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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Here’s a sobering statistic: 80 percent of all dog bites happen to children under five, and 80 percent of those are directly on the face. Ouch! Considering that dogs have, as I like to say, worked their way from the backyard to the bedroom in the past fifty years, participating and playing an ever-greater role in every aspect of our lives, including those involving children, this situation sorely needs redress. So let’s take a quick look at some common scenarios and important precautions we can implement to safeguard our dog’s interactions with children.

Scenario #1: Your dog was your first baby, but now you’re pregnant. This is perhaps the most common scenario I encounter in my work as a trainer/behavior consultant. With respect to this issue, the single most important thing the expecting dog owner can do is to ask themselves what changes they will have to make in the life of their dog once the baby arrives, and make those changes now. This ensures that your dog will not associate any changes that mean a restriction of its activities with the arrival of the child, the leading cause of competitiveness and jealously. Along the same lines, if your dog has behavior problems that presently you find merely annoying, consider that in the presence of a baby they could be seriously problematic and, once again, fix them now. Examples include running around on the furniture, stealing food off the table, pulling you down the street on the leash, and jumping up on you as a form of greeting. It is also extremely important to teach your dog to accept childlike handling by getting him used to it.

Scenario #2
: Your dog, for one reason or another, is generally shy, fearful, or jumpy around kids encountered outside. Whenever a dog is afraid of something, we have to look to a combination of two strategies to help calm his nerves: solid obedience training and “systematic desensitization.” That is, we have to be able to give the dog a command such as “sit-stay,” which focuses his attention on us rather than on the object of his fear, and then teach him a new set of positive associations with the offending stimulus, that is, a child. For instance, if a dog is somewhat nervous around kids in public, bring him to an area where children are present, but at a distance where fear has not overwhelmed him. Then ask him to sit, and reward him with a favorite treat. Keep him focused on you, and keep the attitude as relaxed and friendly as possible. Treat him whenever the proximity of children becomes particularly obvious, when the noise and commotion get louder. As the dog grows indifferent, move him closer, keeping him focused on commands and treats. Keep going until the dog is no longer worried about the kids.

Scenario #3: You’ve met the man or woman of your dreams. You’re moving in together. Your new life partner has kid(s) — and your other life partner is a dog who’s not crazy about kids. As with scenario #1, be sure to implement any needed changes in your dog’s life prior to the new child’s arrival. Additionally, have your dog spend as much time as possible with the new family member prior to his or her move-in date, in as fun a context as possible. Have the child play the dog’s favorite games with him, give him obedience commands, and reward him with his favorite treats. This establishes the child as a source of both fun and authority. Reprimand your dog for any inappropriate behaviors so he can learn what’s okay and what isn’t.

In addition to these scenarios, let’s take a quick look at some of the most common and easily overlooked precautions we can take to safeguard our children’s interactions with our and others’ dogs.

First and foremost, ensure that your dog is well trained and respects you as his leader. That doesn’t mean you’re a bully, always needing to “show him who’s boss.” But it does mean that your dog should be in the habit of looking to you for direction before making important decisions and in situations of uncertainty. This way you’ll be able to guide him into new and novel circumstances, including those involving children.

Second, and of equal consequence, never, under any circumstances, for any reason, leave any child under ten unsupervised with any dog, ever, period. (Is that emphatic enough?) The truth is that neither party is trustworthy, and such permissiveness is the leading cause dog-child disasters. Two examples illustrate this point. Some years ago a family in London euthanized their Lab after it had bitten their three-year-old in the face while the two were playing alone together. An autopsy revealed a crayon stuffed into the dog’s ear! Around the same time in the US, a family Rottweiler with no history of aggression nearly killed a two-year-old after the child knocked a bag of chips off the table. Mom was ten feet away with her back turned, doing the dishes. The upshot: the dog was euthanized, the mother arrested for child endangerment, and the child placed into foster care. I hope you take my point.

