Dogs And Children—Safety Rules And Preventing Rather Than Curing

I’ve just published “Dogs And Children,” the first time the original little book in Danish is translated into English. Its goal was to provide dog owners with sound advice that would help them prevent accidents from happening and, as such, I believe that it can still perform the same role today as it did 26 years ago.

I cannot give you the whole book here, but I couldn’t bear not giving my faithful readers on Dog Star Daily at least some of it because this is an extremely important topic as far as I’m concerned. I chose, therefore, to write a short blog giving you a few extracts from the book. If you’re interested, you can read the whole book online and free of charge here.

Humans and dogs are social mammals, which means they share some common attributes. Both use similar patterns of behavior to express their emotions, moods and intentions, so it is not difficult to understand why humans and dogs get along so well. If we look at how puppies develop and acquire their own dog language and we compare it to the way children develop and learn to master their facial expressions, body postures and language, we can indeed see some striking similarities. The problems that may arise between children and dogs are perhaps indirectly due to those very similarities as they detract from the fact that, whilst being alike in so many ways, they are radically different in many others. 

To compare a child with a dog is only viable to a limited extent. To state that a dog is like a child and to treat it like one is a serious mistake, as serious as to assume that a child is a “little adult.”

We cannot hold a child or a dog responsible for their behavior. When things go wrong, we, the adults, must assume responsibility: we were simply not good enough at explaining to the child and to the dog how they should interact.

Parents’ responsibility begins with the moment they choose a dog. The decision to buy a large, active, boisterous (not aggressive) dog when the child is no more than two or three years old is a daring one to say the least. Puppies (especially those of big breeds) are clumsy and full of energy. They have to investigate and experiment with everything, which is normal. Since a child of two or three is going through a similar period of development and is not particularly agile either, big dogs and small children are prone to develop a strained relationship; unless the dog is extremely calm and careful, something we cannot reasonably expect of a puppy. This does not mean the combination of a child under the age of three and a big dog is a lost cause, as I do know of innumerable families in that situation who are very happy and problem-free. 

When you have a dog and then become a parent, there are some safety rules that you should observe:

  • Don’t put the baby on the floor and wait for the dog to come along and have a sniff. Besides not bringing anything particularly positive to the relationship, this procedure is highly unsafe. You never know what might startle the dog or the baby and develop into an accident.
  • Don’t give the dog more (or less) attention after the arrival of the baby. Keep the relationship the same as before. Mothers will probably need assistance from their partners because they will be very busy taking care of the baby. Newborn babies need their mothers much more than their fathers. The father’s time will come later.
  • Never allow the dog any unsupervised access to the baby, no matter how stable and well-balanced the dog is.
  • Pay special attention when the baby begins to crawl. The dog may want to interact with the baby in the same way it would with other dogs and, if that’s the case, an accident is just waiting to happen. Don’t overreact, just supervise and control the situation.

It is important to tell your child the following and make sure they understand:

  • You must not approach the dog when it is sleeping, chewing its bone or eating; the dog must always be left alone in these situations.
  • You must never approach a dog you don’t know. It may be ill or grumpy. 
  • When you say, “Hi” to a dog, you must not hug it. Squat down, make some chewing sounds and give it a treat with calm, gentle movements.
  • If the dog runs after you, do not run away. Stop right away, turn your back to the dog and cover your face with your hands.
  • You must never hit the dog or throw toys at the dog.
  • If the dog grabs one of your toys, don’t attempt to get it back. Tell me and I’ll do it for you.

Try to explain to the child, in terms that the child understands, why all the above are “no-no” activities. If the child is aged around three, he/she will ask “why?” to everything you say. Give the child an answer, don’t just say, “Because I say so.”

You must, of course, also instruct your dog. Teach the dog from the very first day that it must never:

  • Jump up at the child.
  • Jump on the child’s bed.
  • Grab the child’s toys.
  • Grab the child with its teeth, not even in play.
  • Run after the child.

The best way to deal with problems is to prevent them from occurring. We cannot prevent all problems, but we can make every effort to avoid the worst of them by giving children and dogs firm guidelines and establishing good habits. This is by far the most successful strategy. 

Motivation and reinforcement are the two most powerful tools you have at your disposal. It should be fun for your child and your dog to do things together. 

