Chris Shaughness

author, speaker, animal lover

Pet Relationships,  All Articles

Dogs and Children

Nothing concerns me more than a dog showing aggression to a child, and it is the only scenario when I will make a definite yet heartbreaking recommendation to re-home the dog. Sometimes, the signs are clear: the dog has bitten, tried to bite, or has growled at a child. Other signs are not so obvious to many people. How can you tell if the dog is not comfortable around children? Is there a way to ensure that children will be safe around your dog?

Dogs may show aggression to children for any number of reasons which need to be identified carefully; some situations can be controlled more easily than others. For instance, if a dog is only showing aggression when the child approaches the food bowl or a bone, instead of opting to re-home the dog, some people choose to manage the situation – never let children near the dog’s bowl when he’s eating and the dog is never allowed to have bones, for example.

Other cases of dog-child aggression may not be so easy to work around. Dogs who show signs of discomfort simply at the presence of a child are a major concern. I recently worked with a family who called me about a different problem with the dog, and claimed that the dog was fine with the children. As I visited with them, I watched the children interact with the dog. The dog’s ears pinned back against her head and she froze whenever one of the children touched her. The child was very gentle and non-threatening to the dog. The dog didn’t growl or try to bite, and she might not ever. But when I pointed out the very clear signs of the dog’s discomfort, the parents had no idea that the dog was not happy around the children. The signs may be subtle until the dog actually growls or bites. Some dogs will tolerate children for quite a while until something happens that tells them they’ve finally had enough.

One of my dogs is very fearful of a child’s touch, making me wonder what the children in his first home did to him, and even more so, what the parents didn’t do. Supervision of dogs and children at all times is vital not only for the child’s sake but for the dog too. The most loving dog can turn into a child-fearer if they are not supervised. Sadly, some children abuse pets when parents aren’t watching. If the dog bites the child, however, it is the dog’s fault. Of course, once that happens, it’s too late. Neither the child nor the dog is safe, and re-homing is absolutely necessary.

Can a safe co-existence between dogs and children be assured? The answer is that there are no guarantees but very easy steps should be taken to improve the chances of your dog being comfortable around your children:

1. Always use positive reinforcement when your dog is near your child. Happy talk, lots of treats and calm leadership. We want the dog to associate only good things when he’s near the child.
2. Never scold the dog or use any other punishment-based technique when the dog is interacting with a child. For instance, if the dog jumps on the child, do not scold the dog. The dog will associate bad things with being around the child as a result. And even more important, if the dog shows any signs of aggression, if you reprimand the dog, you will increase the dog’s fear of being near the child and assure future aggressive events.
3. Always supervise your dog and child, for both their sakes. We have the responsibility to the dog as much as to the child to keep them safe.
4. Involve your child in dog training. If the child is old enough, have him or her participate in being a good leader to the dog by asking the dog to “sit” for what the dog wants.

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