Third, teach your child, through ample supervised interactions, how to appropriately touch a dog. Teach him or her not to pull tails, poke ears or eyes, ride the dog, or torment Fido in any of the endless ways kids seem capable of contriving. At the same time, teach your dog to accept childlike handling and never, no matter what, to bite or even mouth gently in response to being touched. In my puppy classes I teach a series of handling exercises, such as holding the puppy in your arms without allowing him to struggle; giving him a body examination while doing so; and “hazing” him by batting him around, pulling an ear or his tail, or poking his side, all in an upbeat tone and with the presence of lavish treats. Any biting is immediately and sharply reprimanded as the dog must learn that occasionally humans will handle you a bit roughly, but that biting is still off limits (see my book Good Dog, Happy Baby for more). Once your dog tolerates this sort of handling from you, see if you can find some kids to do the same exercises with him. Since you’ll have already broken him in, he shouldn’t find the transition difficult. If the dog attempts to bite or mouth the kids, you reprimand him. If you’ve got an older dog who’s never done such exercises, all the same rules basically apply, except that you want to take a bit more time to ease him into it. You can definitely teach an old dog new tricks; sometimes it just takes a little longer.

Fourth, have as many kids as you can give your dog commands such as “sit,” “down,” and whatever else you’ve taught him, in exchange for treats, all the while keeping the whole experience very upbeat and positive. If your dog refuses, gently but firmly demand the behavior, teaching him that children carry at least some measure of your authority. Along the same lines, to the degree that your dog enjoys games such as fetch or favorite tricks, have as many children as possible play such games and practice such tricks with him.

Fifth, be sure to teach your dog never to jump up on anyone, including children. There are lots of ways to keep a dog from jumping: a spritz on the nose with a water bottle or a taste deterrent such as Binaca or even Bitter Apple spray; standing on the leash when the dog jumps up so that he gives himself a small correction; turning your back on the dog every time he jumps up; bending over to pet him only once he keeps all fours on the ground; etc.

Finally, if you want your dog to spend time in an area where groups of children are playing games that the dog should not participate in (such as at the edge of a soccer field, basketball court, or swimming pool), teach your dog to hold a down-stay in those situations, and offer him a long-lasting treat such as a bully stick that he can work on while the games proceed without him. That way he’ll learn to associate an appropriately calm behavior with all the mayhem around him.

And last, as your child develops, teach her to use caution when approaching strange dogs. That is, teach her to never approach a dog with no owner present. If the owner is present, ask permission to touch the dog, and observe both dog and owner. If the owner seems hesitant but says yes, it’s probably best to pass on the interaction. If the dog shows no overt signs of friendliness — such as a wagging tail and a bright-eyed look — ditto. Obviously, if the owner says, “My dog isn’t friendly,” pass.

If the dog seems friendly enough, have your child approach the dog halfway and hold a closed hand out, and allow the dog to come to him or her. In other words, be sure the dog is interested. Don’t impose an interaction. When actually petting the dog, your child should start under the chin and avoid petting over the head and hugging. It’s best not to get too personal too fast.

Of course, there are many other precautions we can take, but these are the major ones that, if diligently applied, would dramatically reduce the unpleasant statistic cited above. So please take note, use common sense, and have a great time raising your child in the safe and friendly company of dogs. The key to all these tips is that the dog respects you as its leader and is well versed in obedience commands, and that you create as many positive associations with children in your dog’s mind through the use of positive reinforcement as possible. In most cases, pulling these elements together ensures that your dog will be able to enjoy the presence of children as much as you do.


Based on the book Good Dog, Happy Baby: Preparing Your Dog for the Arrival of Your Child. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Wombacher.

Dog trainer Michael Wombacher has performed tens of thousands of private behavioral consultations. He also lectures, teaches classes, runs a small boarding and training operation, and trains other trainers. His approach focuses on working with, rather than overriding, a dog’s natural drives and instincts. He lives in Oakland, California. His website is






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