May 15th through May 21st is national dog bite prevention week. As a veterinarian I will tell you that all dogs bite given the right (or wrong) circumstances, and children are at the biggest risk of being bitten. The most common behaviors that lead to dog bites towards kids are ones that, to us, are extremely normal. For babies and toddlers, the biggest risk factors include dogs guarding food/toys, toddlers falling or stepping on the dog, or pulling on the dog’s fur, ears, or tail. For older children bites tend to be triggered by hugging and kissing the dog, or petting the dog in a way or at a time the dog doesn’t like. As a mom, I want everyone in my household to be safe, healthy, and happy (this last one is not always a reasonable goal, I realize).
The biggest thing to remember is that most bites come from dogs that kids know. Please check out the website www.stopthe77.com for a really great video on how to look at kids’ behavior from the dog’s perspective and for some great resources on dogs and kids. I also recommend my favorite books, “Living with Kids and Dogs… Without Losing Your Mind” by Colleen Pelar and “Raising Puppies and Kids Together” by Pia Silvani and Lynn Eckhardt.
Rusty and Torchy showing off their sit stay.
Now that all the important facts and figures are out of the way, I really do believe that having dogs and kids under the same roof should be fun. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t effort involved in keeping the relationship happy, there is. I don’t always feel like training my dogs so that they learn to be calm around Jack or helping Jack pet the dogs in a way that is nice and not painful/terrifying. So, when I need to take a break, I do. Seeing them enjoy their time together is well worth the effort I put in though.
Having a toddler and two high energy dogs is very different from what our household was like when Jack was a baby. Jack now occupies the same space as the dogs, and his interest in them can be painful. As a mom who has been pinched and bitten (rarely) and had her glasses forcefully removed from her face on many occasions, I am well aware that his love can be painful. He is also a very enthusiastic hugger, which I love, but would pretty much terrify my dogs. I understand that he is a toddler, and he doesn’t know any better. If he did that to my dogs, however, they would just think the small strange dog-like tiny person was hurting them, so this behavior is actively prevented. I want the dogs to see Jack as a tiny treat dispenser and for them to know that good things happen when Jack is around.
Kit Kat is the best with Jack and helps us teach him to be gentle.. No squishing or pinching the kitty either!
Here are some ideas for building a happy relationship between your dogs and your kids:
- Training should always be fun! Get your kids involved in training. How much your kids will be able to be involved will depend on their age. My essential life skills for dogs are to be able to sit, stay, come, and walk politely on a leash in a wide variety of circumstances. Plus, there are all kinds of exciting dog sports and activities available. As soon as Jack is able to drop treats on the floor he will start helping me train the dogs. I think we will use cheerios in case Jack decides to eat some of the treats.
- Practice gentle touches. We are working with Jack on gentle touches (flat open hand, ideally with only two fingers) using board books and stuffed animals, and of course John and myself. If Jack is petting the dogs, he has to let me help him or we go do something else. There is no grabbing, pinching, squishing, hugging, or laying on my dogs.
- Promote togetherness. Walks and fetch are great for this because they are together but not touching. For fetch I hold Jack because I don’t want him knocked over by my rambunctious dogs. Eventually we will work on teaching him to play fetch with the dogs.
- Set the ground rules. Both kids and dogs should have a set of rules they have to follow that encourage polite calm behavior towards each other. These rules will be different depending on your kids and your household, but they should involve doing things both kids and dogs enjoy. What types of play/behavior is appropriate will change as your kids get older but will always depend on what your dog enjoys.
- Take a break. Your dogs and your kids should have things to do that don’t involve each other. Rusty and Torchy have a great new game where I sprinkle cheerios in the back yard and they wander around eating them for hours. I am wondering how we haven’t been doing that their whole life! And when the dogs are busy with their puzzle toys and Jack is asleep, John and I can even sit and have a glass of wine with no interruptions!
- Ask questions and get help when you need it. Look for certified trainers in your area or ask your veterinarian. I am always happy to answer questions and point you in the direction of someone who can help you.
Stephanie and her family moved to Indianapolis from Texas in 2015. She and her husband John have been happily married since 2010. They have a one year old son named Jack. They share their home with two dogs, Torchy and Rusty, and two cats, Timmy and Kit Kat. Stephanie has a BS in Animal Behavior from Southwestern University and a DVM from Texas A&M University. She is an associate veterinarian at VCA Animal Hospital o f Plainfield and has a special interest in veterinary behavior. Stephanie is passionate about being a wife, a mom, and a veterinarian. She loves spending time playing with her son, cooking with her husband, training and playing with their two dogs, and snuggling with her cats on the couch. When taking time for herself, she enjoys yoga, running, reading, and the occasional massage . The views expressed in this article are Stephanie's and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer.