Can't We All just Get Along?

Teach children how to approach and play with dogs

May 8, 2017 (published)
By Rachael Carpenter

Neville is TWO!!!
Neville and his girls celebrate his second birthday. Never fear, he’s not panting from stress, he’s smiling!
Photo by Dr. Rachael Carpenter.

When we were looking for another dog for our family, a friend brought two Russell terrier puppies to our house. Our last dog was a female, and we assumed that we would want another female. But Neville walked in our house and immediately claimed our two daughters, then 6 and 8. You see, Neville adores children. He loves them almost more than food (and he loves food a lot!). He was more interested in snuggling, sitting on their laps, and playing with them than exploring the new house, yard or even the cats. So Neville stayed and became a member of our family, while his sister went to live in another home.

After much training and role-playing, Neville recently passed his Pet Partners Skills and Aptitude Screening. We are now approved to be a therapy team with our local affiliate, VT Helping P.A.W.S., and can make visits to hospitals, nursing homes, the local library, children’s museum, and schools. I am particularly excited about the “Read to Me” initiative that Pet Partners recently started where children read out loud to therapy dogs.

Although our first therapy assignment was not an official one with VT PAWS, it was an important one. The day I proudly posted on Facebook that Neville had passed his screening, a friend of mine commented, “Can we come by? My four-year-old was bitten by a dog last week, and I’m trying to find small dogs we can visit.” Her son was standing on the sidewalk near a house when a small dog rushed out the front door and bit his legs. It wasn’t a bad bite and he will be fine physically, but she wanted to expose him to friendly small dogs to help ensure that he doesn’t have lasting fears. Her son played with Neville and kids in my back yard for two hours. At the end, Neville kissed the boy’s nose and the boy laughed: fears lessened!

Some bites, like the one my friend’s son suffered, come out of the blue. Much more commonly there are warnings, and teaching people to read canine behavior and the signals of stress that they are giving off can prevent these bites from occurring. A big part of Pet Partners is training the handler how to be an advocate for their dog. As a handler, you need to recognize your individual dog’s signs of stress and know how to reassure them. For example, when Neville isn’t tired but is stressed, he will sometimes yawn, stop responding to commands he knows, and won’t take treats. If the stressful situation is allowed to continue, he will start to pant, look worried, and may become clingy with me. All of those things are my cues to change the situation and to remove whatever is stressing him. If that’s not possible, I can just remove him from the situation.

Often on Facebook, I see too many examples of dogs in stressful situations with children. Even though they are posted as “cute” pictures of kids and pets, the situations depicted make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It is clear to me that the adult taking the photo is unaware that the dog is clearly telegraphing signs of stress, which puts the child at risk. Many dogs are extremely tolerant of mishandling by kids (and adults) and so it will often take time before dogs reach the point where they can’t take it anymore. Unfortunately, when that happens, dogs being dogs, they can move at lightning speed.

When bites happen, people often say “it came out of the blue” and “there was no warning.” Unfortunately, the reality is that we humans aren’t so good at picking up on all the signals dogs give us. Even though each dog is different, in general, dogs start showing subtle signs of stress such as lip licking, panting, and looking away. Dogs usually try and avoid confrontation with their humans, and they may even move away and try to avoid the situation all together if their stress is not relieved. All dogs are different as far as how quickly they might escalate to a growl, snap, or bite, but if the stressful situation is not resolved, they will escalate. ANY dog can bite. And if you see the dog stiffen, start holding his mouth closed, and showing “half moon eyes” (where the whites of the eyes show and look like half moons) you need to intervene IMMEDIATELY.

One way that we can avoid having these situations escalate is to not put the dogs in them in the first place. Dogs and children, especially young children, should never be left unsupervised. We need to teach our children to leave our dogs alone and not allow them to pull ears, pull tails, take food from their bowls, ride them, or engage in other risky behaviors ― and we need to stop posting pictures of these things as being “cute” on social media.

When our oldest was crawling, we started teaching her not to bother Belle (our previous JRT) when Belle was in her bed. We didn’t leave them unsupervised, and if our daughter started crawling towards Belle, we would turn her around and give her toys in another spot of the room while saying, “Don’t bother Belle in her bed.” Later, when my daughter could talk, she would often say, “Don’t bother Bellie bed,” so the repetition helped the lesson to sink in.

How do we know which dogs are okay to interact with? To know that, we need to know what happy dog behavior looks like. Dogs that are happy will wiggle, wag their whole tails (and sometimes their whole back half!) and have a soft, relaxed body. They may bring you toys to play with, they may bump your hand with their noses to solicit petting, and they will often lean in to your scratches when you find that special spot. Some dogs will even look like they are smiling with an open mouth, lolling tongues and slightly squinty eyes.

In addition to supervising our children when they are around dogs and teaching them what friendly dogs look like, we also need to teach them how to approach and play with dogs. An easy rule is that they should always ask the owner for permission before petting a strange dog, and if permission is granted, they should let the dog sniff them before petting it gently. They can ask the owner how the dog likes to be patted, but many dogs are more comfortable being stroked on their shoulders/back than on the top of their heads.

When we got Neville as a puppy, we showed our kids acceptable ways to play with him, and how to avoid those puppy teeth while Neville was learning. They love to throw toys, play gentle games of tug, kick soccer balls for him, and my youngest is great at teaching him tricks!

Children also need to be taught that they shouldn’t run away if dogs run up to them. When we lived outside Chicago and my kids were 2.5 and 5 years old, our neighbors had two very friendly, large Labrador retrievers. When the dogs bounced over to say hi, if the girls ran, the dogs thought it was a great game and joined in; the girls’ shrieks only encouraged them! If the girls “stood still like trees,” then the dogs would settle down and nose them for pats.

Dogs have always been a wonderful addition to my family, even before we had kids. In order to be full members of the family, lots of training needs to be done. Training for the dogs and for the kids helps keep everyone living in harmony!

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