I write this blog not as a parent to children, but as a professional who gets called in to help with situations where dogs and children are present in the home together. Some of these cases are not related to dogs directing undesirable behaviors at children at all. But over time, I’ve seen some red flags in homes with both kids and dogs present despite the fact that we’re working on other things. And as for cases where a dog has shown aggression to a child, well, I take very few of these. Why? Because ultimately the risk is very high when children are present in a home with dogs showing aggression for any reason. Behavior modification is best attempted when a family’s energy, financial situation, emotional bank account, and ability to manage their dog all significantly outweigh the risk to those in the home.
If you have a serious behavior issue directed at children, it’s important to carefully consider the risks involved in keeping your dog in your home. This is a heartbreaking topic, but it is incredibly important to note: Behavior professionals cannot necessarily recommend a behavior modification program if the risk is too high to your children. We don’t “train out” aggression, reactivity, and resource guarding. We manage and modify it. Perfectly lovely dogs lose their homes and sometimes, their lives after being put in situations they cannot cope with and that are not appropriate for them. And children can sustain injuries as well as develop life-long fear of dogs if things go wrong. Behavior Consultants can help you assess risk in these cases but cannot promise that a behavior modification program is in your child and dog’s best interest.
If you are facing a behavioral challenge with your dog that is not directed at children, there are still some things to consider. Children sometimes leave doors and gates open or forget to pick up toys or food. They don’t always remember rules and protocols which you may need in place for your dog. If your dog is afraid of strangers, how will they act towards your five year old’s friends or their parents? Managing these interactions is key, and that will best be left up to the adults in the house, not the kids.
Even if someone lives with an incredibly mellow, tolerant dog, coaching children on what to do and not do around dogs is very important. Friends and family may have dogs and children will encounter dogs on the street and at parks. If a child believes they can approach, touch, or hug any dog, they may unknowingly put themselves in danger. When I have clients tell me their dog lets their child take food out of their bowl, climb on them, and hug them, my skin crawls. I would feel much more comfortable if clients told me they don’t know if their child could do these things because they have never let them happen. If a person knows their child can do these things, there have already been some pretty huge risks taken in their household.
Here are some rules I recommend for all homes with kid/dog combos:
Teach Your Dog:
Set up a safe space for your dog and teach them to use it comfortably. This is a space that is off-limits to kids. You can give your dog stuffed Kongs or chews in this space and play quiet music. This should be a doggie retreat, not a punishment.
Teach your dog where to be and what to do around kids using positive reinforcement. Use environmental management to help you:
Position dog sleeping areas like beds away from baby sleeping spaces.
Make sure to not position your dog so that they are above your baby, such as on a couch while baby sleeps on the floor. This is simply so that they do not jump on or paw at your baby.
Reward dogs heavily for being on the other side of a gated space when your baby or toddler is on the floor or kids are playing in a play space.
Redirect focused attention on the baby – make your baby a “non-event” for your dog.
Teach Your Kids:
Teach kids where to pet a dog. This could be the chest, behind the ears, or on the back as long as they don’t have to reach over the dog’s head. Help your children know that paws, mouths, tails, and the tops of heads are off limits.
Teach kids that a dog’s eating and sleeping spaces are off limits to them. Never approach a sleeping dog or a dog with a food bowl or bone.
Help kids read dog body language. If you’re not sure yourself, there are lots of professionals who can help you learn the intricacies of dog communication. Make sure kids know that when a dog walks away from an interaction, they are saying “no thank you.” If a dog freezes or growls, they should take space from the dog. If a dog licks their lips or yawns, that dog may be nervous. And so much more!
Teach kids safe games to do with dogs. What you choose will depend on the individual dogs…. and children. You know your children best, so take into account how well they can listen to and follow instructions. Factors like age, developmental stage, and listening skills will impact your choices.
Bottom Line: Behavior Modification is not appropriate if a child’s safety is threatened. Teach your children how to treat all dogs, not just the family dogs. Teach your dogs how to behave in a home with children using positive reinforcement. Start preventing problems early so you can enjoy life with both kids and dogs together!