Kids and Dogs 2: Not Always Love at First Sight

When a dog truly loves the company of children, someone made a diligent and stupendous effort at socializing that animal. Young children, especially, can present to dogs as strange, little beings. They resemble adult humans, but with unpredictable movements and voice patterns. Dogs are easily pulled into the kid-energy of the environment. An understanding of this dynamic will guide socialization and behavior management programs for a newly arrived puppy. It also helps to set boundaries for both puppy and kids.
We live in a world with children. Young couples planning a family or expecting an imminent arrival and homes where grandchildren visit are all candidates for training to child-proof the dog. A remedial socialization program may be needed, if the dog is an adolescent or adult. This is a gradual process that requires a plan. Dogs don’t simply adjust to changes in the same ways that humans do.

Child Arrival Preparation

Because behavior changes can take four to six months to achieve, it’s a great idea to start child-proofing work as soon as possible. If your dog is easily excited, is demanding of and/or uses his mouth to obtain human attention, barks or chews excessively, it is time to implement a training and behavior management program. These behaviors don’t decrease when children are present.
The first step is to refresh or train in several basic obedience cues: go to your mat, lie down, stay, come when called, and leave it (avoidance cue). With these tools in place, the next step is to de-sensitize and counter-condition the dog to the presence of children, including all the movements and noises. Visit kids’ sporting events, playgrounds, and parks. Start on the fringes, because the distance matters. Keep these exposure times short, because threshold timeframes matter, too. It’s the difference between your dog’s ability to process what you are asking of her and reinforcing desirable behaviors……or….setting her up to lose her marbles.
Expectant parents should also expose the dog to all of the accoutrements that will be present in their daily lives: strollers, swings, bouncy seats, mobiles, tummy time cushions, and noise-making toys. Downloaded baby sounds can by useful, too, always starting at a very low volume and gradually getting louder as the dog can tolerate it.
Have a plan to reduce the stress that comes to the dog with the addition of someone new in the environment. This plan could include a variety of environmental enrichment and mental stimulation activities. Meet and greet exercises will provide your dog with directives for visiting family and friends.

New Dog/Children Interaction

It is an exciting day when a new puppy or dog arrives in the household. It is often difficult to curb anyone’s enthusiasm! The first few days after arrival are very stressful for the dog. It’s a new place. This is not the best time to usher in the kids’ friends to meet the new addition to your family. Tone down the activity level and bring in one person at a time. Quiet voices and a few treats make for a pleasant introduction for the dog. Teach the children to play with the dog using toys (not clothes, body parts, or other rough housing) and game rules. Everything runs along more smoothly with a structure. The dog will know what to anticipate and that is an enormous stress reducer.
Closely supervise how and when your children are handling the dog. It can be irresistible for children to pick up and constantly pet a puppy. Adolescent and adult dogs often require an effort to build handling tolerance. Dogs are highly competent “predictors”. The approach of a child should predict only wonderful outcomes for the dog.

Recognize Your Dog’s Signals

A wagging tail is not always indicative of a happy dog. It is, usually, indicative of an escalation in the dog’s arousal (excitement) level. When the tail appears to be wagging the dog, he is over a threshold of arousal where undesirable behaviors are more likely. This includes aggressive displays. A child-proof dog is nearly unflappable. She is capable of remaining calm and responsive, even when the noise and activity level in the environment is high. A dog who is running amok with the children, jumping, and barking, may appear to be having a great time, but he is too excited. Ask him to sit and stay. Assess how long it takes him to regain his composure and respond correctly.
Mind the mouth. Too much “kid time” can result in mouthing and nipping everyone’s clothes and body parts. While you are working on the dog/child dynamic, short play sessions are more productive. Stay within your dog’s threshold timeframe. Otherwise, it’s fun until it isn’t.

Don’t Turn Off the Dog’s Warning System

Hearing your dog growl at anyone is upsetting, especially if it is directed at a child. Resist the temptation to punish him for it. It’s highly likely that he’s tried other means to express his discomfort, but the subtler signs were missed. Picking up the puppy too often can lead to his avoidance of that person. Does he run that other way when approached, because he predicts an unwelcome interaction?
If he could verbalize, he would tell you, “I’ve reached the end of my patience with this situation. Please make it stop; I’m about to blow a fuse!” Learn something from his aggressive display and make changes to create a safe home for your children and your dog.
The most dangerous dog is the one whose warning system has been sufficiently punished that he skips the prelude and goes directly to the bite.

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel CPDT-KA, 2018 all rights reserved
Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC