Originally Published: September 29, 2009 3 p.m.
Kids and dogs can be a volatile mix, particularly in shared public spaces such as parks where they are bound to come together. Sadly the news is filled with horror stories of child/dog encounters gone wrong. I would say slightly fewer than half the kids I encounter when I'm out with my dogs are scared of them and give them a wide berth. About a quarter run up and greet them entirely inappropriately. And about a quarter know 'the right way' to meet a new dog.
I must admit I get a bit downhearted when parents reinforce their kids' fears. Most have probably had some traumatic experience in their lives that has taught them to be afraid of dogs, and they have instilled that in their children. I respect their right to feel and behave that way. Dogs have enriched my life so much through the years that I wish everyone loved them as I do, but to each his own. I would never try to force a scared child to meet my dogs just because "they're nice." Not all dogs are nice, and a default behavior of avoidance is safer for a child than to run up to every dog assuming they are safe (as my son continues to do, despite several stern warnings).
For those who are interested in developing their child's healthy curiosity about dogs, I have some tips. I am no expert, but I am an enthusiastic hobbyist. When the dot com bubble burst I had a crise de career and spent a year as an apprentice dog trainer with a renowned behaviorist so this is one of the few postings where I'm not completely talking out of my ahem.
1. Socialize your dog to and with children. If your dog is to be out and about in society, you have an obligation to make sure they are accustomed to little, unpredictable people.
2. Don't leave dogs and young kids together unattended. I could point to several tragic stories where dogs mauled children who were unsupervised when play got out of hand.
3. Make sure the dog has a "retreat"- a safe haven away from the kids, such as a crate, for when they want to remove themselves from the mayhem. Make sure this area belongs to the dog alone so the dog isn't forced to feel defensive of it.
4. To paraphrase Caesar Milan, exercise, discipline, affection. Starting with exercise. Make sure your dog has plenty so they don't have excess energy to redirect in unsafe ways.
5. Keep your dog on leash in public areas. Even if your dog is under perfect voice control, if anything happens you are liable if your dog isn't on leash.
6. If you are going to have a baby or bring a child into your house, and you already own a dog, do some homework. There are ways to introduce the new center of your world without displacing and threatening your dog. You owe it to your canine companion to make this tough transition as easy as possible.
1. Teach your children how to "meet" a strange dog. First, ask permission of the dog's handler: "May I say hello to your dog?" Then slowly hold your hand under its nose for a good sniff. If the dog shows no signs of tension, proceed with gentle petting, preferably not straight down on the head, but keeping your hands where the dog can see them.
2. If your child is begging you for a dog and swears he/she will take care of it, he/she won't. Know that going in - the dog will be your responsibility.
3. Perhaps work on your own issues with dogs by finding a friendly neighborhood pet and getting to know him/her. If nothing else, you will be teaching your child that fears can be conquered.
4. You can't expect your dog to see your child as dominant, particularly if your child is younger than 10. Therefore, you have to be the clear alpha leader. My dogs don't try to swipe my son's toys, or each other's for that matter, because all toys are MY toys.
It's my observation that the more relaxed societies are about dogs, the better they seem to cohabitate with people. For instance, in London's city parks, you'd be hard-pressed to find a dog on leash. And yet there seem to be few aggressive incidents (but they are bad about cleaning up after their dogs, which is gross). In San Francisco, leash laws are strictly enforced and there is a lot of animosity between dog owners and families with children. There also seem to be a disproportionate number of incidents involving dogs and kids. Prescott seems a happy medium - while I wish there were more off-leash areas, dog-people and kid-people seem to live together in harmony.
Any tips you'd like to share on keeping kids and dogs happy and safe?