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How to Cultivate Safe and Empathetic Relationships Between Children and Dogs

Updated: May 1

Navigating the intricacies of childhood development alongside the responsibilities of pet guardianship offers a unique blend of challenges and opportunities. As parents and guardians, it's imperative to foster respectful and safe interactions between our children and the dogs they encounter, whether these are family pets or dogs they meet in daily activities like walks to school, visits to the park, or encounters on the sidewalk. This presents an excellent opportunity to nurture a new generation that understands respect and consent extend beyond human interactions and includes our relationships with non-human animals as well.


black lab enjoying time with the family, we see a relaxed face, no tension, no whale eye
black lab enjoying time with the family, we see a relaxed face, no tension, no whale eye

In this blog post, we will explore how we can cultivate this respectful relationship, why it's so crucial, and provide strategies to teach our children about dog body language, bite prevention, and how to share a happy and harmonious life with dogs. Just as we instruct our children on kitchen safety, we must also guide them on how to approach and interact with dogs respectfully. It involves leading by example and teaching them to recognize and respond to a dog's communication cues effectively.


By doing so, we lay the foundation for a safer, more understanding interaction between children and dogs, enhancing the well-being of all involved. Ensuring that every living being, regardless of age or species, feels safe in their home environment is a basic right. Creating a space where both humans and non-human animals can feel secure and protected reinforces the importance of safety as a universal necessity.


Examples of dogs signaling through their body language that they are uncomfortable with an interaction
Examples of dogs signaling through their body language that they are uncomfortable with an interaction

In emphasizing the importance of teaching children how to interpret and respect a dog’s body language, we are not only fostering respectful friendships but also actively preventing serious harm. Understanding these cues is a fundamental aspect of dog bite prevention. Many incidents involving dog bites stem from miscommunications and a lack of awareness about the dog's comfort levels. By educating our children on how to recognize when a dog is feeling threatened or uncomfortable, we significantly reduce the risk of unintentional provocation and potential bites.


This proactive approach is crucial for safeguarding both children and dogs, ensuring their interactions remain positive and safe. Thus, the lessons we impart about empathy and respect are not just about building better relationships—they are essential measures that protect the well-being of everyone involved.


Examples of dogs signaling through their body language that they are uncomfortable with an interaction
Examples of dogs signaling through their body language that they are uncomfortable with an interaction

Throughout this blog post, you will find valuable graphics and PDF resources crafted by some of the top trainers and consultants in the field of canine behaviour. These materials are designed to provide practical guidance and deepen your understanding of fostering respectful and safe interactions between children and dogs.


A special thank you to Jen Shryock at Family Paws, and Michelle at Pooch Parenting for their invaluable contributions.


Additionally, we appreciate the insightful illustrations by Lili Chin, whose work can be found at Doggy Drawings, created in collaboration with Grisha Stewart and Eileen and Dogs. These visuals effectively illustrate dog body language and safe interaction practices. We also recognize Doggone Safe, co-founded by Niki Tudge and supported by the Pet Professional Guild, for their dedication to promoting safety between children and dogs through education and resources.


These experts provide a wealth of knowledge that helps us raise awareness and teach the next generation how to interact with dogs respectfully and safely. I encourage all readers to check out their brilliant work and explore the various programs they offer to gain further insights into creating harmonious relationships between children and our canine companions. All the contributors and resources mentioned are listed in the references section at the end of this post, allowing readers to access and explore their extensive works and programs further easily.


Decoding Dog-Child Interactions: Personal Insights and Challenging Social Media Myths


Growing up with my German Shepherd, Hatja, I learned invaluable lessons about mutual respect and understanding. My parents taught me never to disturb her while she was eating, sleeping, or resting and stressed the importance of honoring her choice to walk away from an interaction. This respect for her space taught me early on that saying “no” to an interaction is a right every creature has, including our pets. 


Leading by Example: How the 5-Second Rule Enhances Respect in All Human-Dog Interactions The "5-second rule" is a key method for fostering trust and respect between dogs and humans, highlighting the crucial role of consent in our interactions. This rule involves petting a dog for just five seconds before pausing, giving the dog the opportunity to decide if they wish to continue the interaction. During this pause, the dog can either move closer, indicating they enjoy the contact and may want more, or walk away if they're uncomfortable or overwhelmed. This practice not only respects the dog's personal space and comfort but also boosts their confidence by acknowledging their signals.


