posted: by: WAYNE HUNTHAUSEN, DVM Tags: "Clinic Specials" "News" 

Children and dogs can be great companions for each other. Some of the warmest memories for many of us involve our relationship with a special pet dog as we were growing up. Dogs can be great playmates and friends. They listen well, don’t talk back and are always ready to share in an adventure. But dogs and children don’t inherently know how to behave with each other. There are no genes that instinctively steer dogs or children into successful relationships. The success of the bond between the child and the family pet depends upon how well the parents raise both of them. Raising good kids, raising good dogs, and raising kids and dogs to be good with each other requires time and a commitment to providing necessary guidance and training.

If the puppy is the first child in the home, then special attention must be give to how the young pup is raised. For an adult dog to be comfortable with children, it is essential that it has lots of positive experiences with children during its early, formative months of life. Pups that grow up without children in the picture may never be comfortable around them when they get older. New couples and grandparents, pay attention! You can’t afford to wait until your dog is one year of age to meet its first child or grandchild. If you do, the meeting may be tense at the best, and dangerous at the worst.

If children precede the dog into the home, then you need to consider the ages of the children before deciding to adopt a puppy. Depending on the maturity of the children, the number of children and complexity of the home environment, it’s usually best to postpone adopting a pup into the home until the children are around five to seven years of age. Younger children usually don’t have the motor skills or learning skills to be taught how to deal with an active, exuberant young pup. If you plan to adopt a puppy from a large active breed like a Labrador Retriever, you might even want to wait until the children are older. Big puppies like to chase and playbite anything that moves. Young children are particularly vulnerable tot his type of play, which can be dangerous even if the pup is friendly. When adopting a family pet, look for a pup with an even, moderate temperament. It’s pretty obvious that bold, pushy pups can be too much for a child to handle, but fearful pups can even be more problematic. Shy puppies are quickly overwhelmed by active children and may readily show avoidance behaviors, hand shyness and fear aggression.

A young pup needs to learn two things about children right away. Children have control over it and the children are the good guys. Start by having the child teach the pet to sit on command using puppy food. Once it learns this, the child should ask the pet to sit before it gets anything. Dinner time provides a good opportunity for training. The child can ask the pet to sit for its dinner, a piece at a time. It’s also a good time to teach the pet to come on command. Simply have the children sit across the room from each other with a handful of the pup’s food and call the pet back and forth for a piece of kibble. This can be an exercise that is educational, as well as fun. It can also head off another serious problem, food-bowl aggression. Dogs are less likely to guard their food if they learn from a very early age that dinner time is a fun social time, and that they aren’t going to lose their food when humans are around.

Children have to be taught how to play with the pet, how to handle it, pick it up, when to leave it alone, etc. As I mentioned before, they aren’t born with that knowledge. The best way for the child to learn is for the parent to teach by example. Kids are good imitators. When they see parents petting the dog gently and playing appropriately, they’ll follow suit and learn important lessons. But if they see mom and dad swatting the dog or playing highly arousing games of tug of war, the door is open for the development of a variety of undesirable behaviors, including aggression.

For everyone’s safety, young dogs and children should always be supervised by an adult until both are more mature. Keeping a long leash on the pet can be helpful for controlling the pup and interrupting high-spirited, unruly behaviors. An important fact for all parents to realize is that there are often times when the child and the pet just should not be together. If either one is so fired up and out of control that it overwhelms the other, separation is the most practical strategy. If the pup frequently overwhelms the child, you should temporarily limit the time they are together to a period immediately following some aerobic exercise for the pet. There will be times when the child might want to play with a friend without having the pet playbiting and jumping in the middle of everything. To keep the pet from bothering the children, give the pup several toys that will really keep its interest, like a Buster Cube, Kong toys, Goodie Ships, Bite-a-Bones or other toys that can be stuffed with treats.

Kids and dogs can be great for each other. Just remember not to take the relationship for granted. Set aside time to actively shape the relationship to be the best it can be. A little effort in the beginning will pay back major dividends for both the dog and the child in the future.

Dogs, Cats, and Kids: Learning to be safe with animals by Wayne Hunthausen, DVM and Don Manell. (1996) Topics in this award winning video for children (ages 4-10) include understanding cat and dog behavior, how to handle family and friend’s pets, how to recognize dangerous situations, and how to be safe when approached by a stray animal. This video is an excellent aid for giving presentations to school groups. (30 minute)