Photo credit: Bethany Rose Photography
Generally, during Dog Bite Prevention Week the focus is strongly geared toward teaching adults and kids how to respect dogs by avoiding risky behavior that is likely to lead to a bite. That’s an important message, and one that as a Licensed Family Paws Parent Educator, I am always dedicated to sharing. This year, though, I’d like to take a different look at dog/child safety and address a recurring question of late that has arisen from numerous families contributing to clearing the shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people that have been considering adopting a dog or getting a new puppy have stepped up as emergency fosters or taken the leap to adopt. These efforts have helped relieve some of the burden of staffing for animal shelters during this time of social distancing. It really has been amazing to see facilities virtually empty with rows of vacant kennels. Unfortunately, it has also brought a new dilemma for some parents when they discover that one or more of their children are frightened by the new dog. This is where the question comes in.
The question: Do we need to take this dog/puppy back because our child is scared of them?
The reply: There is no clear-cut answer to the above question. Like most inquiries involving sentient beings, it depends on several factors relating to the individuality of the participants. As parents, it’s heartbreaking and exhausting to see our children experience negative emotions. While it’s incredibly important for dogs to feel safe with children, it’s equally, if not more important for children to feel safe in their own home with the family dog. You know your child best and likely wouldn’t have brought a dog into your home if you thought it was going to be a traumatic experience for anyone. If your child is usually nervous with change or needs extra time to acclimate to new things, then it may be worth a shot to allow extra time and make special adjustments to ensure interactions between the two are enjoyable from the start. That means implementing management strategies to prevent scary and overwhelming encounters for the children. Normal dog behaviors frequently take even adults by surprise. Things like being jumped on, chased, nipped at, scratched, tackled, having food stolen, etc. can be especially intimidating for our little ones – and even for big kids, too. Utilizing leashes, gated areas, crates, dog proof rooms, and parent guided activities are some ways to set the dog and kids up for success together.
You can provide greater ease for children who are concerned about the new furry addition by committing to create experiences with parent guided games using a “gadget arm” for luring new tricks, reinforcing known behaviors or playing games with the dog. It’s common to see advice from well-meaning people and dog trainers basically saying to snap a treat pouch on a kid and let the child toss treats to the dog. While that advice can seem harmless, there are many factors to take into consideration. Creating the situation for a dog to be hyper-focused on a child and their pouch of goodies dangling from their waist isn’t usually the best idea for safely building a trusting relationship between a nervous dog or worried child. That doesn’t mean children shouldn’t ever give dogs treats, but the context and delivery should be thought through thoroughly to avoid undesirable outcomes.
Using a “gadget arm” is a safer solution to helping children be more comfortable interacting with the family pet. This suggestion is for dogs who are comfortable with the child, but the child is apprehensive. Notice, here I mention child as an individual, one person, and not children as a group. Dogs are often labeled as good or bad with children, but that is quite an unsafe generalization. The variances of children at any given age is vast, and the “good/bad with kids” assumption will make a great topic to delve into another time.
If your dog shows signs of stress or discomfort with the child, then contact myself or your local Licensed Family Paws Parent Educator for expert guidance and training. Signs of discomfort may include: cowering, hesitating, turning away, licking their lips, stiffening/freezing, avoidance, excessive licking, heavy panting, muzzle punching (hard bopping with their nose), yawning, lifting their paw, and anxious behavior that can look like over excitement.
However, if you have a child who is uncomfortable with a friendly dog in their space, handling treats, being nibbled, licked or slobbered on for treat delivery, or just plain doesn’t like close interactions, BUT wants to be involved with the dog, then you can provide a fun way to interact by using a “go go gadget arm”. A long wooden spoon, a pointer stick, Chuckit launcher, or just about any long, smooth extender that the child can hold to lure a trick or reward the dog without close contact can be used. Peanut butter, cheese whiz, Kong Stuff’N, and canned dog food are just a few easy things to use as a treat with those gadget arms. Some things, like a plastic soup spoon or Chuckit launcher can even hold a regular treat or piece of kibble. When you use the stickier treats, a child can have the option to exit the activity based on their comfort level by placing the gadget arm on the floor and walking away from the dog. The concern of being tackled, chased or followed can virtually be eliminated while the dog is occupied with the special sticky, licky treat.
Parents can hold young children and help them guide the gadget or redirect the dog away from the child if the child grows uncomfortable. You can see an example of that in our “No Scare Hide-n-Seek” video.
Be sure the dog is comfortable with the gadget arms you choose and direct children to keep the extended arm nearer to the ground. This deters the pup from being tempted to jump up to grab treats held above their muzzle. Exercising extra patience and compassion is a necessity while allowing your child time to observe the new pup and interact indirectly at their own pace. Through parent led encounters and structured activities you can heighten your child’s feelings of security while adjusting to sharing their home with a different species… a somewhat intimidating species with big sharp teeth, hot breathe, loud and forceful barking, scratchy paws and claws and more!
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