Kids and Dogs: Parental Guidance Required

My first puppy was a memorable and life-shaping experience. Although my parents never admitted it, I suspect they finally caved in to my pleas for a puppy, when the neighbors down the street called to let them know I was spending an inordinate amount of time sitting next to their beagle, on top of his dog house. I thought he looked lonely and sad, too young to realize that beagles look this way most of the time. His name was Blaze, and I thought he was the most handsome dog I had ever seen. With my arm thrown over his shoulders and my skinny, six-year old legs dangling from his rooftop, the cares and worries of childhood drifted away.

In the autumn of my third grade year, I arrived home from school one afternoon to find a note from my parents on the kitchen table. The note said they had gone out of town to buy supplies for the business and would be home around four o’clock. Unsupervised time at home was a rare and wonderful thing, and I was considering my options when I heard the familiar sound of our car pulling into the drive way. My parents entered the house and asked me to help them carry groceries into the house. Walking to the car, I tried to disguise my disappointment over their early return, when I noticed a tiny white tip moving back and forth in the front seat window of the car. I couldn’t see what was attached to it, but I knew without a doubt that my first puppy was waiting on the other side of that window. I opened the door and scooped up a tiny tri-colored, nosy little beagle, unaware that this day would mark the beginning of nearly fifteen wonderful years for all of us.

“Boots” was our constant companion, whether we were frolicking through October leaves, motor-boating down the Skunk River in the heat of July, or trekking through the springtime timber, in search of elusive morels. Winter often found him tucked inside someone’s coat, sledding downhill, the wind flying his ears like flags. Norman Rockwell himself could not have painted a more perfect picture.

Today, when I talk to parents about the developing relationship between their children and the family dog, I encourage careful supervision, particularly where very young children are concerned. Running, shrieking toddlers may as well have “Chew Toy” written on their baggy, aromatic diapers when in the presence of a young and active puppy. Older children might fare better, but may not always use stellar judgment when away from the watchful jurisdiction of a parent. Case in point:

We adored Boots, but the moment our parents were out of the house, the games began. After placing a barricade between the kitchen and living room, one child would restrain him while the other two went flying over the top of the barricade, wildly flapping a blanket that served as a cape. Boots, now worked into a tiger-like frenzy, would be released to hurdle the barricade and “attack” the child hidden beneath the flapping blanket on the floor. This game was (not surprisingly) dubbed, “Tigah!”

We also delighted in trying to race our beagle down a flight of fifteen stairs. Once it became apparent to us that an animal with four legs has a consistently unfair advantage, we shrewdly devised a plan to even the odds. Upstairs, we would push him under a bed as far as we could reach, knowing that he could not get good traction on the linoleum floor. When we were able to gain a slight lead in this race, he would yodel and howl, as if chasing some obscure, ancestral prey. This noise delighted us more than I can tell you.

My siblings and I were fortunate in that we sailed through our dog days of childhood unscathed and unscarred. Another dog might not have been quite so tolerant. We really were not bad children; we were only doing things that children, quite innocently, do. But left unsupervised, dogs and children can unintentionally do damage to each other.

Quite simply, dogs and children should always be supervised, in order to protect each of them from the other. Parents speak proudly of their gentle and tolerant family dog who will allow the children to dress him up, lie on top of him, and poke fingers in his ears. He is reliable, and repeatedly demonstrates that he is safe around children. My dog trainer instincts kick in as I listen to these stories, and I wonder why rational adults think that it is acceptable (or safe) for children to do these things to dogs. Unfortunately, many families do place unrealistic expectations on the family dog, and are shocked and disappointed when the dog begins to object in socially unacceptable ways.

When a new dog comes to live in a home with children, it would be nice if it came neatly packaged and stamped with a PG rating (Parental Guidance Required), to ensure a life-long, peaceful co-existence between the two species. With Parental Guidance, children can learn to be kind and responsible pet owners, participating in basic training activities that are fun for all involved. Round-robin recalls between family members, sit/stay competitions, and “how-many-sits-can-you-get-in-a-minute” contests, will hone a child’s handling skills and confidence, and train the family dog in the process. Parental Guidance can help ensure a safe and successful relationship, as the inimitable and magical bond between dog and child begins to grow – a bond that both of them deserve to know.