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At an early age, you can begin to teach children the fundamentals of respecting animals and their boundaries. A staple around our house was “Tails Are Not for Pulling,” whose title is a handy catchphrase to repeat when a yank of any body part looks imminent.
Potentially dangerous situations between kids and dogs happen. Even the best-behaved child disobeys now and then, I was fortunate that I had a dog with a good temperament and high tolerance when it came to others being in his personal space.
If you have kids, you know that sometimes it’s just unavoidable to leave the two species together – if only for a minute, to run some laundry to the basement, or check the dinner on the stove. Life happens. Constant supervision is ideal, but sometimes you just can’t be in control of everything.
And most of the time, things go absolutely fine. Love them as we do, these are animals, with sharp teeth and instincts that we sometimes cannot predict. Always err on the side of caution. You do both your children and your dog a favor by being as conservative as possible and supervising as much as you can, especially with visiting children in the house. When in doubt, consider putting your dog in their crate.
Teach Kids to Understand Dogs
At every age, kids will have new questions about their interactions with the family dog, and you need to keep your antennae primed for them. Stephen, age 8, once woefully informed me that our newest puppy, Gigi, no longer liked him because she was nipping at him. When I told Stephen that Gigi was getting mouthy because she had been playing with her visiting brother Duke, and dogs wrestle with their mouths just as he and his sisters do with their hands, he broke into a big grin. Gigi not only liked him, he realized. She was trying to play with him.
At an early age, I taught my kids to “seek high ground.” This is useful when they are nibbling on a cheese stick and are surrounded by a throng of fur. Standing on the couch, mozzarella held aloft, they have a chance at keeping the food. Seeking “high ground” also works when two dogs are playing and the action looks intense, or when a new dog comes over and is introduced into the pack. The children are made to understand that when there is a lot of excitement among the dogs, they need to get out of the way. This way, kids can’t get mixed up or inadvertently hurt if things escalate between dogs.
Another thing my children learned was how their behavior could elicit unwanted reactions from the dogs. If they squealed and ran, chances are the new puppy would pursue, and seek to engage them with those pin-sharp baby teeth. They learned how to rebuke puppy nips by offering a toy. As they got older, they learned how to dissuade a humper.
Harness Your Kids’ Helpfulness
Younger children love to be helpers. When I have a litter, I could not ask for better puppy socializers. My kids are in the whelping box constantly. They delight in handling the puppies, naming them and noting the differences in appearance and temperament. They are never there unsupervised and have been taught to be gentle. If they break any rule, they lose their box privileges. This has resulted in puppies who love little kids. As adult dogs, when they see a little human, even on the horizon, their bodies waggle and wiggle in delight.
It’s important to remember, though, that kids, like dogs, are individuals. My youngest daughter, Krista, could take the dogs, or leave them. I suspect both nature and nurture have a hand in being “doggie.” Some kids are just more drawn to dogs than others, and that’s fine.
Dogs or Kids First?
Should you get your dog first before having kids, or should you get a puppy once the children are old enough so that there are no adjustment issues? Tough call, and a very individual one. Your mileage may vary, but, having done both, I have to say – with younger children, at least – the former worked best for me, hands down.
I have added three Rhodesian Ridgebacks to my household since I had my kids, and I can honestly say that the amount of time I spent training and socializing my first dogs was significantly less. Not to say that my later dogs are unruly, but in the push-me-pull-you that is parenthood, you can’t do it all. Having dogs first gives you a chance to enjoy them fully, learn their quirks and idiosyncrasies, and lay the relationship groundwork for the challenges that come with kids and an expanding household.
Another advantage to bringing kids into a household with dogs may be the immune-system benefits. Studies show that children who grow up with dogs (and cats) are less likely to develop conditions ranging from atopic dermatitis to asthma and allergies.
Know Your Breed
I found Ridgebacks to be the consummate family dog, and once mine recalibrated their definition of our family, we were in for smooth sailing. My babies were foreign things to Blitz until, over time, he came to realize they were ours. Once he understood that, he became their friend and their protector.
Other breeds may have different default settings. Again, your breeder or a reliable trainer can help you sort out some of these questions, or give you an in-depth evaluation if your dog is a mixed breed or rescued dog whose history you may not know.
Making Dog Sports a Family Affair
Because I spend so much time at dog shows, I wanted to make them a family affair. I have a special “dog-show bag” in the car that contains games and books that can only be played with at a dog show. This not only keeps the kids distracted when I am showing, but it’s also an incentive to go in the first place.
Stephen and Allie have started to go to handling classes, and I try to reward them with positive reinforcement, like trips through the drive-through for a celebratory smoothie, or a chance to interact with (and sometimes do a few laps with) other dogs in class.
Learning the mechanics of any dog sports, from agility to obedience, can be overwhelming – so many nuances to master. Try breaking up the task into small pieces. Teach the pieces backward. Reward every accomplishment. Don’t fixate on imperfections. Don’t drill, and make it fun.
Take a Step Back
Raising kids and dogs requires a lot of work and commitment. But their gift is their visceral delight in the world that many of us adults lost sight of long ago. When you watch a relationship between a child and their dog – the whispered confidences, the sheer joy of running in the grass together – you rediscover what it’s all about.
And as the dogs turn gray and then white and then are no more, I don’t have any better explanation for the children than the one I give myself. The dogs leave to make room for the new ones to follow, to give us a fresh infusion of joy and wonder at this marvelous, unfolding miracle called life.