What Does it Mean to Be “Magnetized?”
I use the term, “magnetized,” to refer to how babies end up where they CANNOT stay away from dogs. I’m sure you’ve seen it — the kids who make a beeline for dogs in the park or who are always messing with their own dog or wanting to pet other people’s dogs.
I discussed some of this in a previous post about babies that “love” dogs. The main issue is the lack of self-control inherent in a magnetized young child. If a toddler or preschooler could turn it on and off, maybe, but reliable on/off switches are not what toddlerhood is all about.
Is it Really That Big of a Deal?
Yes. I think this is a huge deal. Not everyone agrees with me so you’ll have to think it through yourself and decide how much risk you are willing to have your child assume. A majority of bites happen in response to a child approaching a dog. Young children have zero judgment. If you encourage your baby/toddler to go up to some dogs, he or she will likely want to go up to all dogs – whether or not you’re there to supervise.
It’s tempting to think, “Well, I’m a good parent and I’ll be able to teach the difference to my child. Besides, I’m going to raise my child to be gentle and respectful with animals so she’s not likely to get bitten.” Maybe you’re right. Lots of times nothing bad happens. But lots of people drive drunk, too, and never kill anyone. Doesn’t make it a good choice.
And that’s what this is – a choice. As a parent, you get to choose for your baby the habits and behaviors you are going to instill long before your baby can make her own choices. That’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.
In my experience, encouraging a baby to notice, reach for and touch your dog (or any dog) opens the door to all the other variations a child will come up with through the toddler/preschool years. Kids aren’t really known for doing the right things at this stage of development. If you establish the dog within the circle of your baby’s interactions, the dog will be included in the whole range of physical expressions, not just the “nice” ones, but also the tantrums, experimentation, showing off for friends, etc.
“I have a normally very sweet, laid back 13 month old son named Joseph (changed name) who just discovered that smacking is fun two days ago. Ah, the joys of toddlerhood! He will pick up a toy (such as a truck) and smack our dogs on the head with it or just pound on them with his hands. He will try to smack at his dad or me too, but not as often. I am extremely lucky to have very tolerant dogs so far! This is what I have learned: telling Joseph “no!” just stops him for a second, and then he continues to try to hit the dogs. I have also tried blocking him when I see he is headed towards a dog and distracting him with a book or a toy. The distraction seems to work, but then he will crawl towards the dogs to smack them later.”
This is a classic scenario of a magnetized child. It all seemed “fine” when the baby feeling like being gentle. It’s hard to factor in the unintended consequence for later…when the baby is NOT feeling like being gentle. Joseph is not a “bad baby” — this is entirely normal. However, if he were not already “magnetized” to the dogs, he’s more likely to restrict his smacking to Mom and Dad and leave the dogs out of it.
Besides, even if your child doesn’t get as much into the smacking stage and your dog is endlessly tolerant, you still cannot escape The Curse of a Good Dog and the fact that encouraging this magnetized behavior puts your child at a greater risk of a bite when the good dog has a bad day or your child is too forward with someone else’s dog who DOES object.
“Magnetizing” Starts in Infancy
I completely understand how it starts. You’re holding your baby, playing goo-goo games and the dog walks by. Wham! Your baby drops you like a hot potato to look at the dog:
The baby is usually excited and may even be saying, “Duh, duh, duh, duh!” which makes you think you have not only a budding Dr. Doolittle but a GENIUS BABY — she’s trying to say, “Dog,” already! (Of course, that’s all she can say but we’ll put that piece of reality aside for now.) I’m joking, but I do understand how hard it is to resist an excited, happy baby. It will feel very natural to encourage this interest:
The next step would be to carry the baby close to the dog and encourage some gentle touching and getting to know the dog.
DON’T DO IT!
This is how babies get magnetized. You think you’re building a relationship and teaching your baby how to be gentle with the dog, but, really, you’re making the early brain connection in your infant that, “Dogs are for touching.”
Really think about that.
Consider other things infants are entranced by. Exhibit A – The Ceiling Fan:
Babies often show the same excited behavior with the ceiling fan as they do with the dog. (Even the “duh, duh, duh” part!) However, no matter how much you want to foster your baby’s interest and curiosity, does it ever occur to you to bring your baby closer and try to tell her, “Careful, honey, now keep your hands down…”
Why not? Are you thinking, “Well, duh, I’d never do that because the fan could hurt my baby and I know my baby won’t understand what I’m saying or be able to follow my instructions. That would be crazy!! I’d definitely get a ‘Bad Parent Award’ for that.”
