I’ve recently had the pleasure of coaching some families that have young children and young dogs. This is a challenge because it’s like having two very small children. Dogs and tiny kids seem to recognize each other as being on the same wave length. Sometimes, they are about the same height and dogs quickly figure out that kids often have items of food stuck to their faces and clothes. It’s important to teach both dogs and children how to behave with each other. Even if you have an amazingly well behaved dog, it’s not wise or fair to ask the dog to put up with an over exuberant child. The dog may tolerate this behavior for weeks or months but there may come a day when he doesn’t. I would not leave any small child unsupervised with any dog. Period. Even unintentionally, they may hurt each other in ways that could have devastating consequences for them both. It’s also important to remember that not every dog is going to be okay in every situation with every child. What a dog may be comfortable with at home may not be what the dog is comfortable with on a leash at the park. Or he may be okay with your child touching his tail, but he may not if your nephew does it. So here are a few pointers for teaching both these little beings how to live in peace.
Teach your child how to be kind and gentle with a dog. Gentle petting is lovely but most dogs do not like being hugged. Have him approach a dog from the side rather than head on. To teach respect, be sure he leaves the dog alone when she is sleeping, eating or chewing on a favorite toy.
Maintain low arousal levels for both the dog and the child. Keep the dog on a leash when he is new to the child. Spend time with the dog when the child is able to be calm and quiet. Avoid roughhousing with the dog or playing tug-of-war games
Teach your dog basic obedience cues, like sit, stay and come. A couple of cues that I love are “leave it” which can mean leave anything, including the child. Also teaching a dog her “place”, i.e. her dog bed, is invaluable. You may also teach your dog to “down” anytime he sees a child.
Children who are a little older can also participate in the training by asking the dog to sit for a treat. A fun game is also to calmly toss treats or toys away from them (before the dog gets too close) and have the dog retrieve.
With some basic guidelines, your child and your dog can become the very best of friends. A great resource for families is dog trainer Colleen Pelar, who is an expert on working with dogs and children and has a book, “Living With Kids and Dogs.”