The bond between children and dogs is special.
For children, dogs can be anything from playmates and partners in crime to teachers and sources of comfort. But like any new relationship, there is a learning curve.
Without a good understanding of how to interact with dogs, children could inadvertently provoke them, which could lead to a bite or an attack or a stressed dog. Even the sweetest dogs have bad days and aren’t very patient if a toddler pulls their tail.
Such incidents can also end badly for dogs. “People were calling to return their dogs because of incidents with children,” said Jennifer Shryock, a certified animal behavior consultant who also has a degree in special education. This is why she founded family pawswhich “provides specialized programs and support for new parents and future parents with dogs”.
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Shryock says the more information people get, the more comfortable they are with dogs. “Building confidence and knowing what to watch empowers kids and parents alike. She believes it’s never too early to teach children about dog safety. “It’s like learning any other language.”
The right way for kids to pet dogs isn’t just a lesson from a parent. This is something all dog owners should know to prevent or defuse future accidents. Here’s what you need to know when it comes to teaching children dog safety.
1. Ask permission and don’t assume the answer will be “yes”
Teaching children to pet dogs is first and foremost about teaching consent. Above all, it starts with asking permission, but experts have some caveats about who you should even ask permission in the first place.
“When introducing your child to a new dog, always ask the owner for permission first,” said Daniel Caughill, co-founder of The story of the dog. “They will have an intimate knowledge of how their dog reacts to new people and especially children. Some rescue dogs have had difficult past experiences that caused them to act aggressively towards children, so you will want to make sure that’s not the case.”
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Kevin Ryan, professional dog trainer from Superb dogsays it’s always best if this person is someone you know and trust because even the most honest and caring dog owner may not know how their dog will react to your child.
“For example, if the dog’s owner doesn’t have children and has never had a problem with adult friends and family petting the dog, a child could be a new experience for the dog and you don’t want to being the one who finds out how they’re going to react. It’s best if the dog is used to being around children and comfortable with them,” Ryan said.
When it comes to asking to pet a stranger’s dog, Shryock says it’s too risky overall because at the end of the day, you’re making a lot of assumptions about that person. “Since when do we trust a stranger to give us information about our safety?”
In general, she thinks that stranger children approaching stranger dogs is not a good idea. “There are too many variables. The context of the environment, the other stimuli going on, the lack of understanding, the dogs have bad days.” Instead, Shryock says she prefers to suggest her dog likes to show tricks, which is a non-contact alternative.
2. Observe the dog’s body language
Once you’ve received permission, the next step is to study the dog’s body language for signs of nervousness or discomfort. This is how the dog tells you that he doesn’t want to be touched. “If the dog pulls away, sticks its ears together, or looks scared or uncertain, it’s time to back off,” said Megan Marrs, dog trainer and founder of the dog care website. K9 to me. “We always want the dogs’ enthusiastic consent.”
When Shryock explains this to the kids, she calls it being a “doggy detective” and looking for clues. “We’re talking about ‘looking at the ears, the eyes, the tail, a snout, putting together all the clues to solve the puzzle.'”
It’s important to gather all possible “clues” because different dogs show discomfort in different ways, so just observing their face or tail may not tell the whole story.
Family Paws uses activity sheets like this to teach kids what to look for. As the caption describes, this dog is clearly uncomfortable: “The ears are back, the whale eye (white of the eye visible), the tail is low, and the dog is doing a big lick of lips. This dog also leans in the opposite direction from which it is looking (avoidance/leaning). This dog appears to be under considerable stress and may communicate a need for space.”
Credit: Family Paws
Here are some other warning signs to watch out for:
“If a dog yawns, blinks, squints or licks his lips, it may mean he wants to be left alone. If the dog turns his head away or turns his whole body away (usually with one paw lifted off the ground) , it’s a sign that they want you to stop petting them,” said Julia Jenkins, professional dog trainer and founder of Companion dog training today.
Veterinarian and Fi Veterinarian Consultant Dr. Jeff Werber said to stay away if the dog shows its teeth (which doesn’t look like a smile because it lifts its lips), its quills stick up, or its tail is low and wiggles at an angle towards the ground. These are all signs that the dog is unhappy.
In general, Shryock says to “believe what you see”. It may seem obvious, but some people think they are the exception to the rule. “I see people wanting to believe they can convince the dog to feel different. And if you’re not their trusted person, that’s not really your role.”
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3. Invite the dog
If you don’t see any warning signs, the next step is to invite the dog by patting his leg. Instead of being the one approaching the dog, inviting the dog to you gives him the opportunity to “retreat.”
If the dog chooses to retreat, Shryock says you can give children alternatives to petting. “We can kiss, we can wave, we can talk about the beauty of the dog, but to withdraw is to withdraw.”
Inviting the dog allows him to register or not.
Credit: Getty Images
4. Pet/pet, pet, pause
If the dog has happily accepted the invitation, the next step is to begin petting the dog with an approach called “pat/pet, pet, pause.” It’s about waiting to see if the dog wants to continue engaging, because “that third animal could be a problem,” Shryock said. “So we pause and see, does the dog still want to engage?”
“If the dog approaches, you can continue to pet it the dog,” said Marrs who calls it “pat, pet pause” since “pat” refers to a pat on your leg to invite the dog to come closer.” After a few seconds, pause and wait for the dog’s response. If the dog stares at you, looks at you, or leans toward you, indicating that he wants the petting to continue, do so. If the dog walks away, or even if it doesn’t do anything, we can take that as a ‘no thanks’.”
Always check to see if the dog continues to want to be engaged.
Credit: Getty Images
Marrs also says to remember that a dog’s comfort level can change at any time, which is why it’s important to keep checking. “One moment he may be okay with the scratches on his head, but five minutes later he may not be interested.”
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5. Teach children the right way to cuddle
Every dog has their individual preferences for how and where they like to be a pet, but it’s important to teach children how do not pet first, as these rules are universal for most dogs and not following them could be dangerous.
Do not sneak from behind or make sudden movements – “Tell your child to be calm and quiet, with no rapid movements or loud vocalizations. Dogs are excited by both sound and movement, so less is more,” Ryan says.
Don’t meddle with him or look him in the eye – For humans, making eye contact is a sign of respect, but dogs can see it as a threat. The same goes for getting too close to their face.
Don’t pat them on the head – “Having a stranger raise their whole hand above their head can be really scary for dogs. Imagine if a giant did that to you,” Marrs said.
Don’t pull their ears or tail – I hope this one is obvious enough.
Don’t hug them – Did you know that dogs don’t like hugs? Wrapping your arms around your dog can be a way of expressing your love for him, but it actually makes dogs feel trapped and vulnerable.
Obviously, he’s a happy dog.
Credit: Getty Images
Experts consulted by Mashable recommend petting the dog’s chest, neck, side of the shoulder, or under the chin. Non-threatening areas where the dog can see the child’s hands are the safest.
But Shryock also brings up a broader point about the importance of understanding your dog and what he likes and dislikes. “We have to recognize that the dog is an individual living creature that has feelings and emotions and has opinions about things.”