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Preschoolers and Pooches

Taking Precautions to Ensure a Peaceful Coexistence With Your Child And Dog

Although a dog may be man's best friend, the relationship between dogs and children is a bit more tenuous. Many parents idealize the notion that their child will naturally form a lifelong and loyal kinship with the family pooch, but the reality of dogs and children living together can be considerably less than ideal, even dangerous, if proper precautions are not taken to ensure their peaceful coexistence.

According to Dr. Larry Lachman, animal behavior consultant and author of Dogs on The Couch, dogs are social pack animals by nature and, in order for them to live happily with kids, they must be "properly socialized into the family's pack hierarchy."

"It is important that a dog recognizes the parents as strong benevolent leaders -- as the Alpha Wolves in its pack -- and that the children are seen as non-threatening," says Lachman.

What to Consider

There are a number of important issues to take into account when bringing a dog into the family. What kind of dog is best? Where is a good place to find one? How do you protect the child and the pet from each other? These are the questions on the minds of most parents. But, according to Lachman, one of the first things a parent should consider when looking for a pet is whether the child is old enough to introduce a pet into the family.

Lachman recommends parents hold off bringing a puppy into the family until their youngest child is at least 7-years-old. This is because children under the age of 7 have poor eye-hand coordination and reflexes, which can make it difficult for them to safely interact with a dog.

"In addition to inadvertently stumbling over pets or grabbing large handfuls of their fur, very young children tend to have an egocentric view of the world that prevents them from empathizing with a puppy that is being hurt by their actions," says Lachman. "Children under the age of 4 sometimes exhibit a 'stuffed animal syndrome' where they treat a pet abusively, as though it were a stuffed animal. A puppy mistreated in this way quickly learns to fear the child. One day, out of fear and a need to protect itself, the puppy snaps, growls or bites. The child instantly stops tormenting the puppy, and the dog-child aggression dynamic is off and running. The pattern continues until the child is injured or becomes noticeably frightened of the dog. Then the parents must make a choice and, naturally, the puppy loses."

Providing that your child meets the "minimum age requirement," there are three basic rules Lachman advises for the happy pairing of child and canine.

First, and the good doctor is not alone on this rule, dogs and young children should never be left alone together. Parental presence is mandatory with dogs and young children because, no matter how docile an animal seems, there is no way to be absolutely certain it will not act aggressively in every given situation.

Second, it is important to provide the dog with its own space or, as Lachman refers to it, its own "sanctuary." The dog's sanctuary can be simply under a table or in a small room but, wherever it is, it should be totally off-limits to the child.

"Dogs are very sensitive to their surroundings," says Lachman. "Loud sounds and constant movement can stress them out to the point where they react harshly. Parents need to strictly enforce a sanctuary where the puppy can retreat to rest and know that everything is safe."

Lachman's third rule of thumb is that parents of very young children should not adopt mature dogs from animal shelters or friends. "Many older dogs were not adequately socialized with young children when they were going through their formative years. Therefore, they may be less patient and more aggressive."

To ensure the mutual safety of two- and four-legged family members alike, it's important that children are taught how to approach and handle a dog. They should not be allowed to pet the dog on the face, play tug-of-war, or bother the dog while it's eating or sleeping.

What Dog Is Best?

When looking for that perfect furry family member, Lachman recommends parents choose a purebred puppy, eight to 10 weeks old, that has not been bred to guard, attack, or herd (such as Rottweilers, German or Australian shepherds, Chow Chows and Lhasa Apsos).

"The best breeds are Labrador and golden retrievers, beagles, spaniels and, if you're looking for a big dog, Newfoundlands. Purebred dogs are best for children because their behavior patterns are more stable and predictable. You'll know you're working with a good breeder if they tell you it's OK to bring the dog back, should the transition not go smoothly," he said.

Of course, there are some parents, like Jenna and Steve from Arcata, Calif. who started their parenting life by raising a puppy first and then moving on to the child second. For them, the pet and baby introduction dynamic is just the opposite.

"Ringo, [a black lab] was definitely like our first child," says Jenna. "He went everywhere with us, he even slept in our bed. He had a hard time adjusting to the arrival of our son, Cody. We don't let him sleep with us in the bed anymore, because Cody is there, and I think he felt pretty putout. He craved our affection for months and would often whine all night. It took him a long time to get over it."

In this situation, Lachaman recommends that, before the baby comes home, parents prepare the dog for the new arrival by using a doll to simulate the care-taking behaviors that will be associated with the baby. He also suggests parents ignore the dog when the baby is not receiving attention, such as during naptime. "Very quickly the dog learns that the only way it will get attention from its pack leaders is when the baby is around getting attention too," he says. "The child becomes a cue for what is positive in the dog's life."

As children grow older, they should be encouraged to take an active role in the care, feeding and obedience training of the four-legged family member. The dog should obey the child as it would the parents, and the child should respect the dog as a living creature with individual needs and feelings. Parents who provide these basic elements in the "wolf pack" of their home will undoubtedly help their children find a warm furry friend for life.

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