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Teaching Children How to Interact with Dogs

Once you add a dog to your family, whether he’s a puppy or an adult, your lives will never be the same. Say hello to unending loyalty, perfect companionship, and infinite smiles. You’ll also have some temporary upheaval in your household as your new friend adjusts to his new environment.

But what about the adjustments your family must make? Your kids will be over the moon about the new dog, but they may not understand the finer points of these adjustments. Children need to learn how to properly interact with the new dog so that the transition will be as smooth as possible for everyone.

Their First Meeting

The first interaction between your child and your new dog may be when you’re visiting the breeder or shelter; it may even be love at first sight. However, once the dog moves in, he’s going to need some time to acclimate to his new life. Have a talk with your child about how to make your pet feel at home. Children should:

  • Give the dog space. An excited child can easily overwhelm a dog before he’s comfortable accepting the attention. Let the dog sniff around his new digs undisturbed to get the lay of the land.
  • Let the dog initiate interaction. If the dog’s homecoming is his first meeting with your child, tell her to stand still and hold out a closed fist for the dog to sniff. If the dog is accepting, the child can then pet him. If the dog seems shy or nervous, explain to your child that patience is needed before they can become best friends.

Behaviors to Avoid

Perhaps even more important is explaining to your child what not to do with any dog, new or otherwise. Certain behaviors should be avoided to prevent stress and potential injury to both the dog and child. Explain the following rules to your kids:

  • Don’t hug or squeeze the dog. Even if the child offers an affectionate hug, the dog may not perceive it as such. He may feel threatened, especially if the child’s face is near his. A good alternative, especially for a young child, is to kiss her own hand and gently pat the dog with the “kiss.” Speaking of gentle pats, remember that toddlers don’t know the difference between a gentle pat and a hearty thwack. Careful supervision is a must.
  • Don’t tease him. Children sometimes like to see dogs react to poking, blowing, or other forms of teasing. They must learn from the get-go that this is unkind and can be dangerous if the dog retaliates.
  • Don’t run and shout. Whether in play or out of fear, a running, shrieking child can provoke a dog to chase and bite. (I can vouch for this one; as a child I was bitten by a neighbor’s dog when I boisterously ran past her bed.)
  • Don’t ride him or play rough. Some kids see dogs as hobbyhorses. A dog may tolerate such behavior, but he shouldn’t have to. Nor should a child straddle, wrestle, or lie on top of a dog. These behaviors can trigger pain or a fearful reaction, such as biting.
  • Never disturb an eating or sleeping dog. Although food aggression in dogs should not be tolerated, children should learn to let the dog eat in peace. Startling or pestering a sleeping dog can provoke a fearful or angry reaction. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Your new dog will be teaching your child about compassion, patience, and responsibility for a long time after their initial interactions. Once you show your child how to make the new dog feel welcome, he’ll show your child what it means to love and be loved by a dog.

Cynthia P. Gallagher is a member of the Dog Writers Association of America and is the author of seven dog breed books, including the Animal Planet Dogs 101 series.


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