Dogs can be wonderful companions for children. They are loyal, fun and provide unconditional love, so it’s not surprising many parents want their children to grow up with a family dog. Despite these attractions to the idea of a canine/child relationship, not every parent knows how to keep a child safe around dogs.
Children and dogs speak very different languages. The way a child shows affection may feel confrontational to a dog, which could cause the animal anxiety or stress. Children also find it hard to understand that a dog isn’t a cuddly toy and sometimes needs to be left alone.
Despite these issues with communication, most dogs tolerate human behavior. Bites are rare and almost never happen without warning. There are also plenty of things parents can do to reduce the chance of a bite, so here are five tips to keep your child safe around dogs.
Tip One: Teach Children How to Greet a Dog
There’s an expectation from some parents that all dogs should be friendly. This is transmitted to the child, who may not understand that strange dogs shouldn’t be approached. Keeping a child safe around dogs means teaching the child to approach the dog with caution.
As a dog owner, I’ve often had children run up to my pet at the park—sometimes screaming with delight—and pat him on the forehead. Their parents usually don’t ask permission or stop the child from approaching my dog, which is to them, an unknown dog. This is most definitely not the way to keep a child safe around dogs.
Despite the child’s good intentions, this sudden approach by a stranger can be a scary situation for a dog. Dogs don’t know what a strange child wants when the child approaches without warning. The dog often has no way to escape this unwanted attention. A dog’s attempts at communicating discomfort are usually missed or ignored.
Many dogs, including my own, are able to tolerate this sort of behavior. But some dogs may become defensive or even bite if they feel trapped, scared, or startled. For this reason, it’s important for all children to know how to politely greet a dog. This reduces the chance of a bite and teaches respect for dogs.
Here’s a simple four-step process you can use to teach your child how to greet a dog:
- Ask Permission: The first thing to teach a child is that he or she should never approach a strange dog without a parent’s permission. Similarly, the parent should always check with the owner before allowing a child near a dog. Never stroke (or allow a child to stroke) a dog if you can’t speak with the owner first—even if the dog is tied up in a public space.
- Proper Approach: Once the owner has given permission, show your child how to walk towards the dog with an outstretched arm and a closed fist. This protects the fingers and gives the dog a chance to communicate his feelings.
- The Dog’s Decision: The dog will sniff the child’s hand and either turn away or continue looking. If he turns away, he doesn’t want to continue with the interaction and you should leave him alone. This can be difficult for a child to understand, but it’s important to teach a child to respect a dog’s wishes. If the dog continues looking at the child or licks the child’s hand, the dog is giving his permission to be greeted.
- Stroking the Dog: Once the dog has signaled that he’s happy to continue making friends, the child can stroke him on the chest, shoulder or back. The child should avoid reaching over the dog’s head.
Even if the dog has shown positive signals of accepting your child’s friendship, you and your child should watch for signs of discomfort. Signs of a dog’s discomfort might include moving away, yawning or licking lips. If you see any such signs, have your child move away. Doing so teaches your child how to read the dog’s body language, which is critical to keeping your child safe around dogs.
Tip Two: Dogs Don’t Like Hugs
With their fluffy coats and big round eyes, dogs can seem like the perfect cuddling companions. The sad truth, however, is that most dogs don’t like hugs. Hugging feels restrictive to canines and they often don’t see a hug as a sign of affection. This can be difficult for young children to understand, but it’s important children learn that a dog is not a teddy bear.
There are some exceptions to the hugging rule. I’ve known several dogs that actively seek hugs from their owners and even strangers. Dogs, like people, have individual likes and dislikes. The average dog, however, tends to shows signs of anxiety when hugged. The dog may make “Whale Eyes” or lick his lips. The child should look for these signs when hugging a dog and be honest with himself as to whether the dog is really enjoying the hug, or would rather have a back scratch. If the dog is not enjoying the hug, the child should stop hugging the dog, of course.