I first learned about the 5-second rule through Grisha Stewart and her comprehensive courses on animal behavior and training. Grisha Stewart's approach to understanding and interacting with dogs emphasizes respect, patience, and clear communication, which greatly influenced how I incorporate the 5-second rule into everyday interactions between dogs and humans. This rule is an excellent example of how we can apply respectful practices to enhance our relationships with our canine companions, ensuring they feel safe and heard in their interactions with us. Consistently applying the 5-second rule strengthens the bond between you and your dog, ensuring interactions are based on mutual respect and willingness. Furthermore, it reinforces positive feelings and security during physical interactions, making it a valuable strategy for all dog owners.


infographic created by Lili Chin (https://www.doggiedrawings.net/freeposters) and Grisha Stewart (https://grishastewart.com)
infographic created by Lili Chin (https://www.doggiedrawings.net/freeposters) and Grisha Stewart (https://grishastewart.com)


Additionally, it's important to let the dog initiate contact. Rather than approaching the dog, we should invite them to come to us, giving them full control over their interactions with humans. By respecting their space and waiting for them to respond to our invitation, we affirm their control over the interaction, ensuring they feel safe and confident. Allowing dogs to approach on their own terms not only supports the principles of consent and respect but also deepens the trust and bond between dog and human, enhancing the quality of interactions for both parties.

 

 

Understanding Canine Communication

Dogs communicate their comfort and discomfort in various ways, and it’s vital to teach children to recognize these signals. A dog walking away, turning its back, or growling isn't showing aggression but rather setting boundaries. These behaviours are often a dog’s response after more subtle cues have been overlooked. It's essential to recognize that growls, in particular, are not signs of a dog's failure but a plea for space and understanding.

Unfortunately, the internet is often flooded with misleading images that depict dogs displaying signs of stress—such as whale eyes, licking a child's face excessively, or leaning away—during interactions with children. These moments, commonly perceived as adorable and endearing, might actually reflect discomfort or distress in the dog, not mutual enjoyment or comfort. This discrepancy underscores our responsibility to accurately interpret these signals and not mistake them for signs of a harmonious relationship between a child and a dog.


infographic showing photos of stressed dogs created by Michelle Stern (https://poochparenting.net)
infographic created by Michelle Stern (https://poochparenting.net)

We live in an era where social pressure and sometimes misguided expectations about what dogs should tolerate from children are amplified by social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. These platforms are rife with images and videos of children hugging their dogs, evoking a narrative of perfect companionship that many parents aspire to replicate for their own children. The joy and fulfillment seen in these posts can be compelling, pushing us towards wanting the same idyllic interactions for our kids.

But the critical question remains: How do our dogs truly feel about these interactions? Do they enjoy these engagements, or are they merely tolerating them out of loyalty or training? It's crucial to remember that while dogs are generally sociable and loving creatures, they also have their own comfort zones and stress signals that need to be respected.


And it is crucial to emphasize that every dog is unique, each with their own preferences and boundaries. This point was clearly illustrated during a presentation I gave at a local BC SPCA branch for their summer camp, where I brought along my two dogs, Hugo and Izzy.

Hugo, my Boston Terrier and a therapy dog, thoroughly enjoyed the attention from the kids. He happily welcomed pets, treats, cuddles, and relished being in the midst of the children's excitement. On the other hand, Izzy, my Border Collie, had a different reaction. Unlike Hugo, Izzy preferred not to be approached or touched. She was content and calm lying next to me, using me as a barrier between herself and the children while I fielded questions.

This experience underscores the fact that each dog has its own comfort level and personal space needs, which can vary widely even among dogs who live in the same household. It's important for children (and adults) to understand and respect these differences.


Furthermore, even the most sociable dogs, like Hugo, can have off days. There are times when a dog may not feel well, could be in pain, or simply isn’t in the mood for interaction. During such times, a dog may not want to be touched, which is completely normal but often overlooked. For instance, in the resource "Canine Arthritis Management for Kids," this aspect of canine behavior is further explored, offering insights into how dogs might feel and react when they are not at their best.


