I am a mother of one 6 month old boy. I am working to keep his interest in the dog suppressed. Our dog is a 3 year old, rescued Lhasa Apso. He tends to be a little on the crabby side and really only likes adult interaction. I feel that I can control the interactions between my son and my dog but how do I control the children of friends, family and the neighbor kid? He recently nipped the head of the toddler next door when he stuck it in his face. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!!
Hello Molly! I’m sorry I’m so far behind in answering your question. I have a pile of Q&A’s to go through! Your situation, though, is very common — and frustrating when you are trying to do the right thing with your dog and baby!
“Other People’s Children” will be a constant issue throughout your life as a parent – and not just in dog matters. The more experience you gain as a parent, the easier it will be to boss around other people’s kids! That’s because you’ll cease being surprised at what kids think are good ideas and proactively manage your situations from the get go to prevent problems.
What Generally Does NOT Work
Any direction that includes the words “buddy” and/or “okay?”
For example, “Let’s leave the dog alone for a little while, okay, Buddy?” Toddlers fool us because they are sometimes so agreeable that we can seemingly get away with these vague, “I hope you go along with me…” directions but really we can’t for very long.
Trying to explain to a toddler why you do or don’t want them to do something and hoping they will see the logic and be reasonable about it.
Does the definition of toddler include the word “reasonable?” I do think kids should be told the rationale behind instructions but it takes time and development to acquire a different internal motivation and have true empathy for another creature. Don’t rely on a two-year-old to now behave in a logical manner just because you explained, “The doggie doesn’t like you to sit on him. Would you like it if someone sat on YOU?” (I’m writing this from the experience of raising a boy who would eagerly volunteer for pretty much any, “Would you like it if…” questions!)
Expecting your own children to be models of good judgment.
Once kids are with a friend or two, it seems their collective good judgment takes a dive. Sometimes, there’s an element of showing off or going for the laughs that will prompt your usually considerate child to mess with the dog or go along with what a friend thinks is a good idea.
Assuming that nice, reasonable parents = children with appropriate behavior towards animals.
“But the parents seem so nice…” is something I hear a lot when other parents are discussing the misbehavior of someone else’s kid. (LOL, I wonder if people are saying that about me when I’m not there!)
Being from a “good family” is no guarantee that young children will have only good ideas. Sometimes the kids have a nice motivation but the way they express it is dangerous and/or distressing to the dog (e.g., hugging and kissing).
Parents often say, “Oh, he’s fine with dogs – we have a dog at home.” This does not mean the child will behave appropriately with your dog! He or she may come from a family afflicted with The Curse of a Good Dog…
Relying on shame to change behavior for the better.
I see this more from parents embarrassed about their own child’s behavior, rather than as a way to change someone else’s child’s behavior, but it’s pervasive. “Why would you do something like that? What’s wrong with you? You are being very mean!” Sure, we can THINK this in our heads but saying it out loud does nothing to build a friendly connection with the animal or teach what to do instead. In fact, I think it’s more likely the child will lash out a bit at the animal when the adults aren’t looking.
What DOES Work
It’s important to clearly identify to yourself when you might be relying on “hope” as a method of managing situations with dogs and young children. Mixing dogs and toddlers to do as they please comes down to merely hoping for the best. Can anyone really say, “I had no idea he would do THAT!” when referring to toddlers? Parents learn this by experience but do we all really need to learn this lesson individually? Can’t we just stipulate that toddlers = high probability of a crazy idea and guide the situation accordingly?
Visiting children should not have the opportunity to get themselves bitten. Saying, “I told her to leave the dog alone…,” is a poor excuse for not taking charge of the safety and well-being of those in your care — both kids and dogs. Dog bites to children are almost entirely preventable.
Make the dog unavailable for visiting children’s exploration.
Just like some people put away the breakables when the tiny relatives come to visit or put a gate on stairs or around a fireplace, there is an element of preventing access that is reasonable with an animal, especially an animal that does not relish contact with small children. (See post “Why Your 4 Year Old Can’t Visit My Sick Dog.”) Not letting a very young child GET to your dog is very different than trying to get the child to stop doing something your dog doesn’t like!
