By Wendy Glauser
From the print edition, May 2012
While petting or even just watching a dog can bring joy to a child, kid-canine encounters can also be unpredictable. This X-factor is understandably nerve-racking for parents. “Toddlers and preschoolers are at the same eye level as most dogs,” says Evan Jones, father of four-year-old Anneke and two-year-old Merrick. “When you first realize that as a parent, it makes sense that it’s kind of scary for kids,” says the Halifax dad. Fortunately, by teaching your child early on about the dos and don’ts of interacting with dogs, you can help protect him from the trauma of an injury or a lingering fear of Fido.
Don’t Pet a Dog before Asking the Owner
Occasionally, Dave Bertrand’s Bernese mountain dog, Logan, will let out a frightening bark around kids (he never bites) when a child runs toward him, hands outstretched. “Approach slowly and ask the owner if your child can pet the dog,” says Bertrand, of Waterloo, Ont. By teaching your preschooler to ask, he’ll be more likely to repeat this safety measure in the future.
Paula Neuman, humane education manager of the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, stresses that parents should stay clear of dogs when owners aren’t around. Bites often happen when children stick their fingers through a fence or car window, which dogs interpret as a trespassing move by an uninvited guest. Plus, dogs left alone tethered in a yard for long periods tend to get aggressive, adds Neuman.
Do Let Dogs Warm Up to Children
Children should never approach a dog from behind, as this may startle it. After receiving permission to approach the dog, your child should always be encouraged to let the animal sniff the back of his hand as a greeting before petting it. Neuman recommends children first pet under the chin. “Everyone is tempted to pet the dog on the top of the head first, but anything over the top of the eyes can be seen as a sign of aggression.”
Do Teach When Not to Approach Dogs
When Neuman teaches dog safety in schools to children in Kindergarten to Grade 6, she shows photos of dogs resting, munching kibble and sitting, or with puppies, each time asking, “Is this a good time to pet a dog?” The exercise reinforces to children to be careful when they approach dogs. When eating, some dogs tend to think approaching children are after their food and may respond aggressively, she says. The idiom “Let sleeping dogs lie” points to the fact that dogs are often confused or startled when they are woken up and therefore may bite.
Do Be Careful When Holding Toys or Food
Tear-inducing nips are often accidental, with little fingers getting in the way when dogs are trying to get a toy or treat. Neuman tells kids to put a treat on a flat, open palm so that dogs can lick it off. Parents should be equally vigilant when kids are holding people food by making sure the food isn’t accessible to the dog. “My dog is food-aggressive,” explains Neuman, who points out a mouth-level snack in the hands of a kid might be impossible for her dog, and many dogs, to resist.
To avoid bites resulting from overly excited dogs during a game of fetch, Neuman recommends children use a plastic “chuck-it” contraption so they can pick up the ball without using their fingers. Alternatively, your child can use two balls, so he can throw the second while the dog is still focused on the first and pick up the first while the dog is off running after the second.
Don’t Let Your Guard Down at Home
While parents tend to fret when their little ones meet strangers’ dogs or strays in parks or during walks, the majority of dog bites happen when children are familiar with the animal, says Neuman. No matter how child-friendly a dog might seem, close supervision is always required.
Children tend to run when they are scared or excited, which can trigger a dog’s chasing instinct. Remind your child to move at a relaxed pace if near one. Kids should also be taught to never hug a dog or pull its tail or ears. While some animals may tolerate this, most won’t respond well to such treatment. Kids are also less likely to be able to read a dog’s body language and may miss important clues, such as growling, that indicate the dog is not enjoying the interaction.