Spreading the message on dogs & children

August 28th 2016

Recently I was contacted by BBC Points West and asked to produce a short film summarising my advice on interactions between children and dogs. With 20 minutes’ notice and a large glass of wine already consumed (well, it was Friday night), the recording was made and off I went to bed. It was live on the BBC Points West Facebook page by midnight… and by the morning it had 16,000 views. Within 5 days it had been seen by 200,000 people.

Imagine if two minutes of simple advice could prevent even 1 child from being bitten? Imagine if the message travelled to schools and other childcare settings – how many more children could we protect between us?

In the video I explain:

  • How adults must always be responsible for interactions between children and dogs and how to body to understand when a dog is trying to politely say “no thank you” to the child.
  • That children, when old enough, can also be educated on body language and teach children basic rules such as, never to approach a dog that is sleeping/resting or eating/chewing.
  • How children should respond if frightened by a dog. They should stand still, cross their arms against their chest and wait for an adult to intervene. They should never run away screaming. This is as important as teaching our kids not to play with knives or run into a road in front of traffic, but how many of us actually talk to our children about this? Let’s ensure this topic is covered when we’re next walking through the park with our children.
  • Never to go up to strange dogs and to teach children to ask the adult they are with and then the owner of the dog when wanting to interact with a strange dog. 

In addition to the advice given in the video, it is also vital that children are never allowed to pull dogs’ ears or tail, or sit on the dog. Adults may think that the dog tolerates this sort of behaviour but all it takes is for the dog to be under-the-weather one day and tolerance levels reduce. It’s just not worth the risk. (And why force our dogs to have to ‘tolerate’ something in the first place?)

Human nature can also cause people to tell their dog off if they exhibit any unwanted behaviours towards a child, or to try to force or encourage their dog to interact with a child (much of this seems to be due to social embarrassment). However, it is vital that owners are advocates for their dogs and respond to their dogs’ attempts to communicate appropriately. A dog should never be told off in these situations – it can cause the dog to associate being told off with the presence of children (and create/exacerbate a fear of children) and can cause the dog to suppress their warning signs in similar situations in future – why punish a growl when it is better than a bite? It’s been said that this is like “taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm”.

Of course we need to ensure management is always put in place, and that dogs and children are kept separated with the use of baby gates or doors where necessary. On walks, it may be sensible to keep your dog on a lead or longline. If there is any doubt about your dog’s behaviour towards children, please ensure everyone is kept safe and understand the legal responsibilities of dog ownership. The Dangerous Dogs Act states it is a criminal offence for the person in charge of the dog to allow it to be ‘dangerously out of control,’ both on private property (including your own house and garden) and in a public place. If the dog gives a person grounds to feel that the dog may injure them, the law applies. A dog doesn’t have to bite to be deemed dangerous in the eyes of the law. Therefore even a dog that is ‘over-friendly’ towards children (or any person!) must still be kept under proper control.

Socialising a puppy with children is an important part of preventing issues arising in future. A pup’s sensitive period for socialisation lasts until around 14-16 weeks of age, but regular exposure throughout the dog’s life is also important. The most crucial part of exposure is that the puppy/dog remains CALM AND RELAXED – it is not simply about exposing the puppy to children at an intensity the puppy actually finds over-whelming (classic over-exposure includes taking a puppy to the school gates at drop-off/pick-up). Socialisation is also not about teaching a pup to charge around chasing children it lives with or who visit – this is likely to cause problems in the park when unfamiliar children don’t want a dog running up to them expecting a game.

Further information

The Family Dog website (www.familydog.com) provides a wealth of information on dogs and children. There’s heaps of advice to help reduce incidents – far more than can be given in a 2-minute video clip or a single blog post. Teachers may be interested in contacting the Dogs Trust Education Team (www.learnwithdogstrust.org.uk) which offers free learning resources and workshops for schools. The Kennel Club also has a great Safe & Sound Scheme (www.thekennelclub.org.uk/training/safe-and-sound) that is worth checking out.

If you’re interested in hosting a talk on interactions between dogs and children, you can get in touch.