This article was written by Adam Cecil of PolicyGenius.
Ask someone on the street to describe the perfect American family and they'll talk about the 2.4 kids and the white picket fence. And most of the time, behind that white picket fence? The family dog. Dogs have been part of our families for generations, but that doesn't mean we're perfect when it comes to introducing dogs to our children and vice versa. To learn more about the complex relationship between dogs and children, we talked with Andrea Arden of Andrea Arden Dog Training, one of the most respected dog training schools in the country, about training, behavior, and pups of both species.
For people who already have a dog and are having a child, what should their first step be in preparing that dog for the child?
I would say that the very first thing that people need to do is make a plan as far in advance as possible. I got an email yesterday from a woman who says their dog has some issues and they're having a baby in a month. Even with minor behavior issues, a month's time is typically not long enough to make a real change in behavior, whether it's yours or your dog's. Prior planning is super, super important in order to bode well for success.
Even if a dog doesn't have clear, outward signs of a behavior issue and are, by and large, well socialized and friendly, they'll still often find it very challenging to deal with the change that happens when a child comes into a home. People's behaviors change, their energy levels, the amount of time they have to give the dog outlets for their mental and physical energy.
Once babies become toddlers, they become more mobile and start interacting with their environment, in particular the dog. They become very grabby. The child doesn't yet have impulse control. You can tell a very young child 50 times not to grab or pull at the dog, but they don't understand it yet. That can be incredibly challenging for even the nicest dog without behavior issues. Everybody should err on the side of caution when they have animals in the home and make a plan that includes helping their animals learn specific skills that will make life living with a child easier and safer for everyone.
What kind of skills do you teach dogs that are going to go through this?
Every dog should really have a basic understanding of things like sit, down and stay. If you have an animal and you can't ask them to do a very simple thing like sit in exchange for something that they want, what does that say about your relationship with the dog? What level of control will you have when it's chaotic and there's a child screaming or running around?
Instilling or improving basic manners is super important. I'm a huge fan of impulse control exercises. Impulse control is an umbrella term for what's at the core of most behavior problems. You should be working on, to begin with, simple exercises like holding a treat over a dog's head to the count of three and not having them jump and try to snatch it out of your hand. After the count of three, say "yes" and then give them the food as a reward. With repetition, the word becomes a marker for good behavior, and provides your dog with specific feedback about what has earned them a reward. After they can do that, it's about working to improve those skills and making that ability to control their impulses even better.
Why is this important? Imagine when a child is 2 years old and its sitting on the floor and has something in its hand that the dog wants. A dog with no impulse control, understandably, just goes over and grabs it. That's not a great situation. Many dogs without impulse control will unintentionally cause injury because they're so excited. Or they'll bark like crazy and scare the child. All of those things are about an animal who's saying "I'm really excited" or "I really want something," but doesn't have a polite way of saying it.
Eventually, you get the point of putting an object they want on your knee, or the coffee table, and you build up their ability to generalize the understanding of not grabbing things to more environments. You could eventually start working to where you put those objects on things related to the baby, like a bouncy seat, so the dog learns not to grab things that are near the baby.
Remember, this is a really weird concept for animals. "If I see a treat on the floor why would I do nothing to get it?" But they need to know that, no, actually, you running and trying to grab something or jumping on somebody actually makes what you want go away. You don't get attention by being a pushy dog.
I would also teach two more skills. One is called "hand targeting." It's an incredibly easy thing to teach. All you do is teach your dog that you present the open palm of your hand, their job is to run over from wherever they are and touch it with their nose. This is so easy to teach, but it's also so incredibly useful, probably even more so than sit and down. Start working on this skill at meal times. Present your hand to your dog, with your palm facing them. Out of curiosity, they will touch your hand with their nose. If you say "yes" the moment you feel their nose on your hand and then give them a piece of their food or a special treat, and then repeat that 10 or 15 times, they're going to have a lightbulb moment. It's such a nice way to be able to remove your dog from situations or redirect their attention without screaming at them. As young as a year and a half or 2 years old, your child can put their hand out and the dog can learn to hand target to your child.
I also suggest teaching what's called a "go to," where we teach a dog to go to a spot -- ideally, their bed -- when requested. You don't want to have to yell at your dog. You should be able to just say, "go to your bed, go to your spot," and have your dog think, "oh, this is fun, I get to go lay down." Teaching this usually takes no more than three to five days. It's super easy.
While a child and dog are interacting, are there any signs that you should watch for from the dog that they're anxious or that they might act out in some way?
Of course. Almost every good trainer I know cringes when they hear "the dog bit out of nowhere." That's unbelievably rare. Dogs are very, very good communicators by and large, and they have vast array of communication signals that, unfortunately, most of us are not cued into.
The grouping of behaviors that are most important for parents to learn about are what we call "calming signals." Calming signals are behaviors that most mammals use in order to calm themselves down. In dogs, look for lip licking, yawning, excessive blinking, averting their gaze or their head, turning away and shaking off. Those behaviors don't mean that much in and of themselves. The yawn could just mean the dog's tired. But when you start to see clusters of these, it's the dog's way of saying, "I don't feel so great about the situation." Parents have to intervene and give the dog the space.