 

To foster a truly respectful and safe relationship between kids and dogs, it's essential to teach children how to read and respond to a dog’s body language. This education can start at home. By providing clear guidelines and setting realistic expectations, we can help children understand that a healthy relationship with a dog is built on respect and mutual enjoyment, not just on fulfilling a picturesque image seen online or the desire to pick up the dog and cuddle it and carry it like a doll. Through this approach, we encourage a new generation of pet-friendly individuals who not only seek joy in their interactions with dogs but also prioritize the well-being and comfort of their four-legged friends.


Text reads: Parent question: "My dog growls at my kids. How do I stop this?" answer: Instead of asking how to stop the growl, ask how to stop the reason the dog is growling in the first place.
infographic created by Michelle Stern (https://poochparenting.net)


Educating children about these nuances helps them develop a deeper understanding and respect for animals. It teaches them that consent, and comfort are not just human concerns but are just as important in our interactions with animals. This understanding is key to fostering respectful and compassionate relationships between children and dogs, ensuring that each interaction is positive and safe for both parties.

 




Teaching Kids Respect and Consent and how to Recognize Consent from Dogs


Educating children about canine body language is crucial. When a dog is comfortable with being petted, it may approach gently with a relaxed posture, wagging tail at mid-height, and a happy or calm expression. Teaching children to notice these positive signs can foster safe and enjoyable interactions.


Conversely, it’s vital for children to recognize the signs of discomfort or distress in dogs. If a dog licks its lips, turns its head away, moves away, shows its teeth, or growls, these are clear indications that the dog is feeling stressed or threatened and is asking for space. These behaviors mean the dog is communicating a clear "please leave me alone."


Teaching Respectful Interactions

We should teach children that not all dogs feel the same about being petted or approached, much like people have different levels of comfort with physical contact. By respecting these signals, children can learn to interact with dogs in a way that respects the animal's feelings and personal space. This understanding can prevent uncomfortable or even dangerous situations caused by a dog feeling the need to defend itself.


By educating children on both seeking permission from the dog's guardian and from the dog (by understanding the dog's body language), we create a safer environment for both children and dogs. It empowers children to make informed decisions when interacting with dogs and helps develop empathy and respect for other living beings.


Incorporating these lessons into our teachings about dogs and children not only enhances safety but enriches the relationships formed between young people and their four-legged friends. This comprehensive approach ensures that interactions are based on mutual respect and consent, laying the foundation for lasting friendships and minimizing misunderstandings.


Setting Up for Success


Success Stations explained: chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.familypaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/07-Success-Stationss-Version-03-2.pdf
infographic created by Jen Shryock (www.familypaws.com)

As we prepare our homes and families for integrating dogs and children, it's helpful to establish ‘success stations’ (Jen Shryock at Family Paws created this expression) —areas where dogs can feel secure while still being part of the family's daily activities. These stations can include baby gates or exercise pens that provide a safe boundary for both the child and the dog, especially in the early stages of their relationship.


Gradual introductions are key. Before the baby arrives, introduce the dog to baby-related changes, such as routine adjustments, smells, and sounds. Carrying a baby doll can simulate the new dynamics to help the dog adjust to your changed posture and how you handle day-to-day activities. Playing recordings of baby noises and using baby products like lotions or powders around the house can also help the dog become familiar with new scents and sounds.


Evaluating and Adjusting Success Stations



chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.familypaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/06-FPPE-Dog-Baby-Safety-Tip-Sheet-Version-01-2.pdf
infographic on dog and baby safety created by Jen Shryock (www.familypaws.com)

As the child grows and reaches new milestones like crawling or walking, the dynamics of their interactions with the dog will change. Regularly evaluating and adjusting the success stations ensures they remain effective and safe. This might include modifying the type of gates used or the placement of exercise pens depending on the dog's and child’s development.

Positive Reinforcement and Supervision

Rewarding the dog for calm and appropriate behavior around the baby reinforces positive associations. Treats, praise, and affection are great ways to show the dog that good behavior around the baby is appreciated. Always supervise interactions between your dog and child to ensure safety and intervene if necessary.


Maintaining Routines

It's also crucial to maintain regular exercise and playtime for the dog. A well-exercised dog is more likely to be calm around a baby. During the initial days when the baby comes home, it might be beneficial to have the dog stay with friends or at a boarding facility to help manage the new environment smoothly.


