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Teaching Kids About Dogs

Faye DesPres
Jan. 1, 2010

Building a healthy and safe relationship between children and their pet pups.

Dogs have long been the storied companions of children. Many of us grew up with dogs and considered them our most faithful childhood friends, and for many parents, the question is not "if" their children will have a dog --- but "when."

Adults do sometimes worry, however, about how best to introduce a new dog to the household, or how to develop positive relationships between their children and dogs. Even families that have children but no dogs -- or dogs but no children -- benefit from ensuring that kids and animals get along safely and happily.

Paul Mann, Founder and CEO of Fetch! Pet Care, a nationwide professional pet-sitting and dog-walking franchise based in Berkeley, Calif., said dogs are highly influenced by the behavior of children in the family and often play an important role in their lives.

"Children often spend considerably more time with the dog than adults do," Mann said. "On a positive note, dogs offer wonderful companionship for children and often give them a sense of responsibility and security. Furthermore, because of their shorter life span, dogs help children to understand bereavement and come to terms with it."

Unfortunately, there can be negative side effects to the child-dog relationship. "Children can sometimes tease and be cruel to dogs, and may inadvertently encourage the types of behavior you want to avoid, such as jumping up, nipping and begging," Mann said.

It is important to educate children about dogs and other animals, and for adults to exhibit respectful, positive behavior toward pets, Mann said. "Pets are now true family members and should be treated that way by the whole family. There are certain ways we want children to treat their brothers and sisters, and those things are clearly articulated to everyone in the family. Well, the same needs to be done with pets."

Following are some tips for building positive relationships between children and dogs from Mann and the American Kennel Club:

  • All interactions between children (especially young children) and a new dog should be supervised, for the safety of both pet and child. NEVER leave even the most trusted dog alone with a small baby or child.¬† Hiring a dog sitter or a babysitter may help you have extra supervision as the dog and the child get acquainted.
  • Make sure a crawling baby does not pull on a dog's tail or ears.
  • Children should be encouraged to stroke or scratch a dog under the chin or around the throat, instead of patting the dog on the head. Patting on the head obstructs a dog's sense organs and can be misconstrued as an act of aggression.
  • Children, as well as adults, should be educated in good dog training and behavioral management practices (dogs can get confused if they attend training classes and then are given varying signals by different family members).
  • Dogs should be socialized with as many children as possible, and as early as possible in their lives. It's important that they get used to certain behaviors displayed by children, such as erratic movements, excitability and screaming. Remember -- even dogs that don't live with children are likely to run into them outside the home.
  • Helping to care for a dog, or any pet, will teach a child responsibility and build the connection.
  • Children should not hug or cuddle dogs that have not been fully socialized.

One way to introduce a child to a dog, Mann said, is to ask the child to put a dog treat on the palm of his or her hand, with the fingers close together. Let the dog approach the child to retrieve the treat. The child should hold the hand beneath the dog's mouth level, and keep it still.

With proper introductions and ongoing supervision, children and dogs can share a wonderful family life.

For more information:

The Pet Guide

Bringing a New Baby Home -- the American Kennel Club

Safety Tips for Kids - the American Kennel Club

KIDS: Kids Interacting with Dogs Safely -- American Humane Association

Faye Rapoport DesPres writes about pet care issues for Care.com and other publications. She has five cats and a website at ourplacetopaws.com.

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