This is one of 2019’s most read articles. The author is nationally known dog trainer, and author/columnist, Kathy Santo, IACP CDT, CDTA, PDTI, CCAS.
Our thanks to Kathy for sharing this article with us. You’ll find links to her media pages and her book “Kathy Santo’s DOG SENSE” at the end of this article.
Start early teaching children how to interact safely with dogs using these five tips from nationally acclaimed dog trainer Kathy Santo. Kathy’s fun and effective approach to dog training have helped tens of thousands of dogs become the dog “everyone loves to have around!”
As a mom of two children, and the owner of a busy dog school, I know how challenging it can be to teach kids about dog body language and proper dog-child interactions. It’s especially hard when the television, movies, cartoons, and print send a message that dogs love to be hugged, kissed, and have their faces near ours. Here are a few of the rules I began teaching my kids when they were toddlers:
THE “FIVE SECOND RULE”
For me, one of the best parts of teaching is when my students bring their kids to class. Besides the fact that I want to teach kids how to train their dog, it allows me an opportunity to watch how they interact with the dog. Here is a typical interaction. A child is petting their dog, and, if the dog moves away, they pull the dog back to them and hold it close so they can begin petting again. The problem arises when the dog wants to move away but is continually forced into a situation he perceives as stressful or annoying.
To solve the problem, I teach the “5 Second Rule”. I ask the child to pet their dog for 5 seconds and then take his/her hand away. Then I ask them, “does your dog still want to be petted?” If the dog is leaning against them, and snuggling or nudging their hands, I tell them that’s a green light which means “more please.” If the dog just stands there and doesn’t move away (but also doesn’t ask for ‘more,) that means “I’m not sure,” and so the child should treat that as a “NO.” If the dog walks away, the answer is “no, thank you,” and the child should leave the dog alone.
It’s so important to teach children that a dog can change from moment to moment and that a “no thank you” now, could turn into a “more, please” and vice-versa. That’s why it’s so critical to let the dog tell you then pay attention to what he’s saying and what he wants at the beginning of every interaction.
Note: I teach this to parents and children for use with their OWN dogs, NOT dogs they don’t know!
By teaching babies to reach out and touch dogs, you teach them to, well, reach out and touch dogs. That backfires when your baby starts walking and wants to run up to every dog he sees, which is a recipe for a bad interaction. Have you noticed how toddlers seem to be eye level to most dog’s faces?
WHAT THE DOG IS SAYING
When my kids were still in their car seats, I would point out dogs I saw outside the car when we stopped at a traffic light. I’d ask “Is that dog feeling happy? How do you know?” Those were great opportunities for me to teach a number of important lessons, including why a wagging tail doesn’t always mean ‘happy’. As the kids got older, the questions became more complex “How does that dog feel about the interaction he’s having with that person? Is the person reading the dog’s signals? What might happen if he continues leaning over and reaching for the dog?”
Having a dog trainer as a parent meant that my kids knew I could “speak dog,” but initially, they had no idea that not everyone’s parents could. I taught them that even if someone said their dog was friendly, that owner may not actually know if they are or not. We talked about how they needed to use what they knew about dog body language, and if the dog was very still, and staring at them, flicking their tongue, moving away, etc., the dog was telling them they “NO” to an interaction.
Of course. my kids had been exposed to television and movies and had seen the way dog and kid relationships were/are portrayed. I would make sure to counter the images they saw with reminders “I don’t think that dog likes to be hugged – look at how his ears are pinned back.” Or for animated shows “Because this isn’t a real dog, it looks like he enjoys being picked up and having that kid put his face up to his, but we know that in real life, that wouldn’t be a good way to interact with a dog.”
ALWAYS SUPERVISE DOGS AND CHILDREN
Dogs are not your children’s playmates or babysitters, and my children were never allowed to play with them without supervision until they were in their mid-teens. That takes into account the fact that I was raising them to understand the language of dogs from Day 1. So, when they had friends over, no matter their age, I would either supervise their interactions with our dogs, or the dogs would hang out somewhere else with me. You’d be shocked how many teens (as well as adults) think it’s ok to hug (headlock!) a dog, or continue moving toward a dog saying “It’s ok baby….” as the dog is backing away from them, ears back, tongue flicking, and eyes darting. If you don’t want the nightmare of your dog biting someone, and perhaps a lawsuit, follow my lead on this.
PEOPLE RULES THAT APPLY TO DOGS
It’s important for kids (and parents) to understand that although dogs don’t think like people, some rules that apply when interacting with friends or family members are good to follow around the family dog. For instance, dogs deserve downtime, just like people. So, when a dog is eating or resting in his crate or special place, they must be left alone. Giving kids the example of how they have times when they want to be alone really helps them understand and have empathy for their dog.
Also, just like you teach kids rules for respecting and getting along with other children, it’s important to teach them rules on getting along and respecting dogs as well. Teach then not to pull a dog’s hair, yell in their face, jump on their back, drag them somewhere. wake them up, take their food, or yell at them. These are fairly easy to teach if you use empathy-based examples. “Remember how you felt when your cousin ran into your room and jumped on your bed to wake you up? Remember how he thought it was funny, but you were really mad?”
Although this sounds like a lot of work (and it is!) this is the type of instruction kids need in order to grow into dog-savvy adults. My hope is that every parent takes this advice to heart because I’ve seen the post-plastic surgery faces of the children who knew that hugging and kissing mommy and daddy was ok but that doing the same to their beloved dog was not. No matter what their age, or no matter if it’s your niece, nephew, godchild, friend’s kid, neighbor’s kid or your own kid, teach them how to properly and safely interact with a dog. Your dog will thank you for it.
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