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There’s nothing sweeter than a child and dog who are best friends. But as magical as that relationship may be, it doesn’t come naturally. Many dogs are apprehensive around kids, so it’s important to train your dog how to behave around children while building plenty of positive associations. And you need to teach the children too. Only when both parties understand each other can they build a strong bond.
Manage Dog-Child Interactions
Whenever you mix kids and dogs, the unexpected can happen. For example, your dog could be feeling under the weather on the same day your child feels hyper. That’s why it’s important to always supervise your dog’s interactions with children. Older children can be left alone with a dog once they have learned to appreciate the dog’s needs and you can predict a safe outcome. But younger children need constant supervision, even when they know the rules.
When you can’t supervise your dog, the safest option is to place them in a child-free safe area like their crate. Give them a chew toy or food-releasing puzzle toy to keep them occupied and happy. Your dog shouldn’t see this as a punishment, but rather as some quiet time alone.
Teach Your Child to Respect Dogs
Children sometimes see dogs as toys. Plus, empathy isn’t always easy for the youngest kids. Therefore, it’s important to teach the children in your life to respect dogs as living beings with emotions and needs. Set ground rules about how the dog should be treated and reward your kids for following them. Here are some rules to consider:
- Never disturb dogs while they’re in their crates.
- Don’t bother dogs when they’re eating or sleeping.
- Never pull dogs’ ears, tails, or other body parts.
- Don’t hug dogs.
- Don’t tease dogs.
- Never bother a dog while they’re chewing a bone or chew toy.
It’s also helpful to teach children to understand dog body language and vocal communication. This will help them see warning signs that the dog has had enough of their attention. However, they might not grasp the intricacies of canine communication, so set some simple guidelines. For example, although some dogs growl in play, teach your kids that growling always means they should back away. Make sure you know exactly how your dog signals stress, even the subtle signs like yawning, so you can intervene between the child and your dog as soon as possible to keep everyone safe.
Build Your Dog’s Love of Children
Supervising well-behaved children when they interact with your dog is only one side of the equation. You need to work with your dog too. They need to learn how to behave around kids and to love doing so. The first step is to expose your dog to children while creating positive associations with them. This is an important part of socializing a puppy, but you can do it with a dog of any age.
If your dog doesn’t mind kids, it’s easy to build that up to love. Simply reward your dog with wonderful things like treats, toys, and games when children are around. For example, if a child comes up to your dog on a walk, feed your dog treats while the child pets them. In no time, your dog will look forward to encountering kids while you’re out on the town.
You have more work ahead of you if your dog is already apprehensive around kids. You will need to desensitize and countercondition your dog to the presence of children. In effect, you want to flip their negative attitude to a positive one. This involves exposing your dog to kids at a level they don’t mind, which could be across the room or across the park, then pairing the presence of kids with something wonderful, like steak or chicken. As your dog adjusts, you can get closer and closer to children until your dog is happy to interact with them. For help with this technique, don’t hesitate to seek the advice of a dog trainer or animal behaviorist.
It’s also important to practice handling exercises with your dog. Kids, particularly young ones, can be unintentionally rough. They pull, poke, and squeeze. So, get your dog used to that before children get involved. Start with gentle touches and pair each touch with a treat. Then slowly build up to more irritating touches, again always pairing each with a treat. The point isn’t to annoy your dog, but to prepare them for accidental pokes and prods that might otherwise lead to a growl or bite. If a child does get too grabby, your dog should look to you for their reward rather than getting frustrated with the child.
Train Your Dog How to Behave Around Children
It’s not enough for your dog to like kids, they need to know how to behave appropriately around them as well. For example, your dog shouldn’t chase kids or nip at pant legs. Be sure you train basic manners such as “sit” for greetings and “lie down.” It can also help to teach “leave it.” Not only is this great for self-control, but you can also use it to tell your dog to leave a child alone if your dog gets too excited. Consider training “go to your place” as well. This allows you to send your dog to a safe space in an instant.
Practice the obedience behaviors above in the presence of children. Better yet, let children participate. Show kids the hand signals and verbal cues you’ve taught your dog so they can ask for the behaviors too. And, depending on the age of the child, let them deliver the rewards as well. This will teach your dog to listen to children as well as build positive associations.
Finally, don’t take your dog’s good behavior around kids for granted. Reward your dog for proper manners when children are present. Let kids take part in your dog’s care and encourage them to play child-friendly games together. If your dog gets overwhelmed, simply remove them from the situation and let them calm down. With supervision and guidance, your dog can learn to be best friends with children.