Holly Mash outlines her approach to helping children and dogs get along

I’ve had a new perspective on dogs since having my son, now an energetic 2½-year-old. With a small person at dog height, I am concerned about owners keeping their dogs under control. I’m also conscious of the importance of teaching my son how to get along safely with dogs.

In the UK nearly 2,000 children a year need hospital treatment after being bitten by a dog. Children under 10 are twice as likely to be bitten as older children and adults. Shockingly, around two-thirds of these bites are from the family dog or a friend’s dog. No wonder the Dogs Trust has discovered that one in three children and one in seven parents are afraid of dogs.

Why are young children and dogs such a tricky mix? First, dogs are animals and therefore they can be unpredictable. Secondly, dogs thrive on consistency and calmness – not something associated with most small children. The higher incidence of bites to this age group is linked to a lack of appropriate adult supervision – even the most trusted family dog should never be left alone with your toddler – and to the tendency of young children to unwittingly excite or frighten dogs. Dogs don’t usually bite because they are aggressive, but because they are frightened.

“My dog loves children. He’s only being friendly.” This is a phrase owners often shout as their dog runs headlong towards your toddler and knocks her for six! If you are a dog owner, please be considerate when you are out with your dog, and, however safe, obedient and friendly, please just put your dog on a lead if you see a child ahead. If you can imagine how the encounter might feel if you were in the child’s shoes, I’m sure you’d want the same.

It is wonderful and rewarding when children can be introduced to dogs correctly and have a friend for life. That’s why it’s so important to educate both parents and dog owners about how to be safe around pets. Unfortunately, many owners cannot read their own dogs’ signs. Nine times out of ten dogs will show that they are unhappy by moving away, laying their ears back, or licking their lips, and they will only bite as a last resort. Increasing your own as well as your child’s understanding of dogs should significantly reduce the risk of bites.

Children should never be allowed to approach a dog they don’t know without first asking the owner whether it is OK for them to come near. They should never touch a dog that is tied up in the street, even if the dog seems pleased to see them. It is always safest to walk calmly past a dog that you don’t know, without making eye contact. Part of the reason why toddlers can get into trouble with dogs is that they are at eye level with them, and a dog will interpret a stare as a threat.

Dogs like to know exactly what they are supposed to do, so asking a dog to sit and giving a food reward is a much better way of saying hello than patting or stroking. (Ask the owner first whether the dog is allowed to be given a treat.) Another important lesson for a child is not to tease or deliberately excite a dog. Try only to engage with a dog who is behaving calmly: that way the dog will learn to be calm around children, and vice versa.

Teach your child not to take anything away from a dog. Whatever a dog has in his mouth, he must choose to give it up rather than have it yanked away by force. This is because dogs have evolved from being scavenging animals who needed to guard food from others in order to survive.

It’s important for your child to understand that not all dogs are the same and that no particular breed of dog is safer than another. Just because one dog might have misbehaved, not all dogs will. Equally, just because one dog is very friendly, not all dogs are.

If you don’t want your child to be knocked over if you meet a big, boundy dog when you are out and about, politely ask the owner to put the dog on a lead while they pass you. Most responsible dog owners should automatically do so if they notice a child in the vicinity.

Taking care of a dog is an excellent way of teaching a child to take responsibility and to express empathy, so it’s well worth taking the trouble to ensure that your child doesn’t become scared of dogs, by putting in the groundwork with a bit of education on the ‘canine code’.

Find out more 

  • The Dogs Trust’s fantastic ‘Be Dog Smart’ education programme teaches children to stay safe around dogs. bedogsmart.org.uk
  • For individuals who are truly scared of dogs there is a wonderful charity called Dogs Helping Kids where children can learn to be with dogs in an educational and therapeutic environment. dogshelpingkids.co.uk

Holly Mash is mum to a busy 2-year-old and is a veterinary surgeon with a graduate diploma in Western veterinary herbal medicine. She has written The Holistic Dog and The Holistic Cat guides to natural pet health care and runs a company making herbal healthcare products for pets. www.holisticpetcompany.co.uk

First published in Issue 47 (Early Spring 2017) of JUNO:

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