For those looking to deepen their understanding and ensure a safe, respectful, and loving environment for both kids and dogs, resources like Family Paws LLC Dog Behavior Consulting Services, Pooch Parenting, and Doggone Safe are invaluable. Please check out the reference directory.


5 KEY TAKEAWAYS :


  1. Understanding Canine Body Language: Teach children to read a dog’s body language to recognize when a dog feels comfortable or threatened, enhancing safety and preventing bites.

  2. The 5-Second Rule: Introduce the 5-second rule where children pet a dog for five seconds and then pause, allowing the dog to choose to continue the interaction, respecting the dog's personal space and consent.

  3. Importance of Consent: Emphasize to children that seeking both a dog's and their guardian's consent before engaging is crucial for respectful and safe interactions.

  4. Social Media Misrepresentations: Be aware of how social media can mislead perceptions of dog-child interactions, promoting unrealistic expectations that may not respect the dog’s comfort levels.

  5. Success Stations and Ongoing Adjustments: Utilize 'success stations' to safely manage interactions between dogs and children, continuously adapting them as both grow and develop to ensure a harmonious relationship.


Enhancing Child-Dog Relationships: A Guide to Safe and Respectful Interactions


Tip #1: Dogs do not like hugs and kisses. This is a major cause of facial bites to children!
infographic created by Doggone Safe (www.doggonesafe.com)

By fostering a culture of respect, kindness, and informed interactions between children and dogs, we help cultivate true friendships that honor the needs and boundaries of both. Encouraging such respectful relationships enables our children and canine companions to enjoy the most enriching and joyful connections, contributing to a harmonious, safe, and loving household.


Educating children on how to engage with dogs goes beyond simply getting permission from their owners. It is crucial for children to learn how to 'ask' the dogs themselves, understanding and interpreting their body language to determine if they are amenable to interaction or if they prefer space. This knowledge empowers children to make responsible and compassionate choices, enhancing their interactions with dogs and fostering a safer environment for everyone.


Together, let's commit to guiding the next generation in building empathetic and informed relationships with our furry friends, ensuring a foundation of mutual respect and shared happiness in every interaction.





Reference Directory

Books:

1.     Chin, L. (2020). Doggie Language: A Dog Lover's Guide To Understanding Your Best Friend. Summersdale, Hachette. Winner of two awards - Dog Writers' Association of America (2022), translated into 17 languages. Book Website

  1. Levine, E. D., & Glazer, S. R. (2020). Doggy Do's & Don'ts. Illustrated edition. Link

  2. Why Don't You Listen? Link

  3. Wild, K. (2016). Being a Dog: The World From Your Dog's Point of View. Illustrated edition. Link

Papers:

  1. Jakeman, M., Oxley, J. A., Owczarczak-Garstecka, S. C., & Westgarth, C. (2020). Pet dog bites in children: management and prevention. BMJ Paediatric Open, 4(1), e000726. Link doi: 10.1136/bmjpo-2020-000726

  2. Medeiros, M. M., Marson, F. A. L., Marques, L. S., Peixoto, A. O., & Fraga, A. M. A. (2022). Epidemiological profile of dog attacks to patients under 14 years old assisted at the pediatric referral emergency unit of a tertiary hospital in Campinas, Brazil. Frontiers in Pediatrics, 10. Link

  3. Overall, K., & Love, M. (2001). Dog bites to humans—Demography, epidemiology, injury, and risk. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 218(12), 1923-1934. Link DOI: 10.2460/javma.2001.218.1923

Websites:

  1. American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) - Dog Bite Prevention: https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/pet-owners/dog-bite-prevention

  2. Doggone Safe: https://www.doggonesafe.com

  3. Doggy Drawings by Lili Chin: https://www.doggiedrawings.net/

  4. Family Paws: https://www.familypaws.com

  5. Grisha Stewart: https://grishastewart.com/

  6. Pooch Parenting: https://poochparenting.net/

This directory is organized alphabetically within each category to provide easy access to comprehensive resources on dog behavior, especially concerning interactions with children, dog bite prevention, and understanding the canine perspective. Each source is selected for its authority and depth of insight, offering valuable knowledge for pet owners, parents, and anyone interested in fostering safe and respectful relationships between children and dogs.

 

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