The Humane Society estimates that 51% of dog bite victims are children. And most dog bites happen at home and with a familiar dog.
So what can we do to help ensure our own children don't become part of this statistic?
Teach your dog key skills
First things first, before we can expect our dogs to behave around our children, we must teach them how we want them to behave. There are some key skills you'll want in place around children including:
Name response: teach your dog how to respond to their name, so you can interrupt any undesirable behaviours such as chasing the kids when they run or to call them away if they're jumping all over them
Fetch: this is especially useful with young puppies because they explore the world with their mouths and will naturally want to pickup the toys left scattered around by the children.
Teach your puppy to bring things to you that they find. It's much better to say 'good boy fetch it' rather than chasing them around yelling 'bad boy drop it'.
If we teach our dogs that bringing things to us is a positive experience, we can teach them to play fetch with the children, so they can start building positive interactions with the puppy. On the other hand, if we chase them everytime they pick up the childrens toys, you can accidentally make this a super fun game and a great way to get your attention, and quite likely create some resource guarding issues
Leave it and drop: Teaching our dogs to 'leave' as in 'don't touch that', or 'drop' as in 'let go of that' are useful cues to be armed with. It allows us to give our dogs guidance about the things they are interacting with. Whether your puppy is about to pick something up that they shouldn't have (food items, the remote control, or to empty the rubbish bin), or they have something dangerous in their mouth. It's important to pre-train these cues so that they are effective and already paired with reinforcement from you, so that you get an immediate response from your dog. If they don't respond when you give them the cue, go back and retrain it before trying to use it.
Off: this means 'get off'. Trained correctly, you can use this cue to ask your dog to get off the furniture or take their paws off counters or people. Your children can then also use it if the dog has jumped onto them on the sofa and they don't want them there.
Send to bed & settle: Teach your dog to go to their bed and settle from anywhere in the house and with any distraction, so that if needed, they can be sent away to their own space when things are becoming overwhelming
Middle: this is a useful cue that can help to prevent or at least reduce jumping up. The children can ask the dog to go to middle for greetings, which helps to lower excitement levels and reduces jumping (especially dogs who like to launch for a face lick)
If you're not sure how to teach these skills, follow the step by step video tutorials here
What about educating our children?
Many families believe that when things go wrong between dogs and children, that 95% of the blame lands on the dog. That the dog is not trained well enough.
However, this is not always the case. Education needs to be 50/50. We absolutely must educate our dogs, so that they know how to behave around the children, but we also must educate our children so that they also know how to behave around the dog too
Puppies are naturally curious and will investigate new things with their mouths. It is important to put all treasured possessions such as toys or shoes out of reach of a young puppy. Anything left lying around is fair game to the puppy and it is unfair to punish
a young puppy for doing what comes naturally to them. If your puppy does pick up
something that doesn’t belong to them, its better to crouch down and encourage your puppy to bring it to you with ‘oh what you got? Good boy, fetch it’, as opposed to chasing and saying ‘bad dog, drop it’.
It’s very hard for a puppy to distinguish the difference between their own toys and a child's, especially is they look similar. Do your kids have teddys that look like dog toys for instance?
Make sure there are plenty of things lying around that your puppy CAN have. Such as chews and toys and give your puppy LOTS of attention when they pick them up.
This helps to ensure your puppy receives lots of reinforcement for putting their teeth on things that are theirs, whilst ensuring there are zero opportunities to test picking up things that are not theirs.
It’s important to remember that if your puppy is excessively biting or jumping and isn’t listening to any cues, they are probably over tired and in need of rest (much like toddlers who are prone to becoming over emotional when tired). This is a good
signal that your puppy needs rest in either a crate, or a quiet room/pen on their own so they can switch off and sleep.
Puppies need around 18 hours of rest a day, and with children in the house, its very hard for them to switch off to rest unless we help them to do so.
They need to have their own resting space and should be provided with a crate or a bed that is out of bounds to the children.
Children should never get into the puppies crate or climb onto their bed for any reason, and should never be allowed to wake up a sleeping puppy.
Puppies need to be able to have respite from busy children and should feel secure knowing they won't be followed and climbed on when they do retreat to rest.
If you have very young children and you are unable to supervise the puppy and the child constantly, the puppy should be placed in a play pen, crate or quiet room to ensure that the child isn’t pestering the puppy when you aren’t physically watching.
Food and chews
Puppies should never be disturbed when eating their food or chewing on a bone. And children should definitely never ever take these items away from the dog.
We want to create positive associations with children approaching dogs who are eating (and its important we do this as its likely your children will at some point unknowingly approach the dog when they have something valuable).
Ask the children to approach the puppy when eating and to drop something more valuable into their bowl or next to their chew and then walk away (no touching).
