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Behaviour Articles
By Donna Brander, Animal Behaviourist

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This information is to be used as guidelines only. Decisions made about the future of any pet should be based on a professional assessment and a course of treatment that is personalised for the pet's individual situation.

Prevention of problems with children and dogs

Both dogs and children can be unpredictable and if the “fit” is wrong the results can be frightening, or even tragic, for all concerned. For this reason, children under the age of 7 (and even older in some cases) should never be left unsupervised with a dog. Most children under the age of 12 should never be given the sole responsibility of dog ownership. The child requires the guidance of a responsible adult in dog ownership. A dog is an enormous commitment, even for an adult, much less a child. It is also important that if you plan to have dogs in your life, you should bring up your children to both love and respect dogs.

There is also much that can be done to help dogs become more comfortable with children. All dogs should be socialised to the very special presence of children from as early an age as possible. Children are very much a part of this world and the chances of your dog going through life without being confronted by one are very slim.  Habituating your dog to be safe with children should be considered a major responsibility of dog ownership. Early socialisation by supervised play with children during the first 4 months of the dog’s life is the best procedure.  After that it becomes more difficult, although not impossible.

Whether you are socialising a puppy or an older dog, you must de-sensitise your dog to the ‘strange’ behaviour of a child. The behaviour modification can be started at home with family members.

Start by teaching your dog an inhibited bite.  Any play bites should be met with a loud “ouch” and an end of the game. This also goes for any touches of teeth to clothing or any body parts.  Offer your dog titbits and say “gently”.  If dog takes the titbit gently, give lots of praise and, of course, the titbit.  If the dog snaps or touches your skin, a very loud “ouch” and he does not get the titbit or praise. Do not give up the titbit until the dog’s teeth do not touch skin but delicately pick up titbit from your hand. You are teaching your dog to be aware of the strength of its bite and that biting is not allowed. “Gently” can also be used to caution the dog when he is meeting children.

Pick up your dog at various times during the day (if possible) and cuddle close for a few seconds.  Increase the length of the cuddle as long as the dog is not panicking or squirming.  Large dogs can be cuddled close by kneeling beside them.

Examine your dog’s mouth, teeth and paws everyday. This is done for only a few seconds at first, then increase the time as your dog begins to tolerate being handled.  Lots of praise and titbits for toleration. Be aware that if your dog protests being cuddled or handled it may be indicative of a problem in the status between yourself and the dog. You need to sort out that relationship before you can progress further!

Teach your dog to take treats from your hand at the same time you pet it with the other hand. Teach your dog that being reached for by hands and being handled can be rewarding.

Accustom your dog to being stared at, starting with short glances into the eyes and lots of praise.  Glances become looks - looks become stares.

Speak softly to encourage him to look at you.  Lots of praise and titbits.

Accustom your dog to being grabbed at unexpected times, in order to de-sensitise him or her to this behaviour in children, by grabbing the dog’s collar or a handful of skin during restraining or handling exercises.  Begin gently and say his name first. Lots of praise for calm reaction.  Sometimes grab him while he is walking around the house, or during play or walks. Praise and treats for calm behaviour.

Do not let your dog become possessive of toys. They are yours and only on loan to the dog. You can take them away at any time and you sometimes do. Toys are sometimes played with by you, and if there is too much growling or too much tugging, the item is taken away.  Do not play tug of war games with your dog.  

The following exercise rewards the dog for allowing proximity to both the food and his dish.  Occasionally feed your dog by dropping his food, bit by bit, into the dish. In this way you teach your dog that having people near the food dish should not only be allowed, but is very often rewarding.

Your dog should always have a safe place in which to withdraw from children.  The children should be taught that it is the dog’s place and he is not to be bothered when he is there.  The best system is an indoor kennel crate which can be locked if necessary. It is important for the dog to know he can get away from the children if needed.

Although this information can be used in various scenarios with children,  it is primarily aimed at puppies and dogs who have had little interaction with children and, therefore, find a child’s behaviour strange and unnerving.

All dog owners should remain alert to the dangers inherent in dog/children relationships and take steps to reduce the possibility of an incident occurring between their dog and a child. All children should learn to know and respect dogs and all dogs should be taught to know and respect children.

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