This is part three of a four-part series on dog bites.
Management is key to successfully creating this strong positive relationship. Most bites (and fatalities) can be avoided with simple management. When the dog is confined, he needs to be securely confined in a place where no child can pester him and he absolutely can not break out. When not confined, the dog needs to be watched by a capable, alert adult who is actively watching all interactions. Sleeping in the same room as the child and dog does not constitute supervision, nor does an adult who is under the influence of any drug. Passively watching the interactions doesn’t work either, because the dog is forced to defend himself if he decides that enough is enough. Without proper management, the dog can learn to behave poorly around children and likewise, the kids can learn bad habits around the dog. That means both dog and child can reinforce a progressively more NEGATIVE relationship, even inadvertently. Much of the time when I confine my dogs away from my children, I’m not doing it as much for the kids’ sake as for the dogs’. While I dearly love my children, I also know them, and while they are not malicious they are young enough to still have a tendency to make interactions negative ones for the dog. Plus, a tired or angry or frustrated toddler or preschool is no playmate for a dog!
I sort of think of these positive interactions as ‘immunizations’ against the inevitable negative interactions that you as a parent or dog owner aren’t able to stop in time. The stronger your immunity, the less likely you are to get sick. The stronger the positive relationship, the less likely a little mistake is to send the dog (or kid) out of whack and the less likely a bite will be triggered. But if you go into this whole thing thinking your dog will never bite no matter what, you are less likely to be proactive and successfully manage relationships- you are less likely to successfully ‘immunize’ your dog against a bad interaction.
For instance, while I take my own advice and work daily with my kids and dogs on creating good relationships, something I can’t act quickly enough. Sometimes my two-year old trips and falls headfirst into a dog. The other day, my four-year old clipped a leash to Boo and led her upstairs, where he held tight to the leash as she ran down the stairs (neither one of them decided that was a good game in hindsight). The event was scary for both of them (once the reality set in) because Boo didn’t expect to be dragging a kid suddenly, and my four-year old was understandably screaming and hollering, which always stresses the very-socially-aware Boo out. These things happen- four year olds get crazy ideas in their heads and have the ability to make many of their hairbrained notions reality. Additionally, many dogs don’t fully understand leashes (and Boo is no exception) and having something clattering behind you is scary. Being dragged down a flight of stairs (even when it was your idea in the first place) is scary, once you loose your footing and are clunking along like so much dead weight. And yet, because of their very strong positive relationship, this incident between my four year old son and Boo did not negatively impact their relationship to any visible degree. When my two-year old has a clumsy moment and trips on a dog or decides a dog is a good step-stool, the dogs can handle it and they don’t get stressed out by the mistake, because they have a strong positive relationship with the little one.
One way to easily get lots of successful positive interactions in between your own kids and your own dogs (for those dog owners who are also parents) is to teach kids from a young age how to train dogs using treats (after the dog learns to take treats politely). It helps the child learn to follow directions, they get to teach something to another creature, they learn about delivering consequences, and learn about consequences from actions that way too. Also, kids tend to love power, and this gives them a healthy outlet for having power and ‘making’ another creature do something. I find that some training time between the dog and a toddler quickly tends to cut down on the toddler doing things like stepping on the dog’s paw to make him move (along with teaching the kid how to behave around dogs and managing the environment). The child also learns timing and practices coordination, and the dog learns the child is worth listening to. Of course, you have the child begin by only working on training with commands that the dog already knows, and a parent needs to be right there initially to enforce commands the dog ignores and coach the kid on the steps to follow. I like to begin kids as young as two (depending on the kid) in training the family dog. They can work on obedience skills with the dog, and older children can teach and review tricks. As the child gets older, they can participate with the dog in fun games and even dog sports. All of these activities can be very effective in creating and reinforcing a strong positive relationship between the child and the dog.