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Children Need to Learn about Dogs

Learning how to properly care for a dog provides wonderful guidelines for being a parent and has benefits to the child that number in the hundreds, such as children with indoor pets have fewer allergies and a stronger immune system, tend to have much higher achievement scores, a more understanding outlook for the needs of others

By Kathy Diamond Davis
Author and Trainer

When a parent says, "My child is good with dogs," what does that mean? Should people be pleased to observe that the family dog "will let the child do anything to her"? The huge gap between how dogs and humans perceive child behavior causes ruined dogs and injured children. Training the dog is not possible as long as children are allowed to carry out what is tantamount to dog abuse, although the parents do not realize it.

Home Base

No child under school age should be left alone with a dog. Supervision by an older child is not sufficient: the person supervising needs to be capable of governing both the child's and the dog's behavior. If there is doubt about the steadiness of either one, you need a capable adult for the child and another one for the dog.

This concept destroys one of the favorite images people have of dogs with kids, which is the dog as perfect babysitter. It's just not safe to put a dog into that position.

On the child's part, the mental capacity for empathy-awareness of hurting another being-doesn't happen until 5 to 7 years of age. The child doesn't understand that certain actions can hurt the dog. The child can give the right answers and behave properly when supervised, but let the adult so much as turn a head away and you'll often see the child start to experiment. This is simply how the human brain develops, and will be a problem with "good" kids as well as "bad" kids.

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Older children can have problems dealing appropriately with dogs too, due to childhood inability to understand the consequences of actions. Boys up to age 9 years are prime candidates for serious dog bites. The idea of giving a child sole responsibility for a dog's care does not work.

Specific Behaviors

A parent watching a child and dog interact is at a disadvantage when that parent doesn't know which behaviors from a child are threatening to a dog. Yet this is exactly the situation in which most parents find themselves.

You should never allow a child to:

1. Pull the dog's ears
2. Poke eyes or other parts of the dog with fingers or anything else
3. Swing objects at the dog-whether the child realizes the object is going toward the dog or not
4. Pull the dog's tail
5. Grab any part of the dog's body
6. Chase the dog
7. Tug or otherwise compete with the dog for toys, food, or other items
8. Suddenly get into a dog's face
9. Run up to a bed or other furniture where a dog is resting
10. Disturb a dog who is sleeping or eating
11. Pet someone else's dog when the person is not there for the child to ask permission
12. Pet a dog through or over a fence or when the dog is tied out.
13. Enter the private area (crate or special room) designated as a childfree zone
14. Go near the nest where a mother cares for her puppies
15. Run in the sight of a strange dog
16. Provoke a dog to become agitated (including a dog confined behind a fence or on a tie out)
17. Ride a dog like a horse, lie down on a dog, or otherwise put significant weight on a dog.
18. Be present in any situation that causes a dog to feel pain or fear (this would include someone punishing the dog, an electric collar shock, or any other painful or fearful event that can then become associated in the dog's mind with a child)

From the Dog's Point of View

When a dog becomes convinced that children inflict pain or fear, damage has been done to that dog's trust in children. If the dog believes you will stand by and let this happen, or will leave the dog at the mercy of the child without you being there, eventually the dog will have no choice but self-defense.

By the time the dog shows a reaction, the damage may have long been done. This is especially true of dogs raised from puppyhood with improperly supervised children. As the dog's defense drives mature, and the dog is ready to do something about the kids, the dog's beliefs about kids are set. Parents didn't realize what they were allowing to happen to the dog by being so pleased that the puppy or dog would "let the children do anything to him."

Social Issues

Dogs hugely benefit children when both are properly managed. A great deal of research indicates that children growing up with well-cared-for dogs have mental and emotional advantages that extend throughout life.

On the other hand, an abused dog in the household is a warning sign that there may also be child or spousal abuse occurring. Authorities are aware of this connection and watch for it.

Learning to handle a dog properly helps prepare humans to be good parents. People learn in many of the same ways that dogs do, so learning how to teach a dog will help you teach your children and manage your household.

Because managing a household with preschool-age children and a dog in training (especially a puppy) is complex, people often decide to wait until children are school age before adopting a family dog. Another option is to adopt, raise, and train a dog to positively perceive children before having your first child. Another choice is to seek out an adult dog to adopt who is great with kids and no longer a puppy.

To be successful, any option you choose of bringing a dog into the family with children will require teaching the children how to treat dogs properly and supervising the kids with the dog. These skills will go through life with the grown-ups your children become. Wonderful things happen in the human mind and heart when a person learns to understand dogs and treat them kindly.

Date Published: 4/25/2004 1:50:00 PM

Kathy Diamond Davis is the author of the book Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others. You can email Kathy at MrsGoodPuppy@aol.com for personal answers to your canine behavior and training questions! Should the training articles available here or elsewhere not be effective, contact your veterinarian. Veterinarians not specializing in behavior can eliminate medical causes of behavior problems. If no medical cause is found, your veterinarian can refer you to a colleague who specializes in behavior or a local behaviorist.