When we ask people to describe their families, most now tell us how many human children and four-legged children they have. Pets are part of the family, and they can add so much to a child's life. By being in charge of their feeding and exercise, children can learn responsibility. Many children learn about life itself through the births of puppies and the death of an older pet.
For these benefits and so many others, we recommend families with kids have dogs, too. However, we must always remember that all dogs can bite. Dogs are not small people and must be taught how to appropriately interact with humans, especially children. Children must also be taught how to interact with dogs.
One of the first lessons to learn is in what situations are dogs most likely to bite:
If they are already scared, then they may bite for protection if approached.
A nursing mother may nip if she thinks her puppies are threatened.
Be careful when moving injured animals, as this may make their pain worse and they may bite in an attempt to stop you.
Dogs, like children, must be taught to share. This is especially true regarding food. Teach children to never touch the food of a dog they do not know.
Never surprise a sleeping dog. Always make noise to awaken them before you get close.
Avoid rough play such as chase and tug of war.
Never let dogs even play bite. They often cannot appreciate the difference between play and the real thing.
A poorly trained or mannered dog is also more likely to bite.
Susan Marett, owner of Purely Positive Dog Training, teaches a course called Dogs and Storks about preparing your dog for a new baby. A new baby will compete with your dog for attention. The baby also has new and unusual smells and sounds to which your dog will have to adjust. Also all of the gear — cribs, strollers, swings — may make your dog nervous or want to play too rough. Marett offered the following tips to make this transition smooth and to avoid problems.
Safe space. Give your dog a space that is his. Here he should feel happy and stress-free. This may be a kennel or an entire room. It's a good idea to feed and keep toys in this area to reinforce this as a positive place to be. Also teach him to go there on command. This is great when the baby is crying and he wants to see what is going on.
Time alone. Start letting your dog spend time alone in this safe space. He has been able to spend every minute by your side prior to this, so needs to learn to spend time without you and not be stressed. Gradually increase the amount of time he stays alone in his safe area. Do this before the baby arrives.
Acclimate to baby gear. Before the baby comes home and is in the swing, have the swing in the house. Turn it on so he is accustomed to how it moves. Anything that moves can be frightening or invoke play behavior in a dog. It is important for them to get acquainted with all the new items before the baby is actually in them.
Basic commands. A trained, well-mannered dog is less likely to bite. Commands to “stay” or “kennel” may not only prevent physical injury, but save your sanity. When your baby is crying and you have not slept for three days and your dog is jumping up to see what is going on, the ability to get him out of the room into his safe place may save you from a nervous breakdown.
Play with a doll. Before the real baby comes home, move around the house carrying a doll. You will look different with a baby in your arms, so get your dog used to this change. Give orders while holding the doll. Hand the baby back and forth so the dog accepts this as normal.
Safe introduction. When first getting home with your baby, put him or her on the dining room table with chairs surrounding the table. This allows your dog to hear and smell the baby but not get close. Never put the baby's face next to the dog's face.
Work it out. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise. Built-up energy can result in unwanted behaviors.
As children age, they can interact more and more with the dog. How old a child should be before being left alone with a dog will vary depending on the dog and the child. As a general rule, children less than 5 years should not be left alone with a dog.
Dogs have a natural prey drive, so any fast movement can activate this behavior. Avoid playing chase, wrestling, teasing and having your dog grab things from your hand. Merritt recommends games such as hide and seek, fetch and teaching commands as safe ways for kids and dogs to interact.
Growing up with dogs can add so much to not only your child's enjoyment of life, but to a better understanding of life itself. Kids and dogs are a safe mix if mixed appropriately.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.