Getting a pet dog for your child can be an exciting prospect. Every heart warming dog movie promotes dogs as man’s best friend, and for good reason. Dogs can teach your child responsibility and compassion. They can keep your kids active, teach them about companionship, and help instil a sense of responsibility. Dogs are also natural mood boosters as illustrated by the endless dog videos going viral on the Internet. However, while having a dog can be a rewarding experience for your child, there are inherent risks to raising a kid with a dog in your home. Remember that children are vulnerable due to their small size and unpredictable behaviour. After all, even the most well-trained dog can become aggressive when provoked or improperly handled.
You can choose to buy or adopt a dog once your child is old enough to take some responsibility and can have a meaningful relationship with a dog. You also have to consider a variety of factors such as breed, size, and temperament before welcoming a dog into your home. Of course, this isn’t always the case since you may already have a dog before getting pregnant or you probably gave in early to your child’s dogged request. Regardless of your situation, practicing the necessary precautions and preparations will help keep your child safe around dogs.
Preparing your dog for a baby
Along with the anticipation of welcoming your baby into the world, you must also remember to start preparing your dog for the baby’s arrival. Fortunately, you have roughly nine months to fix any behavioural issues and establish ground rules.
1. Establish your authority
Before the baby arrives, I recommend consulting a professional dog trainer. Even if you consider your dog well-trained, the addition of a new member in your family will naturally alter your routines and dynamics. The most important thing is to establish your dominance. Dogs are pack animals and will naturally follow the alpha, so make sure you are fully prepared to take on the role as the “top dog.” This allows you to maintain authority and establish clear rules and boundaries.
2. Practice new routines
Gradually introduce new routines to your dog. Since your focus will understandably shift to your baby, the sudden change of pace could make your dog restless or jealous. To prevent your dog from resenting your baby for taking away your attention, you can start modifying your dog’s routine before the baby’s arrival. You can also opt to hire a dog walker beforehand to familiarise your dog with the new person and manage his expectations.
3. Make the nursery off limits
To establish barriers, do not let your dog in the nursery without your permission. At the same time, you can teach him the “on your mat” or “go to bed” command which conditions him to leave the area when you say the words. Basic commands like “sit” and “stay” are also helpful to keep your dog sitting and waiting patiently at the nursery doorway.
4. Help your dog get used to your baby’s scent and belongings
A dog’s sense of smell is powerful, so gradually familiarise him with your baby’s smell using various objects or toys. You can allow your dog to sniff the objects from a few inches away before asking him to leave again. This establishes a rhythm and prepares him for the actual introduction while teaching him to maintain a respectful distance. When the baby is born, bring the baby’s clothes or blanket home to further familiarise him with your baby’s scent.
5. Walk your dog before the introduction
Once your dog is ready to meet the baby, take him on a walk so he can work off any excess energy. After the walk, wait for him to calm down before letting him in the house. Expect your dog to immediately pick up on the now-familiar scent of your baby. Make sure whoever is holding the baby is calm and alert. Keep the baby at a comfortable distance and allow the dog to sniff from a safe distance. If he remains calm, you can give him permission to come closer.
6. Maintain constant supervision
Although your baby’s interaction with the dog at this stage will be minimal, it goes without saying that you should never leave them alone. A baby’s behaviour can be unpredictable and your dog’s reflexive response to any sudden movements or noises, like crying, might result in unintentional injury.
Teaching toddlers how to safely play with dogs
Once your baby grows into a toddler, interactions with your dog will increase. Again, constant supervision is a must.
1. Discourage rough play
In the infancy stage, you teach your dog to respect your baby. In the toddler stage, you teach your child to respect the dog. Toddlers in their exploratory stage tend to be grabby. Discourage unruly behaviours like yanking the tail and ears or pulling the fur. The pain could incite aggressive behaviour, possibly biting your toddler.
2. Install baby gates
Baby gates separate your child from the dog and create safe spaces for both of them. This safety barrier allows them to adjust to each other’s presence while avoiding rough play and giving each of them a refuge.