Tell me why it’s different with a dog. I ask people that all the time because I’d like to be wrong. I don’t like being the wet blanket at every event where very young kids and dogs are mixing, and I do have lots of other dog training interests I’d like to pursue. I stick with my Dogs and Babies work because of all the families I meet after an incident who say, “If only I knew this, I would have done things differently…”
I think parents and dog trainers alike have a natural blind spot when it comes to dogs and young children. We all want the storybook tale of best friends forever. This makes us assume that dogs understand good intentions (“He was only trying to love the dog!”) and that toddlers will always be compliant. Once you’re an experienced parent, you know that toddlers and “compliant” do not go together. It’s hard to imagine that when you’re a new parent and you have a baby that seems so sweet and easy. That’s why I focus so much on not starting a “relationship” with a baby towards a dog — because it’s a can of worms that’s a lot harder to put back once you open it than it is to just leave on the shelf a little longer.
Don’t be in a rush! Let your baby just coexist peacefully with your dog. So much of the “magnetizing” happens not just because babies are interested in dogs, but because parents feed that interest disproportionately more than they do other interests a baby clearly isn’t ready to pursue.
For example, why is THIS OK…
But not THIS…
Yes, children need to learn how to be careful with knives and dogs alike, but does it really make sense to introduce the idea before they are developmentally prepared to be successful? People expect to keep knives out of the reach of children but, at the same point, they do not expect to still cut their child’s meat when he’s twenty-one years old. It should go the same way with dogs.
In the previous post, we talked about some of the reasons why you would not want to "magnetize" your baby to dogs - primarily because your baby or young child is not going to be developmentally able to be successful interacting with your dog until closer to maybe age five. There is always time and opportunity to allow your child to do MORE later so don't be in a rush to prompt your child to touch dogs.
Just like all the other things you baby-proof and control access to until your child is ready, it makes sense to do the same with the dog. However, because it's not appropriate or desirable to keep your dog under lock and key and even the best "supervision" is always going to have gaps, it is essential that parents give their babies another layer of protection by mindfully not "magnetizing" them to dogs. After all, what are you going to do when your child is 18 months old and makes a beeline for the dog whenever you turn your back and now you have another baby with a giant poop explosion in the other room?
Yikes! So, let's talk now about how to prevent the magnetization right from the start so you never have to find out!
(As you'll see, this post turned into more of photo essay than an article. That's what's great about a blog - it can be what it wants to be!)
The First "Meeting"
I'll have a lot more to say about bringing baby home, but, for now, I'd like to remind you that the dog and baby are not actually "meeting" or making any plans for the future. Your dog doesn't have to get up close and personal with your newborn child.
If you can't resist and just need to have your dog sniff your baby, the baby should be tucked in close to you, with no dangling limbs and facing away from the dog. Sniff, sniff, sniff...All Done... go do something else with the baby. Neither the dog nor the baby should linger and get fascinated with each other.
Your newborn can't even hold her head up or focus very far in front of herself. Do not start off by calling attention to your dog and then hoping you can turn that off at will. Let your baby be your baby and your dog be your dog. They are not available to each other for exploration.
When Baby Notices Dog
By eight weeks of age, most infants can focus their eyes to better notice things around them. By three months, babies are usually tracking motion with their eyes and beginning to reach for things. What you do in these first three months sets the stage for what your baby will want to explore when she starts reaching and grasping. The intent is that your dog is not one of these objects.
When your baby notices your dog, acknowledge her interest without making a big deal about it or bringing the baby over to touch the dog. The dog is simply not available for touching.
"Yes, that's our dog, Fluffy. Fluffy is a good dog and watches over the family." Sing a little song, engage your baby with you as you move on to do other things. There are a lot of other interesting new things when you're just born. Don't let your dog upstage you -- be more interesting than the dog!!
That's it. Simply resisting the urge to magnetize your baby by not prompting contact is enough at this stage.
What if Baby Reaches for Dog?
If baby reaches her hand to touch the dog, gently slide your hand under hers so your dog feels your familiar, comfortable touch. This will keep your baby's hand from being able to grasp and pull fur. Reassure your dog, "Good dog, thank you," and shift your baby's position so she can no longer reach the dog.
Begin to build an interior monologue for your baby. I call these "internal prompts." Tell your baby what's going on in ways that inform her what to do:
"Dogs like a little more space. Let's move over here so she feels safe. Look, our dog is staying with us! You helped her feel safe. You are a good friend to dogs!" Don't worry, you'll come up with your own wording that sounds natural to you. The point is that you use this pre-crawling time to teach your baby the behaviors you most want to see in her repertoire. If she spends this time rehearsing reaching for and touching your dog, that's what you're going to get more of when she's on the go in a few short months.
