Dogs and children can be best friends, but this isn’t always the case. Behaviourist Toni Shelbourne advises on the positive steps owners can take if their dogs are wary of youngsters.
Particularly for those dogs who have had little contact with them, children can prove very unsettling — and sadly, sometimes, with devastating consequences.
However, there is much that dog owners can do to prepare dogs for visiting or — if circumstances change — living with children, so let’s take a closer look at what it is about children that makes some dogs uncomfortable.
Why might a dog be fearful of children?
Children are wonderfully gregarious, often moving erratically or making sudden noises. They can also be incredibly touchy-feely, wanting to hug or grab what interests them. To a dog, who may not have been socialised with children, or been frightened at a critical life stage by a child, these strange movements and noises can be incredibly unsettling. Humans forget that, as primates, we are naturally more tactile than canines. All this adds up to a dog who, at best, is confused by children or, at worst, feels the need to protect himself or his space being invaded.
It is best for children to stand to the side of the dog and stroke him on the shoulder nearest to them with the back of their hand.
Watch for the signs!
As adults it is our responsibility to protect both child and dog from a mishap. Knowing what communication signals to look for in your dog can be key to helping him cope and managing interactions safely. Dogs are amazing at indicating their worries if you know what to look for. If you can learn to read the first whispers of concern, a negative experience for both dog and child can be averted.
● Breath rate — look to see if your dog is holding his breath or starting to pant around children. If he is, stop the interaction and increase space, or take your dog out of the situation.
● Eyes — does your dog’s expression change from soft to worried? This can involve his eyes seeming to dart back and forth, seeing more of the whites of his eyes, or a glazed expression.
● Stress signals — do you notice him yawning when he isn’t tired, usually accompanied by a furrowed brow and a worried look in his eyes? Is he looking away from the child, licking his nose, or blinking his eyes? These are just some of the signals that dogs give out when they are starting to be concerned about an interaction, so keep an eye out and step in if needed to stop your dog’s behaviour escalating. Many people only recognise a dog’s concern once they flip into the next level. This is where the body language is easier to read and a fear response exhibited — fight, flight, freeze (looks like a statue), fool around, flock, or faint. The first three are self-explanatory, but fool around (acting the clown) is often misinterpreted, and flock is where a dog seeks the safety of a person for support.
Dogs and children can get on well with the right introductions.
Helping dogs become familiar with children
The difficulty can be in finding ways to familiarise a dog with children, especially if he doesn’t live with any, but much can be done to start the process without children even being present. If you have nieces and nephews, or friends’ children, who visit occasionally and with whom you know your dog will regularly interact, try the following two exercises.
● Scent — dogs gather so much information through smell; it’s their strongest sense and can easily be employed to help your dog get used to a child.
● Ask for an item of clothing to be sent to you that the child has worn. This needs to be in an airtight container.
If you have a matching lid in which you can drill holes it will make the scent work slightly easier, but if not don’t worry.
● Gather some very yummy treats (it is best to have soft, small treats that your dog goes mad for, which can be eaten quickly and easily). Get the container holding the clothes and be ready to dispense the treats quickly. If your dog isn’t focused on the treats, have a number of them in your hand so you can reward him quickly.
● Open the lid or replace it with the lid with holes, and place it so your dog can smell the clothing inside. The second he takes a sniff, drop a treat right on or next to the pot. Continue to drop treats every time he takes a sniff of the clothes.
● Once he loses interest, take up the container and replace the airtight lid. You can repeat this exercise a couple of times a day; you can even present the clothing for a sniff immediately before feeding.
● Replace the clothing every couple of weeks to refresh the smell. You are building a positive association with this exercise and helping your dog to recognise the child who will be visiting.
● Sound — along with the smell of a child, you can also familiarise your dog with the sound of children without them being in the house.
● Get a friend or family member to record their children playing, talking, and shouting or find a video on YouTube. Set this up on your phone or PC and gather some high-value treats.
● Have the volume on the lowest setting; when you play it, you want your dog to prick his ears up but not get worried. If you are not sure how to tell the difference, do some further research on calming signals in dogs. As he hears the sound, feed him, and keep feeding him one treat after the other in rapid succession until you turn the noise off. Just do this for a few seconds at first to judge his reaction.
● Once you can play the recording/video at this level for about 30 seconds with little or no reaction from your dog, turn the volume up slightly and go back and repeat.
● Continue to increase the volume until the recording/video is at full volume and your dog is happy and relaxed with the shouts, cries, and squeals.
Some dogs need a safe space to which they can retreat; a crate or puppy pen can be an ideal solution.
Smell and sound are just the first two stages; you will now need to work on the third stage — sight.
This is best done with a barrier between your dog and the visiting children. You can get all sorts of temporary and permanent barriers to divide rooms. If you have someone to help you at this stage, to let your visitors in and organise them, that would be useful. If not, pop your dog in another room until everyone is settled.
● You and your dog should be on one side of the barrier; make sure you have yummy treats, or favourite toys if your dog isn’t very food motivated. Ask the children and supervising adult to quietly sit as far away as possible from you and your dog. Give them an activity like colouring to do. Ask them not to look at your dog but quietly get on with a calm activity while seated.
● Every time your dog looks at the children, mark this behaviour with a short, happy word like ‘Yes’, ‘Good’ or ‘Yip’ and then feed him a yummy treat. Make sure he looks first, then say your marker word, and then feed. If he doesn’t look back at you as you say the word, place the food by his nose and lure him to look away from the children. The second he has eaten the food and looks back at the children, mark and feed again.
● Keep these sessions short — about 10 minutes or less and, if you can, repeat them often, building up movement and actively levels from the children.
Working with the scent from a child’s clothing.
As well as the scent of children, try setting up a positive with the sound of children.
The next stage
The final stage is the trickiest and should not be done without professional support if you think your dog is fearful of children, in which case seek help from a behaviourist.
If you are having children to stay at your house for an extended visit, and you know your dog is OK with children, follow these simple tips to ensure the visit goes well.
● Introduce them on a calm walk first.
● Have a safe space set up that your dog can retreat to for ‘time out’ or to sleep.
● Watch your dog’s facial expression carefully and help him out if you think he is being overwhelmed.
● Supervise interaction 100 per cent of the time and never leave your dog in the same room without at least two adults present, one to supervise the children and one the dog.
● Limit time together.
Introduce children and dogs on a calm walk or in an open space.
Rules for children
● Do not let the children approach your dog unless invited to do so.
● Direct them to stand to the side of the dog and stroke his shoulder with the back of their hand — but only if the dog is comfortable with this.
● Invoke the three second rule: stroke for three seconds, and then stop to see if your dog wants to move away or asks for more strokes.