Dogs and Children - made for each other

How many wonderful memories of dogs and children can you recall from your childhood? Those games in the park, playing ball in the garden, toboggan rides and rolling in the snow, dogs and children splashing in the waves at the beach, just hanging out together in the sunshine - "Me and my dog" ...

You would dress him up, give him starring roles in your stories and dramas, go on adventures and explorations, and just feel safer with him around. Then there were those times when your dog seemed the only one who cared, the only one who understood. A sniff from that mighty muzzle, a nudge with that hairy head, and things didn't look so bad. You had a friend.

Dogs and children are a magical combination. They share the same energy and love of life. They can find the same fascination in nature, the same expectation of wonders and excitement each day. Dogs and children can be ideal companions, and give each other the best years of their lives.

Thoughts about Safety

But just occasionally we hear a horror story of dogs and children - about a child being mauled and bitten. How does this happen? It's very easy, in the shock and distress, to blame the dog for the incident. But it's not as simple as that. Whenever dogs and children get together, somewhere in the background is an adult, or two. And it's up to us adults to see that dogs and children behave properly together, with children respecting dogs and dogs knowing their place and their limits with all humans, and especially their young.

As far as the dog is concerned, early training is important. And early socialisation of dogs and children is half the battle. A puppy needs to be acclimatised to as wide a range of experiences as possible in his crucial first few months, so that he can take everything in his stride later on.

This is not as strange as you may think. We are similar - think of the number of older adults you know who find computers and electronic gadgets strange and frightening, while many ten-year-olds have an amazing understanding bred by familiarity.

So it's a duty of all owners of puppies to do whatever they can to introduce their pups to children early on, so they won't have any problems with dogs and children later. In days gone by the family dog would have walked to the shops daily with his owners. Dogs and children had plenty of opportunity to get to know each other in a casual and unforced way. Now everyone drives everywhere, and even if they take the dog, he may be left in the car instead of getting out and meeting people.

This is a central feature of the socialisation program at Puppy School classes. Here children are shown how to greet strange dogs, and owners are shown how to introduce their puppies to children. On the rare occasions when there are no children attending class, extensive guidance is given for puppy-owners to be able to do this effectively.

Borrow some Children ...

If you have no children in your family, it's not difficult to find some! Just visit the local park or shopping centre and they will be attracted like magnets to your little puppy. Outside your local school at school-out time is also a great place for dogs and children to meet. Your young dog will be able to experience quantities of noisy and excited children - but take it slowly and introduce him to one or two only to start with, and be sure that they donít crowd him. Take care that your behaviour doesn't alarm the parents and authorities though - you may need to go with a friend whose children attend the school!

Children move in a quick, jerky fashion compared with adults, and it's this quick movement that can lead to misunderstanding if a dog has never come across it at close quarters before.

Some dog breeds are more placid than others, and any that are extra sensitive or highly-strung will need much more careful and methodical socialisation. So one visit to a school or park won't do! To be sure these sensitive dogs and children can co-exist without ceaseless vigilance you'll have to make the effort to expose your puppy to children on a regular basis throughout his puppyhood, especially the first 6 weeks you have him.

For more help on introducing dogs and children, see The Perfect Puppy which explains it all so clearly, with guidelines on designing your own socialisation program.

Socialisation for Dogs, and Children too

What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and children need socialising with dogs as well. It's so sad to see a child screaming in fear at the sight of a dog. Usually this is "borrowed" or learned fear from a parent, and it's such a handicap to the child that it would be best if the parent ensured that someone else introduced their child to dogs if they can't bring themselves to, or are afraid of dogs and children playing together.

And of course children need to learn that dogs have feelings and ideas of their own, may not be poked and prodded, and are not toys. They also need to learn not to approach strange dogs, and how to handle friendly ones. In most cases dogs and children are naturally attracted to each other and there's no problem.

But as a general rule, I would never leave a baby or young child alone with even the most trusted dog - not for a moment. Anyone who has had a handful of hair nearly ripped out of their head by the tight grasp of a baby will realise that even the nicest dog may feel forced to defend himself at this treatment. And the squeaks and grunts of a small baby could sound awfully like a small animal to a Terrier or Guard Breed ...

Older children need to be observed in their play with dogs too. Curiosity is natural, and seeing just how far they can go is normal child behaviour. And it's slightly older children who could be at risk on the road. Until they're very used to walking a dog on a lead, even quite big children can be taken by surprise and yanked off their feet by a sudden movement from the dog. They have to learn to anticipate, dog-style, to avoid being dragged into the road after a cat or another dog. So hang on to the end of the lead yourself while they learn!

A Health Hazard?

In small children, that same curiosity could lead to trouble if your dog is not kept regularly wormed.Young children are not as fastidious as we are, and may well investigate dogpoo. Even playing in the park or garden where dogs have "done their business" can cause them to pick up worms. See our Puppy Health to find out more about controlling parasites, and the consequences of neglecting this aspect of responsible dog ownership.

Apart from that, there is no problem with dogs and children living and playing together. Given normal household hygiene both dogs and children will benefit physically - more outdoor play, more exercise, more consideration, more exploring ... and more of those therapeutic cuddles.