Remember, your infant can't get anywhere on her own just yet. This is your best time for a good foundation! (Maybe this is why babies don't crawl for so many months -- so you can help dog and baby acclimate!)
Really, don't you want to be able to hold your baby and still enjoy your dog relaxing next to you? This will never happen if you let your baby experiment with reaching for the dog as an infant. Well, maybe "never" is too strong, but it's less likely your dog will feel relaxed and comfortable when he's busy wondering if the baby is going to pull his fur again today.
The Remote Control
Just like if you're sitting on the couch watching a big game, you don't want the baby messing with the remote. At the same time, it's not like you want to get UP and flip channels manually, either. So, generally, parents figure out not to call too much attention to the remote control and keep it out of reach of the baby. No one worries that their baby is going to grow up techologically-challenged.
If you can do it for the remote control, you can do it for your dog. (And if you didn't do it for the remote, don't you wish you did?)
What Does Your Dog Think About All This?
First of all, no one really knows what dogs think. Half the time, we probably don't want to know! However, we CAN get a hint based on their body language.
The less your baby reaches out to touch your dog, the more comfortable your dog will feel around your baby. The more comfortable your dog feels, the safer it is for your baby. If you want your baby to be safe around your dog, your dog has to feel safe around your baby. This is just common sense, isn't it?
Parallels to "Parallel Play"
A normal and preferred play style for toddlers and preschoolers often involves what's known as parallel play: "a form of play where children play adjacent to each other, but do not try to influence one another's behavior." This comes up all the time in parenting Q&A columns where a new parents worry about toddlers who don't seem to engage with each other. It's explained as a completely normal developmental stage and parents are discouraged from trying to force kids to play "with" each other before they are ready.
It makes sense to a baby/young child to be by the dog without reaching for it. We are not depriving our babies of any essential life experience by refusing to magnetize them to dogs. It's just the opposite -- we are giving them the opportunity to be just the way they're supposed to be. Your baby will be perfectly fine being friends with your dog without touching. And, your dog will be more likely to reciprocate that friendship.
(The following is from Part 3 old post and leads with iconic pic of Betty and Andrew)
Let's Recap - Why Is It Important NOT to Magnetize Babies and Toddlers to Dogs?
My concerns with "magnetizing" babies and young children to dogs are:
- The Curse of a Good Dog -- even if your dog is perfectly tolerant of anything your children may do, what happens when the good dog has a bad day? What happens when your children do the same things to someone else's dog who may not be as tolerant?
- Young children are not learning respect for others if they are encouraged to do what they want just because they want to do it, even if they mean well.
- Young children are not developmentally prepared to be successful and safe interacting with dogs. Neither you nor your dogs are likely to agree with what a two-year-old thinks is a good idea.
Previous posts about infants stressed the importance of not prompting your baby to become magnetized to the dog. Early magnetizing is almost always due to parental prompting and encouragement, in my opinion. Yes, babies will naturally be interested in the dog but you don't have to feed that interest to the point where your child becomes fixated on the dog. That's where it crosses the line and makes it harder to manage dog and baby once the baby starts crawling and toddling. Because, where do you think that magnetized baby is going to make a beeline for?
Baby Gates Are Your Friends! (And Your Dog's Friends, Too!)
When you are not able to be actively engaged with your toddler, gates prevent her from finding her own entertainment with your dog (or any other item she cannot yet handle appropriately).
Barbara Shumannfang's terrific book, "Happy Kids, Happy Dogs" includes a nice section on how to establish and use a Safety Zone for when it's more appropriate for your dog to be separated in a quiet, enjoyable area. Barbara has graciously shared a summary on her website here.
Kids, too, will often need to be corralled at times throughout the crawling and toddling years. A safe play area for the kids can allow your dog to move freely through the house and for you to casually be on one side or another without fuss. Experienced parents come up with all kinds of creative gating options! We went through a variety of different gating arrangements to suit our children's different stages. Here are some examples:
Now That My Baby is On the Move, How Do I Make Sure She Doesn't Magnetize Herself to Dogs?
First thing, of course, is that you are pretty much always going to be right there with your crawler and new walker anyway. Even if you didn't have a dog, you're not going to let crawler/toddlers roam throughout the house unattended.
Since you're right there anyway, use this opportunity to continue to instill "internal prompts" -- what do you want your child to think about and rehearse in each encounter with a dog?