3. Teach your toddler how to pet the dog
With your toddler on your lap, encourage your dog to sit close to you. Start by letting the dog sniff your toddler. Then, pet your dog gently and guide your toddler’s hand to do the same. If your toddler starts getting rough, say “No” and move him away. Try again when he calms down.
4. Reward positive behaviour
Say “Good job” when he’s petting your dog gently. At the same time, you can also give your dog a treat for staying calm while your toddler pets him.
Keeping children safe around dogs
After the toddler years, your child can benefit from learning more about your dog’s habits and behaviours and developing their own special bond. Children should learn to tune in to their dog’s body language and emotions to avoid untoward incidents. For example, your child might give affection at the wrong time resulting in a nip or a bite. As a responsible pet parent, it is your role to pass on your pet care knowledge to your child. Make sure all members of your family are consistent with their training and in enforcing household rules. Here are some general tips and guidelines to keep your child safe:
- Teach your child to respect the dog’s space. Let them eat in peace, leave their toys alone unless you’re playing catch, do not disturb them when they are sleeping, and do not get in their face. A tight hug can also be agitating to dogs, while getting your face in close contact to theirs can be misinterpreted as aggression. Just like humans, dogs have different personalities and they adapt to their owner’s habits. This means they can be trained to tolerate these actions, but until they get used to such close contact, it’s better to err on the side of caution.
- Discourage rough play like climbing, riding or stepping on the dog. Most family dogs can tolerate boisterous behaviour and play with kids so long as it doesn’t go too far. This also applies to loud noises which can trigger a dog’s fight or flight instincts.
- Teach your child how to decode your dog’s behaviour. As the owner, you should be familiar with the different behaviours exhibited by your dog. For instance, if their tail or ears are down, it can be a sign of fear or agitation. Barking can be a warning, an invitation to play or asking to be fed. Learning your dog’s cues and body language will help your child react appropriately and know when to back off.
- Do not feed your dog scraps from the table. Even when they’re giving you the puppy dog eyes, tell your child to resist giving food. Feeding dogs scraps from the table creates a begger and encourages disruptive behaviour during meal times. Immediately move them to a different room if they start begging.
- Discourage your dog from jumping up on anyone. Perhaps they’re just happy to see you, but this can escalate quickly if a person misinterprets the dog’s behaviour and reacts defensively. When this happens, tell your child to raise the knee and turn their side or back towards the dog.
- Provide a safe space for your dog. Give your dog a crate or bed where he can feel safe and comfortable. This space is off limits to your child as part of creating boundaries between them.
- Practice zero tolerance for growling and aggression.
Helping your child overcome their fear of dogs
About one out of 20 people suffer from cynophobia or a crippling fear of dogs. This phobia affects children and adults alike. The mere sight of a dog can cause paralysing fear. Fortunately, there’s a way to reverse your child’s fear of dogs. Here are some useful steps you can take to help your child overcome their fear.
- Figure out the reason for their cynophobia. Understanding the root of their fear will enable you to reassure them more effectively and correct their misconceptions.
- Expose them gradually to dogs. Exposure to fear is a highly effective technique for overcoming phobias. However, it has to be gradual because exposing your child to dogs without warning can cause more trauma. Instead, you can start by watching wholesome dog movies or cute videos online so they can associate dogs with positive emotions instead of fear. Perhaps you can watch dogs playing from a safe distance until your child becomes used to their presence and can remain calm around them.
- Reward bravery. Celebrate little steps they take towards facing their fear of dogs. If they can calmly pass by your neighbour’s house with a barking dog without crying or running away, give your child a high five or say something encouraging like, “You did it. You’re so brave.”
- Monitor your reactions. It’s normal to fear for your child’s safety and run to their aid with the slightest sign of discomfort. However, do your best to keep your emotions in check because once they see anxiety all over your face, they will feel even more afraid. You also have to be patient because this process takes time. The worst thing you can do is get upset with your child because chances are they will feel like a failure, uncertain or confused and become even more reluctant to face their fear.
- Seek professional help. If all else fails and if your child’s cynophobia is already interfering with his daily life, then it may be time to consult your GP about getting professional help.
A proactive approach ultimately helps relieve the stress of raising a child around dogs. A calm and gentle approach is the key to your child’s safety around dogs, be it your pet or someone else’s.