What form this takes will vary with different families and different situations. Some ideas:
- Dog relaxing on a leash with parent’s guidance and protection
- Dog or children behind a gate (if parents can prevent visiting children from shaking the gate or staring through it)
- Dog in another room, with child-proof latching or an extra baby gate on door
- Dog outside, if kids are inside and they are unable to agitate each other through a glass door
- An adult protecting the dog’s space and redirecting young children before they get too close
You’ll have to judge for yourself what is appropriate for your family based on the activities going on. For example, when the kids are doing a “strapped in” activity – like in a highchair or playpen or swing – the dog might enjoy some freer movement (assuming the dog is not pestering the kids!).
Many dogs have just not practiced being relaxed with separation, making these suggestions seem impractical at first glance. Maybe you can’t do this right away, but with even just two weeks of practice, your dog can learn to enjoy his Safety Zone. See Barbara Shumannfang’s excellent book, Happy Kids, Happy Dogs. Similarly, dogs can quickly learn the basics of Relax on a Mat from Nan Arthur’s Chill Out Fido book, making your dogs easy to have by your side as you entertain the kids.
Give proactive, clear instructions right from the start.
This is true even with older kids. Be clear about what they may or may not do in proximity to your dog. It’s okay to have rules!
“Our dog is old and has trouble walking. You may not run near her. When you see the dog, walk slowly.” I like that phrasing from Becky Bailey’s book, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: “You may not…” It helps you get in the habit of very clear, adult-like instruction.
Resist the reasonable impulse to wait for the other parents to direct their children. Everyone will appreciate clear direction.
Always keep in mind, too — if a child is too young to hold a conversation with you or understand your directions, he or she is too young to be trusted to interact appropriately with your dog. See this post on “Love vs. ‘Luv’” so you know what you are fostering.
Ascribe a positive motivation to the child’s behavior.
This is another recommendation I liked from Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline! Read the book to get the full flavor, but it’s about heading off a misbehavior and setting the child on a better path. If, for example, the child tries to return to the dog after you said not to, you can get the child on your “team,” so to speak, by guessing at a nice intention the child is likely to take credit for.
“You really like dogs and you’d like to be close to her so you can be friends. <Child agrees.> Our dog is resting behind the gate. When she is resting, you may be a friend by sitting over here and singing a quiet song. <Child complies.> You are a good friend to our dog! When she needed to rest, you helped her with your quiet song. I’m glad you can visit us and help our dog feel safe.”
The idea is to foster a willingness to cooperate – right then and next time, too.
GUIDE interactions between dog and child.
“Supervising” is not enough. The adult’s job is to ensure a safe, successful encounter by guiding the interaction. Position yourself so you are in contact with your dog’s head. Direct the child where and how he or she may touch the dog (if at all); reinforce your dog with treats for accepting contact. Or, in the case of an overly exuberant dog, be ready to guide and reinforce four paws on the floor or calmer behavior around the children. End the encounter after just a few moments: “OK. That’s enough. It’s time to go play at the table.”
Remember, too, that it’s perfectly okay not to encourage visiting children to touch your dog. Guiding can include stepping between a child and your dog and redirecting the child. Remain prepared, however, to guide incidental encounters.
Under no circumstances should visiting children be able to physically access your dog out of your sight.
Teach your dog coping skills.
This is probably a whole chapter in itself for my dogs and babies book so I will never finish this post if I try to address it here! The point is included here to get you thinking about ways to improve your dog’s tolerance and comfort level for mistakes. It can’t be left as, “No one touch the dog or else he’s going to bite.” You’ve got to get the dog to take at least one giant step away from contributing to an incident. Maybe this entails teaching a fast response to your call to come to you. Maybe you can work more on comfort with handling. Maybe it’s resource guarding that needs work?
While it’s true that most normal dogs are at least a little uneasy with visiting toddlers and preschoolers, it’s also true that most dogs are not going to bite in response to an isolated, minor incursion. If that’s the case with a particular dog, look to ways to help your dog cope better.
- Remember that babies, toddlers, preschoolers and “kids” are different animals! Often, we put too many expectations on toddlers and preschoolers well before they are developmentally able to be successful. Toddlerhood is transitory. I’m sure glad I am not being held responsible for what I thought were good ideas back then!
- If you don’t protect your dog, what is the alternative?
Do the recommendations seem too hard or overly strict? Consider the distress involved in trying to unravel even a minor dog bite to someone else’s child. Wouldn’t you give anything to erase that moment? Well, here’s your chance to not let hit happen in the first place.
What do you think? What has worked well or not so well for your family? I’m sure this “off the top of my head” post doesn’t cover everything. It can be a touchy situation trying to discipline someone else’s kids!