On a bright Christmas morning when I was about 4, my father took my 2-year-old brother and me for a post-present-opening walk around the block. As my brother and I skipped ahead of him down the street, a neighbor opened his front door and a giant Irish Setter came bounding out into the yard. The dog, excited and playful, made a beeline for my brother and accidentally knocked him to the ground. The dog, not realizing my brother’s abject terror, licked his face and sniffed him, probably all the while hoping my brother would stop screaming and play fetch. I remember being terrified as I watched my father separate the dog from my brother, and to this day, my brother isn’t all that fond of dogs he doesn’t know well.
Because of my brother’s fear of dogs growing up, it was important to me that my kids not have the same fears. I wanted them to feel comfortable going to homes with dogs and cats, and I also wanted them to know what to do if they were approached by an unfamiliar animal while they were playing in our yard. I often enlisted help from friends with pets to help me teach my kids the dos and don’ts of pet ownership, not only for their safety but also for that of the animal. And we waited until our children were slightly older before we added a pet to our family because we wanted to be sure our kids understood the immense responsibility that comes with caring for a pet.
When we rescued a 2-year-old Shih Tzu last spring, the responsibility of owning a pet was more overwhelming than I ever expected and the learning curve has been steep. As we’ve gotten to know our pup and her quirks, I’ve become keenly aware that it’s my job as a pet owner to make sure that not only is she properly trained, but also that we are responsible in our choices when it comes to taking her for walks or introducing her to the neighborhood children. What’s more, I realized there are ways that dog owners and parents can work together to make sure the park and neighborhood are safe for both kids and dogs.
1. Let’s work together to teach your little one how to approach a dog safely.
Fortunately, our dog loves attention and eagerly submits to a belly rub from pretty much everyone, but not all dogs are the same. And I get it: Dogs are cute and cuddly, and even I have a hard time resisting the urge to reach out and give a pup some love. But parents need to remember that some dogs are fearful of kids and others can get aggressive if approached too quickly.
If your child wants to pet a dog, teach them to ask the owner first and then follow the owner’s directions. If the owner says no, respect their wishes. And, for my part, I promise not to bring my dog to a place or gathering that will cause her to become overstimulated or edgy. It’s a two-way street.
2. I will be glad to let you pet my dog, but I need you to work with me.
Most humans don’t like to be surprised and the same goes for animals. Dogs do not like to be approached from behind and doing so can lead to a dog lashing out in fear. If your child has been given permission to pet an owner’s dog, teach your child to pet the dog from the side. And don’t allow them to put their hand in front of a dog’s face when they are approaching. Rather, let the dog sniff at his own pace and gently pet the dog where the owner instructs.
I love it when our pup gets to play with kids, but I love it even more when parents help me ensure that both the kids and our dog will have a safe interaction.
3. Let’s all take a breather once in a while, okay?
Even cats and dogs need some down time to regroup, so teach your kids that if an animal has left a room to sit in its bed or special spot, give them some space to do so. Animals know when they’ve had enough stimulation and they often signal their need to be alone by retreating to their comfort zone.
If your child is visiting a home with a pet, encourage them to leave Fido alone and play with their friends while the dog recharges. Please don’t be offended if I tell your child to give our dog a break. I’m not trying to be mean. I’m just trying to make sure our dog gets down time in a chaotic, busy house.
4. My dog likes to eat as much as the rest of us.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m starving, I don’t want anything to get between me and the food getting into my piehole. Pets are often on a dietary schedule and dogs especially are protective of their food.
Teach your child that when an animal is eating or drinking, it is never okay to pet, play with, or tease the animal. Remind your child to be patient. Spot will be happy to play when he’s finished. And, if you are visiting when it’s time for our dog to eat, I will make sure to serve a yummy kid snack that our friends can enjoy while our pup is chowing down.
5. Every animal is a threat, even the cute cuddly ones.
No matter how many obedience classes a dog has attended, and no matter how well-trained an animal may seem, a parent must always be wary that an animal could lash out. Teach your children to respect a pet’s feelings and boundaries and always remember that no pet is perfect.
Since our dog joined our family, we have spent countless hours in obedience training and honing the skills we’ve learned from the trainer. We’ve done our best to be consistent with her so that we can minimize the likelihood that she’ll lash out at someone. But, like I said, no dog is perfect, no matter how cute their puppy dog eyes and wagging tail may seem.
I’m always happy to teach other kids how to approach our dog because I know the joy she brings to our household. But, I also appreciate when parents recognize that our dog really is a member of our family and respect her boundaries. And Daisy the Shih Tzu will gladly thank you with wet slobbery kisses, too.