–the team opens up seats of people to bring their dogs, it’s so fun). Shayne was much improved and was safe to bring out in close proximity to people without any concerns. Well… that is until she is rushed by a 3 year old who launches herself toward Shayne and wraps her arms around my poor dog’s neck. I was honestly stunned–was this really happening? I froze for a second because I was in complete shock… Shayne shot a look to me of pure panic, she sat there, tight jawed, whale eyed, and licking her lips. I immediately shoveled cheese in her face as I desperately searched for her parents. I was concerned about asking the toddler to get off because I didnt’ want to cause her to scream in a fit and cause Shayne to further react and bite. I never could pick out her parents nearby, it wasn’t until she detached herself from my dog when I asked where her parents were. As her death-grip loosened she panicked and started to cry hysterically because she didn’t know where her parents were–after just a moment, her parents emerged from the crowd from 20yds away. They looked cool, calm, and collected–did they even notice their child was gone (in a crowd outside a major league baseball game no less!)?
So what does that scary story have to do with anything? Well, it is so very important to teach children how to behave with dogs. There are rules that all children and adults should adhere to in order to remain safe around dogs, both the dogs that live in their home and dogs they may encounter while out and about.
Let sleeping dogs lie–Really, do not pet, move, or touch a sleeping or nearly sleeping dog. You can startle them and they can absolutely bite as a result of being startled by a potential threat. It doesn’t take much to wake the dog up with a noise before you make any move to touch them.
Let eating dogs eat–Do not try to pet, touch, or hover around a dog that is eating or chewing bone. A dog may tolerate it for a while but that one time the stars may align and she decides that she doesn’t want you giving her a massage as she tries to eat and ultimately growls/snaps/bites.
Dogs do not like hugs–Primates hug, dogs are not capable of hugging each other and the closest thing to a hug in dog language is putting the head over another dog’s shoulders… and that move is a very adversarial move that frequently results in either a scuffle or a full-on fight. Most pet dogs tolerate hugs from family members because they trust the family… but very very few like hugs. Shayne loves when I hug her, she leans into me and softly closes her eyes or softens them into an almond shape… but she only tolerates hugs from my mom.
Do not chase! Let the dog come to you–If a dog walks away from you after an interaction, let him go. If you follow him and force further interaction, you can be risking a bite. The same goes when meeting a new dog, if the dog moves away from you, don’t close distance to try and pet. Let the dog come to you and initiate the interaction.
Safety zones–If a dog retreats to his crate, or to his dog bed he should be considered in a no-go zones for people. Don’t try to pet a dog in his crate, don’t try to snuggle with the dog when he retreats to his bed. Make sure the dog has a place where he can go and know that he will no longer be pressured to interact…give him a safe place to relax.
Ask first, ask twice–Before approaching or petting any strange dog you need to ask permission from the human dog handler. Respect their answer, if they say “no,” it was to keep you and their dog safe. If they say yes, ask the dog if he wants pet… look at the dog’s body language, does he look like he wants your attention (how to read body language in a future post) ? Then physically ask if he wants pet by putting your fist down by your side and letting the dog come to you (don’t push your hand out toward the dog, leave it slightly out from your side and invite the dog to come to you).
Quiet voice, quiet body–When meeting a new dog, do not run up to the dog, or bounce around. Keep your body quiet–not stiff like a board, but not bouncing around like crazy and keep your hands quiet–not flailing around. Your voice should also remain quiet, no yelling, squealing, shouting, or sudden loud noises.