It’s pretty exciting when you decide to get a pet dog for your kids! The time has come to bring those heart-warming moments from the movies right into your own home. But it’s not just about the cute times. Dogs bring immense value to a childhood. They teach responsibility and compassion, keep your kids active, teach them companionship and help instil a sense of responsibility. Dogs are natural mood boosters too. Don’t believe me? Just do a quick YouTube search for ‘adorable dogs with kids’ (thank me later!)
But please don’t forget it’s not all plain sailing. There are still risks to raising kids with a dog in your home. Kids are small and unpredictable and this makes them vulnerable. Even the most well-trained dog can become aggressive when provoked or improperly handled.
There’s a lot to consider when choosing a dog. Do you buy? Adopt? What breed, size and temperament should we go for? Are the kids too small still to appreciate a pooch properly? Or you may already have a dog before the kids arrive. Whatever your situation, there are a bunch of precautions and preparations to how to safely raise kids around dogs. We’re going to look at those today.
Preparing your dog for a baby
I know you’re super-excited to welcome your baby into the world, but if you have a dog already you need to prepare it for the baby’s arrival. Luckily you got about nine months to fix any behavioural issues and establish some ground rules.
1. Establish your authority
Before bub arrives, I recommend consulting a professional dog trainer. Even if you consider your dog well-trained, the new family addition 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 way you maintain authority and 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 them resenting your baby for taking away your attention, start modifying their routine before the baby’s arrival. Another idea is to hire a dog walker beforehand to familiarise your dog with the new person.
3. Make the nursery off limits
To establish barriers, do not let your dog in the nursery without your permission. 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
Never leave your dog alone with your baby. Babies are unpredictable and your dog’s reflexive response to 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, the cute poochy interactions will increase. This is an important time to focus on how to safely raise your kids around dogs. It’s a really fun time for kids, dogs and parents, but remember constant supervision is always necessary.
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, get 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. You can also give your dog a treat for staying calm while your toddler pets him.
Keeping children safe around dogs
As your kid grows up, they’ll learn more about your dog’s habits and behaviours. Their own special bond will begin to develop. It’s helpful if kids learn to tune in to their dog’s body language and emotions to avoid hurtful outcomes. For example, they might give the pooch affection at the wrong time and get a nip or a bite.
As a responsible pet parent, it’s your role to pass on your pet care knowledge to your child. Household rules need to be consistent and enforced by all family members. Here are some tips and guidelines that’ll help 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 be agitating to dogs, while getting your face too close to theirs can be misinterpreted as aggression. Dogs have different personalities and they adapt to their owner’s habits, so can be trained to tolerate these actions. But until they get used to such close contact, it’s better to be safe rather than sorry.
- Discourage rough play like climbing, riding or stepping on the dog. Boisterous behaviour and fun is tolerated by most family dogs. Just don’t let it go too far. And try avoid loud noises which can trigger a dog’s fight or flight instincts.
- Teach your child how to decode your dog’s behaviour. You should be familiar with the different behaviours exhibited by your dog. Like 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 body language helps kids read the situation and react appropriately.
- Do not feed your dog scraps from the table. I know how much kids LOVE to give dogs food. Especially if its their unwanted broccoli! But feeding dogs scraps from the table creates begging and encourages disruptive behaviour during meal times. Move the dog 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. Read my article on puppy pens here for more information.
- Practice zero tolerance for growling and aggression.
Helping your child overcome their fear of dogs
About one out of 20 people suffer from cynophobia, which is a crippling fear of dogs. It affects children and adults alike, with the mere sight of a dog causing paralysing fear. Even if it’s not that extreme, many kids can be nervous around dogs. Fortunately, there’s a way to reverse their fear of dogs. Here are some steps you can take to help them overcome their fear.
- Figure out the reason for their cynophobia. Understanding the root of their fear will enable you to reassure them and correct their misconceptions.
- Expose them gradually to dogs.Exposure to fear is a highly effective technique for overcoming phobias. It needs to be gradual though, because exposing your child to dogs without warning can cause more trauma. Start by watching wholesome dog movies or cute videos online so they can associate dogs with positive emotions. Then watch dogs playing from a safe distance until your child becomes used to their presence.
- 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. But if they see anxiety all over your face, they’ll feel even more afraid. You have to be patient because this process takes time. The worst thing you can do is get upset with your child. 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 consult your GP about getting professional help.
In conclusion, be proactive and approach the situation with love and care. A calm and gentle approach is the key to how to safely raise kids around dogs, be it your pet or someone else’s. And remember, if you have any questions at all you can always get in touch me on my Facebook group ‘Ask Dr Claire‘ or here.