Pleas for training help involving dogs playing too roughly with or behaving aggressively toward children are some of the most common type of calls I get, and very rarely is it the dog’s fault that such behavior has developed.
These two behavior issues develop out of very different needs and emotions, although in both cases, a lack of sufficient adult supervision and guidance also lies at the heart of the problems.
Dogs play rough. It’s their nature. They don’t have hands and arms to wrestle with the way we might, so they often resort to using their mouths as well as rough body-slamming techniques in order to get the upper “hand.” Unfortunately, human playmates lack the protective coats that most dogs have, so our skin is easily hurt by the sharp teeth and claws of dogs.
Dogs being too rough isn’t the only obstacle to overcome when dealing with kids and dogs, though. Sometimes it’s the kids that are too rough—especially when it comes to handling dogs, and in particular, when it comes to picking up, holding, petting and cuddling small breeds.
To a small dog, especially a timid or naturally anxious one, being picked up even gently can be frightening. I often ask my students to imagine a giant plucking us up off the ground, even gently, and swooping us up to be cuddled. Further imagine that giant, although kind and well-meaning, has a hard time being gentle enough to hold us lightly in his big, clumsy hands.
Now consider how a dog might feel when a young person picks it up, not meaning any harm, but causing fear and/or pain. A major part of this particular dynamic is then the way in which dogs communicate that they need space. Sadly, few humans have learned to read canine body language well enough to pick up on the subtle signals dogs give which another well-socialized dog might understand to mean, “you’re freaking me out a bit, please leave me alone.” Although we understand that a growl, air snap or bite mean, “back off, and do it now,” we often miss the fact that it’s just a way of stressing the urgency of the same message, and as a result, our feelings are hurt.
My first job when confronted with situations like this is to help humans learn
to ask, “How can I teach my dog not to be afraid of my children so that the dog doesn’t feel like it has to ask for space in the first place, and certainly not in abrupt ways that frighten me and my family?” rather than, “How do I teach my dog not to growl at, snap at or bite my child?” or, “How do I get my dog to understand that my child is the boss?”
None of this means that kids and dogs can’t play together comfortably and safely. We just have to teach them (both the dogs and the kids) safe rules for playing together, and then we need to be there to act as referee at all times, enforcing these rules until they become reliable habits for both our kids and dogs.
Multi-tasking is not an option here. This is the time for “CEO (Constant Eyes On) supervision.”
Alas, despite the fact that I borrow this term so very often, I cannot for the life of me remember the speaker from whom I first heard it. It might have been Colleen Pelar, author of “Living With Kids and Dogs without Losing Your Mind.”
Please read next week’s Weekly Yip for specific activities you can teach your kids and dogs that will foster a safe and trusting bond between them, as well as how to respond as referee when either party fails to follow the rules.