So that their approach brings lots of positive and nothing negative. This will help prevent resource guarding issues from developing too.
You can even buy a chew such as a stag bar or yak chew, and ask the children to sit down with the puppy and hold one end whilst the puppy chews on the other. This is a great way to build positive associations with the children around chews.
Cuddles & attention
Children should not ‘cuddle’ dogs. Dogs do not enjoy being cuddled… i.e. having arms wrapped around their necks, given bear hugs, being sat on, laid on, picked up, or having their ears or tails grabbed!
Children should be taught to be respectful of the puppy, and understand that the puppy is not a toy. And that no matter how much the dog may 'tolerate it', should never ever be interacted with in this way.
It is unreasonable to expect a dog to tolerate this kind of contact from children (even if your dog has always tolerated it ‘so well’).
It’s always fine… until it’s not.
It is very unlikely that your dog is enjoying this contact, and many puppies for example find being picked up by children quite frightening (and painful), since children are often clumsy with the way they do so, and the dog has no choice to move away if they want.
Dogs should be allowed to choose to come for attention or get away if they want to, and children should be taught how to read dog body language and how to respect the dogs space and boundaries.
Signs of stress can be subtle, and can include
Whale eye (you’ll see the whites of the eyes)
Rolling over / submissive weeing
Some dogs will even fool around, i.e they’ll go super bouncy and stupid and dart backwards and forwards.
If these signals are repeatedly ignored, your dog may progress to growling, snapping or even biting.
Often we’re told that the dog ‘gave no warning’ and it ‘came out of the blue’, but in actual fact, the dog probably gave plenty of warnings, over many, many months, but the dog was ignored, and progressed to biting instead, seemingly ‘without’ warning, because their previous warnings didn’t work.
Respecting the dogs space and limitations is a huge part of ensuring our children do not get bitten by either their own dog, or a friends dog.
If children want to give the puppy affection, they should sit down and encourage the puppy to them calmly, and ensure they say hi calmly by stroking very slowly and using quiet voices. Shouting and stroking fast can create excitement and encourage the puppy to start biting, jumping and chasing
If the puppy does start biting and jumping, the children should stand up and stand like a tree.
That means stand still, fold their arms to protect their body, and don't make eye contact with the dog. An adult may need to intervene and remove the puppy from the situation
Many kids can become excited around a puppy, and will even encourage them to chase them around the garden, often squealing in delight when they puppy gives chase. This game seems like fun for everyone, until the dog takes it too far, starts jumping and nipping, and the children start getting upset.
This whole situation is actually very unfair for the poor puppy who will now inevitably be told off for being too rough. Not only has the puppy been actively encouraged to chase, but its also being massively reinforced for doing so, where initially children will tell the puppy what a good boy he is for taking part in their game. And then suddenly the puppy is being reprimanded and he has no idea why.
It Is important to teach games that children and dogs can play together without this conflict, so that the children can have a good relationship with the family dog and vice versa.
Here are some games we can teach that are fun for all:
Tug of war: A gentle game of tug with the children, ideally using a nice long toy so that fingers don’t get accidentally grabbed.
The best way to play this is with 2 toys of equal value. Play tug with one toy for a few seconds, then let go and grab the other toy and encourage the puppy to grab this one instead.
Then play tug for a few seconds with this one, let go and race back to the first toy again. This way we aren’t expecting children to be able to teach the puppy to ‘drop’ on cue, which can take some time. And there is less conflict.
Fetch: short games of fetch are ok, but be careful with a young puppies joints, and ensure the children aren’t over exerting the dog with endless throws of a toy, especially when its hot.
Fetch will also build positive associations of bringing things to you, so you can use this same game for when the puppy picks up something you want back (rather than chasing them).
Tricks: Teaching tricks is a great way to build a good relationship between the kids and the dog.
It’s fun to do, they can show off the tricks to friends, and they’re not commands that absolutely have to be followed that can cause a lot of frustration when the dog doesn’t respond.
Some fun tricks that are easy for children to teach include: teaching paw, spin, middle, hand touch, feet up, roll over, go through a tunnel, fetch etc.
You can find video tutorials for teaching tricks in our Kids Club in the Online Academy
General obedience training: when teaching cues such as Sit, Down, Leave, Bed etc, it's important that first, an adult teaches the puppy what each exercise means.
Once the puppy is responding reliably to each cue, it will now be easier for the children to have a go and get involved. Coach your children through each exercise and show them how to reward the dog for responding. This helps to teach the puppy to respond to everyone in the household
Take home message
It is important to teach both dogs and children to be polite. Follow these simple rules, and dogs and children can live together happily and build wonderful relationships
If you need more support with your puppy's behaviour around children, our puppy residential stays are a great way to provide positive exposure and training around children. We can match your puppy to one of our trainers with young children.