While most dogs don’t enjoy hugs, that doesn’t mean a dog will automatically become aggressive or bite when hugged. Family dogs, in fact, often tolerate hugs from children and adults. Even so, it’s not fair or kind to hug dogs when it’s not in a dog’s nature to enjoy hugging. To hug a dog is to put him in a situation that makes him feel stressed and anxious.
Tip Three: Understand A Dog’s Discomfort Body Language
As a parent, the most important skill you can develop to keep your child safe around dogs is understanding the dog’s basic body language. This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Canine body language is surprisingly complex, but the signals for anxiety, stress or unhappiness are often easy to spot. The following signs tell you when a child’s play is becoming too rough and/or the dog should be left alone:
- Repetitive yawning despite being well rested
- Licking of lips when there’s no food in the area
- Heavy panting
- Turning the head away from the child
- Giving “Whale Eye” by tilting the head away and showing the whites of the eyes
- Moving or crawling away
These signals are the dog’s way of communicating he’s uncomfortable. If your child is the one causing the discomfort, it’s time to have your child give the dog some space. This is the smart way to keep your child safe around dogs.
There are, of course, other body language signals that dogs use to communicate feelings. In some situations, a dog will display the more obvious emotions of fear or aggression. Most people know that growling, teeth baring, and raised hackles are signs a dog shouldn’t be approached—especially by a child. In contrast, the classic “play bow” is a signal that a dog wants to play.
Such emotions are generally obvious even to humans who don’t understand canine body language. It’s the subtler signals of canine emotion that are often missed.
Tip Four: Supervise Children and Dogs at All Times
Dogs can make brilliant family pets. Many are patient, tolerant and loving around children, which is why the child/canine bond can quickly become so strong. Even so, parents should always supervise time spent between young children and dogs. Most dog bites happen when the parent or caregiver is nearby—and there are always warning signs that might have prevented the bite, if only someone had been paying attention. Except for the case in which there is a physical barrier between dog and child, for instance a sturdy fence, parents should actively supervise a child’s interaction with a dog.
“Active” supervision refers to parents watching the dog for signs of discomfort. The parent should be watching the dog without any outside distractions. No checking your phone screen, or watching television. You’re on watch. If the dog shows signs of anxiety or defensiveness—or if the play is becoming too boisterous—the parent should calmly step in and lead the child away.
Supervision isn’t only important when the child and dog are at play. Parents should always be on the watch for dangerous encounters between child and dog, such as, for instance, a child walking towards a sleeping dog. This can be hard work—always watching your child’s interactions with a dog—but active supervision is the best way to prevent a bite.
Tip Five: Show Your Child How to React to a Strange Dog
Just as I’ve seen children run up to dogs without first asking permission, I often see off-leash dogs approaching people with their owners nowhere in sight. This is often just a dog being playful, and wanting to meet new people. A boisterous dog can, however, be scary to a child. The child’s reaction can also sometimes make the dog mistakenly believe the child want to play.
To avoid misunderstandings, it’s important for frightened children to know how to react to a strange dog. The worst way for a frightened child to react to a dog is to run away screaming. Instead, the child should stand still with hands together and avoid making eye contact with the dog. The phrase “Be a Tree” is often used to describe this technique. A boisterous or playful dog usually becomes bored when someone behaves in this way. Once the dog loses interest, the child should calmly walk to an adult.
Admittedly, this is a lot to ask of a young child who is scared. But Be a Tree is a useful technique to teach children once they are able to understand how to behave around dogs. The Be a Tree technique also works well in the rare case in which a dog behaves aggressively towards a child.
Most dogs are brilliant companions and unlikely to bite. They should, however, always be treated with care, gentleness, and respect. For this reason, it’s important for children to know how to greet and interact with a dog. This helps keep the child safe while building a stronger bond between child and dog. Parents should also be able to identify common canine distress signals, so they can end an interaction before it becomes dangerous.
Do you have any questions about how to keep your child safe around dogs? Do you find it difficult to teach your child to behave politely around dogs? Please let me know in the comments and I’ll answer as soon as I can.