Introducing dogs to kids and vice versa can be difficult. In the worst case scenarios, behavioral issues can put your child at risk. But with a little bit of training, your human child and your canine child will not only peacefully co-exist, but teach each other new skills as well. We talked to Marc Elias of Pooch Pals to learn about the best dog training strategies when it comes to kids.
What precautions should new parents take with their dog?
Some of the most gentle and friendly breeds, such as the Golden Retrievers and Labradors, are also most commonly associated with bites to children. This provides a glimpse at the disconnect in communication between canine and human. When your dog is stressed, overwhelmed, fearful or anxious it will display this via its mannerisms or body language. These signals are referred to as displacement behavior or calming signals. (You can learn more about canine body language at our website.)
Another important precaution to take is establishing boundaries and developing leadership with your dog. There are number of ways to establish leadership with your dog. At Pooch Pals we believe in positive based leadership exercises.
What leadership exercises do you suggest?
Marc Elias of Pooch Pals
For example, the leader eats first, the canine after. Leaders go through doorways first and set the direction and pace when walking the dog on-leash. A common leadership exercise which I have found clients choose to forgo (until an issue arises) is sleeping in bed together. It's a warm and cozy experience to sleep with your dog, and quite frankly there is nothing wrong with it. But you want to consider the psychological impact on your dog and the dynamic of your pack. If keeping your child safe is a top priority, then leadership is where you'll want to go to work. A dog without a leader is a dog that is far more likely to cause havoc in your home and push the limits of the other pack members, notably your little toddler.
What other dog training exercises would you work on?
Having a couple basic obedience commands built with your dog is a good idea. One command that I recommend new parents teach their dog before the child arrives is "Leave It". The "Leave It" command is intended to disengage your dogs attention on whatever she is focused on and have her look back towards you to check in. This simple command can be taught in a relatively short period of time.
How old should my baby be before I let them play with the dog unsupervised?
Don't assume that just because your dog is friendly that she is not capable of causing harm or inflicting pain on you or your child. Under distress any animal has a tipping point. Until your son or daughter reaches the age of about three years old we recommend 100% supervision. For those parents who cannot supervise their child in the presence of their dog it's a good idea to confine your dog to her own area using a pen, baby gate, or crate. Anytime you do so, consider leaving your dog with a high value occupier: something she can gnaw at and keep her mind and mouth busy on.
Does the dog need to go through specific training before coming in contact with the child?
Six months before you welcome your child into the world, I recommend you begin exposing your dog to as many kids and small children as possible. This type of training is commonly referred to as desensitization training. The key to effectively desensitizing your dog to just about anything is to not push your dog past its comfort zone. Just like humans, if your dog is too stressed, they won’t be able to think clearly or learn a new concept or behavior.
How does desensitization training work?
While associating something positive with whatever the stimuli is that you are desensitizing her to, slowly increase the intensity over the course of many repetitions. Your smartphone is a great tool for desensitization training as well since you can find just about any sound relevant to kids and play that audio during meal time. If you don’t have any kids handy, purchase a doll or two that is about the same size of a newborn child and you can practice desensitization.
Should I set up a boundary between my dog and my newborn?
Establishing boundaries between your dog and child are imperative. At the beginning a zero tolerance policy is very important to establish that your dog cannot encroach upon your child's personal space. An assertive dog owner is far more likely to establish a clear hierarchy amongst the pack which will contribute towards a peaceful coexistence between your newborn and dog.
What is a good age for my child to be introduced to the responsibility of owning a dog?
Getting a dog for your child is a wonderful way to teach responsibility. It is also simply not practical that your child will be the sole care provider for that animal. Before getting a dog for your family, I suggest parents take an honest look at whether they have the time, energy and financial wherewithal to take care of an animal. In my experience most of the responsibility of owning a dog falls on the shoulders of the adult or head of the household.
What kind of dogs are best for children and families?
While considering what type of dog to get, I encourage prospective dog owners to do their research online and speak with their veterinarian or dog trainer. A great resource is the AKC website where you can search their database of breeds and determine which type of dog would be best suited for you and your family. When choosing a dog I suggest you consider how much exercise a particular breed will need and whether they are particularly independent or assertive (also known as dominant). Avoiding a mismatch in personality between dog and human is a precaution every responsible parent can take to keep their offspring safe while creating a happy home.
If you live in the metropolitan area in or around New York City and would like to receive the support of a professional dog trainer, contact Pooch Pals at (646)-322-8844 or visit their website at poochpalspetcare.com.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Photo credit: Martin Pilote