The biggest mistake that pet and human parents make is that they don't respect the dog's need for space. And they allow children to grab them, hug them, lay on them, pull them and the dog tolerates it for a period of time until one day they don't. They'll snap, they'll growl, and in the worst case scenario, they'll bite. But if a dog growls or air snaps, a parent should not correct them. That sounds crazy, but what the dog is doing is giving you a warning rather than actually hurting the child. So if you correct them, you've actually just taught your dog that if they give a warning, they'll be punished. Next time, they'll bite with no warning.
The most important thing is making sure we have realistic expectations of what dogs should be expected to tolerate with children. And in most cases, we don't.
What should our expectations be?
Unfortunately, a lot of us suffer from what we oftentimes call the "Lassie Syndrome." Some dogs, especially certain breeds like the golden retriever, have a reputation of being very good with kids. Many of them are. But many of them aren't. I can't tell you how many videos I watch online where people think it's so cute that there's a child climbing onto a dog's bed and making erratic movement and squealing, not respecting the dog's space at all. And the dog tolerates it and they got it on video and it got a lot of likes, but as a trainer I watch and think that it just as likely could've gone the other way. Parents need to teach their children from a young age to respect the fact that animals are individuals and they deserve consideration just like each of us does. I think that's a very healthy thing to teach children, more so than "you can ride the dog, you can climb on them."
What age is it safe to leave a dog and a child alone? What needs to be done before the child and the dog can be left alone?
It is really not safe to leave any child unsupervised with an animal. While some children are old souls, very gentle and calm, there are other kids who might have less impulse control. Furthermore, every animal is different, and just like us, they'll have good and bad days. It's not worth the risk of leaving children unsupervised with any animal. Adult supervision is advisable for all interactions with animals and kids, because kids can't be expected to have the requisite impulse control that is necessary to be safe around animals.
What age do you suggest parents start having their child start taking care of dog or start helping with training?
I have lots of clients who say to me, "Oh, I'm getting a dog for my 11-year-old daughter. It's going to be her dog, she's responsible for him." And I go, "Absolutely not." You cannot expect an animal to be in the care of a child. It's not fair for the dog to rely on a child for their walks, their feedings, and all of the other necessities. Kids can certainly be assistants to parents, who should be the ones taking primary responsibility.
There are specific things you can do with kids to help them interact with a dog in a way that bodes well for creating a relationship based on mutual respect. For example, having children be part of teaching the dog using a positive, reward-based approach, where the dog learns to respond to perceive children as the source of some good stuff like food and play. But it really should be done in a much more methodical way than most people do it. Most people sort of fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to having a baby and they already have a dog. They just kind of go, "Oh, he'll learn to deal with it." And they cross their fingers.
If you did want to get a puppy for a child, what is a good age for a child to take some responsibility for an animal?
Every kid is so different, just like every dog is so different. You could have this vision that you're going to get your 13-year-old a dog and they're going to take at least 50% of the responsibility. But then let's say you get a dog that comes into your home who's not quite the dream dog you had hoped for. It's a more challenging dog who's got issues. Then you have to be willing to adjust. You have to be willing to be flexible and change according to the dog's personality, your child's personality and how they interact with each other. Sometimes it's a perfect fit. Sometimes, not as perfect.
I always worry when I hear parents say things like, "If she doesn't step up and do as she's told, I'm getting rid of the dog." What does that teach your child? If you start off saying to the child, "If you don't do x, y, and z, we get rid of the dog," think of what you're telling them about what the dog means. Is this dog actually a part of your family? Or is it like an object that can just be disposed of without much thought, as a punishment? I'm always worried when people set an expectation for a child's ability to follow through that maybe isn't realistic. I would always suggest that people err on the side of caution and go low-level first and gradually build those responsibilities up. The parents have to say, this is our dog, this is our family dog, we will take fully responsibility, and when appropriate we will have our children do things that aid us in helping to care for this dog.
It's hard for people to think about what an animal really needs. If you're getting an animal in part -- and it should only be a very small part -- to teach your children something, what are you trying to teach them? For each parent, that's something different. I think animals do have the ability to help children learn empathy and responsibility, As corny as it sounds, they can be a child's best buddy. They're great for improving social skills with children. Kids who have an animal that they can talk about -- it's really a social conduit for them. It allows them to have conversations with other kids.
All of these benefits are great, but you just have to be very careful to realize that it's a lot of responsibility to put on an animal's shoulders to say, "I want this dog to teach my child x, y, and z." That should be your best case scenario.
How much can a child get involved in the beginnings of the training process? Can they actually be in involved in the first level of training basics or should you, as a parent, learn the basics and then teach them to a child?
I love it when kids are involved in training when it's 100% positive training. When you use an approach that's about motivating the dog and using food and toys and play as rewards, you can start with kids who are very young. Three-year-olds can be doing little things like hand targeting or luring for a sit or a down. At that point they're starting to have a little bit of physical coordination.
In a perfect world, parents should start the training because, just like horseback riding, if you put a novice rider on a novice horse, it's probably not going to be that successful. But if you set a little foundation with a puppy or with an adult dog, teaching them that when a person lifts their hand up a little bit into the air, it means sit, then once the child starts doing it, the child will have an easier chance of being successful, meaning they're more likely to keep engaging in the training games. They're going to want to keep training because they see it as fun.
Always supervise training exercises. If you go to a puppy class or a group training class, that's a great environment to include children in because you have an experienced professional to guide you. When they see a child doing something that could be improved upon, it's sometimes easier for the trainer to gently guide a child in the right direction than a parent.