Tips to developing a positive relationship between children and pets!

  By: Dr. Lee Niel, BSc, PhD
       Assistant Professor in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare
       Col. K.L. Campbell Chair in Companion Animal Welfare
       Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

 
April 26, 2016

I absolutely adore our dog, Dukie, and wouldn't trade him for the world… You know when someone starts out describing their dog in this way that there is a 'but' coming. My 'but' is that he is an amazon dog, but at first, he wasn't the best match for a family with children.

We adopted Dukie, a Shepherd/Labrador cross, from a shelter way back in 2006 when he was about 1-year old. At the time, we didn't have kids and he was exactly what we were looking for in a dog. He was energetic and fun, with a love for playing ball and long walks. Fast-forward four years later to the birth of our daughter Sadie, and he was still doing pretty well. Before Sadie was born, we spent a lot of time getting him used to baby sounds and smells, and he adapted well to early baby life.

Everything changed when Sadie started to walk. My confident, goofy dog turned into a fearful, unhappy mess. Similar to most toddlers and small children, Sadie was fast, unpredictable, and loud (and when I say loud, I mean LOUD), and Dukie was terrified of her. This situation was bad on a number of levels, and we needed to act fast!

Positive interactions between pets and children can be incredibly beneficial to both groups in terms of physical activity, mental stimulation, and emotional support. However, when things go wrong, it can result in serious safety and welfare concerns for both children and pets. It is important to recognize that the perfect dog or cat that never bites is a myth. Even gentle animals can become aggressive when they run out of options. Statistics suggest that 1.8% of the American population are bitten by dogs every year. Most bites happen in the home, children are the most common target, and fear is a common cause.

Research also suggests that dogs that show aggressive behaviour are at greater risk for neglect, abuse, relinquishment, and euthanasia, and fear-based aggression can have ongoing negative effects on the well-being of the affected dog.

So, what can we do to improve interactions between children and pets to keep everyone safe and happy? Luckily, there are lots of different things you can do to ensure harmony in your home!

Tips for safe interactions between children and pets:

1.    Properly socialize puppies and kittens to babies and children during their early critical periods, and throughout their lives.

Research shows that puppies that have early, positive interactions with children are less likely to show fear and aggression with them later in life. Kittens also show reduced fear when properly socialized. See the following links for more information on how to properly socialize your dog or cat, and the American Humane Society booklet on introducing pets and kids.

2.    Teach children appropriate ways for interacting with dogs and cats.

 Animal aggression is avoidable when children are taught about safe interactions. Parents should make sure to teach their children the following:

  • How to recognize common signs of fear and aggression in dogs and cats, and reinforce leaving a pet alone when they are fearful or aggressive. For more information, see the following links on body language in dogs and cats.
  • How to approach and interact with dogs and cats in calm, gentle, and non-threatening ways. For more information, see Sophia Yin's blog post on dogs and kids.
  • Make sure to ask permission from an adult before interacting with an unfamiliar animal.

For more tips, see B4 U GET A PET's introducing dogs and cats to children pages.

3.    Always supervise interactions between children and pets.

When things go wrong between children and pets, it can happen in an instant, so their interactions should always be closely monitored. When you are unable to provide proper supervision, children and pets should be separated. For older children, this might mean that they are given instructions not to play with the animal unattended. For younger children, physical separation is often the safest bet. Young children aren't always able to inhibit their behaviours even when they 'know' the rules. I still use baby gates in my house, and my children are now 4 and 6!

4.    Make interactions between children and pets FUN.

To make sure the interactions between your children and pets are positive, it is important that your pet associates good things with your children. Encourage your child to play ball, offer treats, or gently pet the animal. Avoid potentially negative things, like loud noises and rough handling.

5.    If your pet is showing any signs of aggression, or if you are concerned about your pet's behaviour around your children, speak to your veterinarian as soon as possible!

Animal aggression is a serious concern and should not be ignored.

 

Fast forward five years and things are much better between Dukie and the kids. With careful monitoring, lots of positive interactions, and diligent kid training, Dukie has gone from fearful to his friendly self. He's a good match for our family with children after all!

If you are looking for further information on this important topic, see B4 U GET A PET's introducing dogs and cats to children pages. In addition, the American Humane Society has a free booklet available called, "Pet meets baby: a guide for families bringing children home to pets"

 

Positive interactions (treat time!) between Sadie and Sarah (Lee's other dog)!