Motivating and reinforcing desirable behavior helps you to avoid the worst of the problems, but conflicts can and always will arise and you must be prepared to deal with them. It is not too difficult, but you do need to understand some of the basic principles of behavior. Ethologists (scientists studying animal behavior) speak of the benefits and costs of behavior. If the benefits are higher than the costs, the animal repeats the behavior, if they are not, it doesn’t. Psychologists use two different terms that you will have heard many a time, albeit with several different connotations: reinforcers and punishers. For psychologists and animal trainers, a reinforcer is a term to indicate anything that encourages a behavior. A reinforcer does not reward an individual; it just promotes its behavior. Likewise, a punisher has nothing to do with reprimand, vengeance or violence and it is definitely not personal.

  • Reinforcers and punishers, in psychologists’ terms, do not equal respectively “good” and “bad” things.
  • Reinforcers and punishers only work in very specific circumstances for particular individuals. This means that a food treat might be a reinforcer for one of your dogs’ behaviors now, but not in 10 minutes’ time, and it might not work at all for another dog. Watching a new episode of “Batman and Robin” on TV may reinforce your child’s good behavior today, but not tomorrow. While some school children love to go out during the break and play, some may prefer to stay in the classroom and finish a drawing. Reinforcers are particular to an individual and we must understand and respect the priorities of each individual child and each individual dog.
  • When you reinforce or punish, you must always reinforce or punish a particular behavior, not the child or the dog itself. Your objective is to create good behavior and prevent bad behavior, but this does not affect how much you love your child or your dog. This is a very important point to remember and it should be made very clear to both your child and your dog. You can explain it orally to your child, but with your dog, your only means of communicating this point is through a good sense of timing and by never being resentful. It is here and now, or never. Irrespective of whether you reinforce or punish a behavior, you must do it either whilst the behavior is taking place or immediately afterwards. If you do it any later, while you can try to explain it to an older child, it will still seem like premeditated act on your behalf. It will have an effect, but it won’t be optimal. Younger children and dogs won’t understand at all reinforcers and punishers happening after the event and we cannot explain it to them either. Younger children will just learn that you are moody, sometimes happy and sometimes grumpy, which is not what you want to teach them. The dog won’t associate its behavior with the consequences and it will not learn anything. If the optimal time for applying a reinforcer or a punisher has passed, you should let it go and be more attentive next time round.
  • Reinforcers and punishers must be of the right intensity or they won’t work.
  • Punishers of too low an intensity are not punishers at all because they don’t prevent the behavior from occurring again. Punishers with too high an intensity are not punishers, for the same reason, and they may additionally create other highly undesirable behaviors such as fearful or aggressive behavior, escape, and traumas.
  • WARNING: Reinforcers and punishers are powerful tools. If you use them inadvertently or inappropriately, you may create totally different, undesirable behaviors with serious emotional consequences. Many “bad” behaviors our children and dogs show are behaviors that we have reinforced over long periods of time without realizing it. Many serious “emotional” issues are the result of having been punished as individuals rather than for a particular behavior. If in any doubt, please contact a reputable professional that has expertise in the relevant field.

The very first time your child hits your dog or your dog snarls at your child, you must intervene immediately, like lightning in fact. You say, “Stop that right away” making sure your tone of voice, facial expression and body language are assertive and self-confident. As you are responsible for both your child and your dog, it is your duty to stop any behavior you deem unsafe. Of course, you allow your child and dog to express themselves, but within limits. Your child hitting your dog or your dog snarling at the child is simply not OK.

It’s OK to startle your child and your dog in these situations, as they must remember them; what’s more, if you use the right level of assertion, you may not need to do it again. Naturally, you must never be violent or exaggerate your punishment. It is the surprise factor combined with your self-confidence that affects the behavior of your child and your dog.

It is equally important that, after your perfectly timed admonition that happens like a flash from above, you initiate a fun, rewarding activity with your child and your dog. You want them to get the message; you don’t want them to be traumatized. In the end, you’ll come out of it stronger in the eyes of both. You provide them with both fun and safety, by creating clear boundaries and letting them know what it is acceptable behavior and what is not.

You should avoid any kind of extreme behavior. Children and dogs also have a sense of self-respect. You goal is to educate them, to teach them to live happily in a world full of other living creatures, which they must respect, no matter which species. They must learn to accept compromise when they can’t get exactly what they want as this is an important lesson for later in life. Your goal is not to humiliate them, nor to turn them into insecure subjects that depend on your authority, as this makes living together unbearable, if not impossible. Never forget that, although you may occasionally need to reprimand, the most successful strategy is that of motivating and reinforcing good behavior, of creating good habits.

Being a parent or an animal owner is probably one of the most serious responsibilities you will ever assume because you are totally responsible for another individual. It is sometimes an exhausting job, but there is none other as rewarding when your eyes meet your child’s and you detect the first signs of a smile; or your dog looks at you with understanding and togetherness written all over his face.


Have a great day!




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