For example, when your child crawls in the general direction of your dog, stop and point out the dog. "Look, our dog is resting. When our dog is lying down, we move around. Let's move around the dog." Show your child by example what you mean by "around." Aim for at least a three foot buffer to allow room if the child were to fall or the dog stretch out a leg or roll over.
Tell your child, "You did it! You walked around our dog. She feels safe when you walk around. You are a good friend to dogs!"
If there's not enough space to get by with a good buffer, teach your children what to do instead. Tell them, "Look, there's not enough space to make Buster feel safe. Let's go the other way," or "When there's not enough space, I will always help you. Say, 'Mommy, I need more space to get by Buster,' and I will call him over to me."
When you are sitting on the couch and your dog hops up, remark to your child, "Look, Buster feels safe and wants to be with us! Let's sit quietly and keep our hands down and see if we can get him to stay. You are the kind of kid dogs feel safe with!"
When you establish not touching as normal, everything is easier throughout the toddler/preschool years.
"Training," by definition, should always be focused on influencing future choices. The effectiveness of your training can easily be tested by noticing the choices the child makes for herself -- and it can be maintained by reinforcing those good choices. If you wait for children to do what you DON'T want and then tell them to stop, this is neither responsible parenting nor effective training.
It's a matter of proactive parenting to build your child's powers of observation and good judgment. Show her the right things to do ahead of time. If it's all just, "No, no, Honey, leave the dog alone," after the child already chooses to mess with the dog, your child will not come away with as strong of a foundation of what TO DO next time - especially if you are not right there.
And, let's face it, you are not always going to be right there. We are all are quick to blame "lack of supervision" when there is an incident but, while true that dogs and toddlers should not be left to their own devices, real life brings gaps to even the most vigilant parents. In my opinion, the irresponsibility lies not in the moment of distraction but in the neglect to equip our children with skills and habits that will serve them well. (And, of course, "irresponsibility" is too strong of a word when parents don't know this. But YOU know it now and you can teach your friends until we ALL know what to do.)
What if You Have a Toddler Who is ALREADY Too Magnetized to the Dog?
This is the typical situation when I do a bite/incident consultation. No amount of behavior modification work with the dog is going to be enough if the children continue to pester the dog. Modifying the child's behavior is always an essential part of success -- and it's not as difficult as it initially appears.
The concept is that the dog is no longer available to the child for interaction.
It seems really hard when you have a kid who is strongly magnetized to your own dog or to other people's dogs, but, trust me, kids can definitely learn new habits. Especially when we are talking about toddlers, the thing is that they are always onto something new as they go through different stages of development. What seems impossible today can turn around within a month.
In my experience, it takes about two weeks of a dog being present but unavailable in order to begin to break the magnetization. It's not that dissimilar to kids watching TV. When you cut them off the TV it's hard at first because they don't know what else to do, but, soon enough, they take out a game or other activity and are just as happy.
Here are some basic concepts:
- Decide the dog is no longer available. Pretend he has something contagious or imagine your dog with a painful ear condition or a broken leg if that helps focus your attention. The point is to commit to a change in perspective from this day forward.
- Meet your dog's needs so he can be a good partner. Set yourself up for success by making sure your dog is calm and relaxed. Stock up on Kong or other "food carrier" toys and make sure you have at least three of them stuffed and ready to go each day so you know you can keep your dog occupied as you work with your child. Schedule regular walks and outings, even if you have to get someone to help with this. Remember -- a two week intensive effort is much more effective than a little here and there when you get to it.
- Stock up on novel things for your child to do. Fresh crayons, paper, new activities, etc. There are lots of books in the library with fun things to do with children of all ages or research online, like this site. The idea is to have replacement activities to grow your child's interest in doing other things. Stock up on supplies and ideas so you don't spend the whole two weeks nagging your child to get away from the dog. That's not the idea at all!
- Cultivate an internal radar system so you always know where your child is and where your dog is. Whenever they are likely to be within six feet of each other, calmly put yourself in the middle and intercept your child with little or no fanfare. Do not reprimand your baby or make it your baby's responsibility to "know better." Be calm and matter-of-fact to avoid drawing attention to this being a "hot button" issue. The dog is just not available, but you are still calm, friendly and kind.
- If the child is persistent about getting to the dog, let the dog relax in peace in his Safety Zone or do something else with your child behind a gate. Or, go for a walk or out for errands - something that changes the picture for a fresh start next time. Never get into a struggle with your child about the dog.
