The numbers of dogs in the UK have soared since lockdown, and now it is estimated that there are 12.5 million dogs in the country, with a third of all households owning at least one.
This means that all children will come into contact with dogs at some time – whether at home, when visiting friends and family, or just when out and about.
Whether as dog lovers we like it or not, dogs are a hazard – and they are especially so for children. They have teeth, claws, a mind of their own, and even the most friendly and playful, especially if not trained, can knock a child over or just get over-excited. So how can parents teach their children how to be safe around dogs – and what do children need to know to have the perfect relationship with the dogs that share their lives, and to grow up to be the dog owners of the future?
First of all, split dog encounters into three categories:
- strange dogs you meet while out and about
- resident dog/s
- dogs of friends and family
These need to be looked at totally differently when it comes to interactions and staying safe.
Children should be taught to treat strange dogs exactly the same way they would a strange person. Totally ignore them. No matter how cute, how appealing, or how friendly they look – and even if the owner says it is OK for you and your child to talk to them. Neither you, your child – or very probably the dog’s owner – will know for sure that their dog is happy around unknown children or is happy in that moment. ‘Stranger danger’ is about all strangers – no matter what the species!
If an off-lead dog comes up to you while you are out with your child, again… totally ignore it. In most cases, if you aren’t interesting, the dog will wander off and find something more fun to do. If the dog seems over-excited, bouncy or you have any concerns about their behaviour, don’t panic and tell your child to ‘be a statue’! In other words, stand perfectly still, cross their arms across their chest and stay quiet. Children running or shouting, or waving their arms about, will make the situation worse and it can make a friendly, playful dog overexcited, or it can scare a dog who is unused to children. If they (or you) are knocked over by the dog, they should ‘be a stone’. Curl up with arms and legs tucked in underneath them and their head down.
There are plenty of dogs you and your children can interact and have fun with – your own or known dogs belonging to friends or family – but avoid strangers!
The Family Dog
While it might be a fear of many parents, the majority of injuries to children from dogs don’t come from unknown dogs that you might meet when you are out and about. They come from the family’s own dog. There are lots of reasons for this – but the main one is simply that this is the dog that a child will spend the most time with – and it is the one that parents are often the least vigilant around.
- Encourage your child to recognise that a dog isn’t a toy but instead is a living, breathing sentient creature just like them – and sometimes they get scared or worried – or just don’t want to interact or play.
- Before you even get your dog, take the time to teach your children how to interact with them. If you know someone with a quiet, child-friendly adult dog, you can use them as a ‘teacher’.
- Teach your child to wait until the dog approaches them, and then not to grab them or try to hug them but instead show the child how to gently stroke the dog’s neck and shoulder using the back of their hand. Dogs do not like being hugged – and it puts your child’s face far too close to the sharp bits!
- Show them how to let the dog move away whenever they want to – so to never corner them or hold on to them.
Make sure your children know not to touch or interact with the dog:
- When eating
- When chewing a treat or valued toy
- When asleep
- When they feel cornered or have no escape route
And while it is important to always supervise interactions between your child and your dog, make sure that you know what you are looking out for! (you only have to look on social media at photos of young children and dogs taken by parents to see that many don’t!).
Dogs give very clear signals when they are feeling uncomfortable – just we often aren’t very good at reading them. Humans are a verbal species – we communicate with each other vocally. As so many people do not recognise that a dog is feeling uncomfortable until they get to the point of saying something – ie growling… something us verbal humans can recognise – but in reality the dog had been giving what they thought were clear signals for ages.
Not all dogs show all of these, and they don’t happen in quite the same order for every dog – but if you see any of these you should recognise them for what they are, and you should know that the dog isn’t comfortable and is getting worried/stressed.
- Lip or nose licking
- Turning their head away
- Showing the white of their eyes (whale eye)
- Leaning their body away or walking away
- Holding their ears back
- Crouching or creeping
- Lifting paw
- Tucking tail under body or holding it stiffly
- Staring/not blinking
And at the point when a dog bites, in their mind they have given countless warnings that have been totally ignored – and so they feel they are left with no choice.
When you are watching your child with your dog or any other dog, always be alert for any all of these signals.
We hear a lot now about the importance of consent but we assume it just relates to people. So often we touch dogs or interact with them without even considering for one second if we have their consent – or even thinking that they can give it and that we need it. Just by learning this one thing can prevent nearly all bites – and so it’s important to remember it yourself and to teach this to your child.
So how do you know you’ve got a dog’s consent to touch them? It’s easy.
- As long as it’s safe to do so, make sure any interactions are in a place where the dog feels relaxed and comfortable – and without them being restrained or contained in any way.
- Then wait until they solicit attention. This is a clear sign that at this point, you have consent to interact.
- Keep interactions low key and quiet. If you are stroking them, rubbing their ears, or giving them any kind of physical contact, do it with the dog unrestrained so they can escape or move away
- Do it for only 5 seconds. Then stop.
- If the dog moves away or leaves, you do not have consent to continue. If they rub against your hand for more, push up against you, or in some way solicit more contact, then you have consent to carry on. For another 5 seconds.
- Keep repeating – and remember that consent can be withdrawn at any time
In this way you know that both your child and your dog are free to enjoy the interaction and the company – and can begin to build a strong trust in each other.
Dogs Belonging to Friends and Family
These are somewhere in the middle but as long as children know how to interact with their own dogs, ask for consent, and are supervised, they are unlikely to go far wrong with other friendly dogs they meet in the homes of their friends and family.
Benefits of Dog Ownership for Children
There are many benefits to dog ownership and having a dog in their life can have lifelong advantages for your child and can teach many valuable lessons.
Some of the key benefits are:
- Looking after a puppy helps children learn responsibility
- Caring for dogs increases empathy and sensitivity to others
- Having a puppy also provides plenty of opportunities for exercise and fun
- Studies show that children who grow up with a dog have fewer days off school and are healthier
- More than that, a dog will be your child’s best friend, their confidante and their very own four-pawed, guardian angel!