- Instill internal prompts and reinforce efforts at the new behaviors. Remark to your child specifically about what they did, "You slowed down when you saw our dog in the way. You are a good friend to dogs!" or "You are staying in your spot as our dogs lays close to us. You are a kid dogs feel safe with!"
- In my experience, changing the behavior of a toddler seems hard because new parents are, by definition, new at this! There is a lot of conflicting parenting advice out there, too. The best parenting book I've come across is called Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky Bailey, PhD. She includes lots of real life scenarios, with calm phrasing for how you might turn conflict into cooperation. You can easily extrapolate to your own situations with your dog and toddler. (It will also help you with managing other people's children!)
NOTE: If you are concerned about your dog's behavior to your children or think that your dog is likely to bite, in-person help is from a qualified trainer or behavior consultant is more appropriate than a list of quick tips. Same thing if your child's behavior is not easily redirected (except, of course, that you would be consulting CHILD behavior experts, not DOG behavior experts!).
What About Kids Magnetized to Other People's Dogs?
When my older son was a toddler, he became obsessed with basketballs, especially other people's basketballs. We'd go to the park and he'd say, "Ball! Ball! Ball!" and take off running to the basketball court. Sure enough, many guys would let him play with the ball for a few minutes, and, before I knew it, he was magnetized.
I literally had to carry him out of parks a few times, crying and screaming because he couldn't have someone else's basketball. We had to work on being in the presence of basketball-playing guys without pestering them. Is this really that different than kids who are magnetized to dogs? Why do we encourage dog magnetization and feel helpless in the face of, "She just loves dogs!" when we are perfectly capable of setting boundaries in other areas of our children's lives?
After all, we don't do that with knives do we? How many parents go to restaurants with their babies and say, "Oooh, look at the shiny knives, Honey!" or take them around and ask if they could touch the other patron's knives, "She just loves knives!" Of course not! The first thing parents do is move the knives out of reach without comment and engage their babies in something else to do.
You CAN refuse to "magnetize" your baby to dogs, just like all the other things you expect your baby to coexist with without feeling the urge to reach out and grab. This is especially important with other people's dogs. Meeting other people's dogs is a whole series in itself but I am telling you now that people may say, "Yes, you may pet my dog" while they holding their breath, hoping the dog doesn't bite. Other people are not good at telling your child, "No."
From Part Four
Here's what I want for you and your babies and your dogs - a life lived in harmony. I want you to enjoy your dog's companionship and delight at moments of kindness and accommodation shown by your dog and child as they build a foundation for a future friendship of their own.
My series on magnetization cautions new parents to think long and hard before encouraging babies and toddlers to "need" to touch dogs in order to enjoy their company. I hope you're coming away with some things to think about as you choose the habits you will instill in your developing baby.
I want to leave you with a little photo essay of my kids and dog feeling companionable together without being magnetized. This isn't to say that we are perfect or it's always easy! There is always a level of stress that comes with being attentive, but I think it's a fair price to pay for my choice to enjoy children and dogs in my life.
However, giving up on magnetizing does not mean giving up your hopes of friendship between your dog and child. Far from it! In fact, the less magnetized your baby is, the more likely your dog will feel safe enough to want to be with your child as he or she grows. This post is by request to illustrate that "unmagnetized" children can, indeed, enjoy their dogs. And, even better, the feeling is more likely to be mutual.
What's it All Mean?
I'm not saying my path is the only way things will ever work out well with your dog and baby. And, I'm sure lots of people have happy pictures of their dogs and kids. The only thing I'm intending to demonstrate with these pictures is that refusing to magnetize your children does not preclude them growing up loving dogs or feeling loved by dogs. It's not a one or the other choice.
In closing, here is a sweet story from about a year ago. My friend had three children under the age of four and one of her dogs was approaching the end of his life. The family paid attention to not allowing the children to become magnetized and provided for the dog's need for space right from the start. In return, they were gifted with this beautiful memory of their dog and three-year-old daughter, shortly before their dog passed away:
"It was such a sweet quiet moment in time and such a nice memory for me. Fabiola was coloring on the floor of the family room -- I was cleaning up in the kitchen and the two younger kids were napping. And yes, Winston went out of his way to curl up on the floor right next to Fabiola. (Normally, he would've chosen a spot closer to me or somewhere soft.) And as nice as it was to see him choose to be near her, she really responded in kind - by not touching him or reaching out. She just looked up at me to say, 'Look, Winston wants to be with me!,' smiled wide and went back to her coloring."
So please don't feel sad or worried that you are depriving your child by not letting him or her be magnetized at a very young age. There will be plenty of time to build true friendship as your child gets a little older. I promise.