Safety for the Shmoopies

Let’s talk about all the shmoopies in our lives: kids and dogs. This entry was inspired by National Kids and Pets day which just passed this week. Kids and Pets day began in 2005 and is celebrated on April 26th. According to their website, www.kidsandpetsday.com, the day is “dedicated to furthering the magical bond between children and animals, to bring awareness to the plight of pets in shelters awaiting new homes and educating the public about safety between children and pets.” Today, I want to focus on the last part: educating the public about safety between children and pets.

The first thing we need to realize and come to terms with is that not all dogs like kids. I know this firsthand because my dog Sully is one of them. My family currently has six schnauzers and there are five in our past as well. (Can you tell we love schnauzers?) Out of all 11 schnauzers, Sully is the only one who doesn’t like kids. In fact, he’s frightened by them. And this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Size, shape, color, personality, and even breed can’t tell you whether a dog will like kids. Many breed standards will claim that dogs should be “good with kids,” but please know that there can still be individuals within that breed that don’t enjoy the company of children.

In order to keep both our kids and dogs safe, we need to start by teaching the children in our life the appropriate way to interact with dogs. The most important first lesson is to ASK to pet a dog BEFORE reaching out to do so (adults could get better at this, too). Once I was sitting outside of a Starbucks next to a gentleman and his canine companion. The little terrier was lying next to his human, who was reading a book and enjoying some coffee. All was peaceful until out of nowhere, a small human around the age of 4 came barreling out of a store, ran straight toward the dog squealing with joy and threw his arms around her. My first thought was “Had that been Sully, that kid would have been bitten.” Luckily, that dog wasn’t Sully. Luckily, that dog tolerated the child’s love attack. Luckily, that kid walked away without a scratch or bite. The part that astonished me the most? While the kid was lying over the dog with his arms around her neck, his mom walked about 10 steps behind smiling. Lady, you got lucky. Your kid just gambled with danger and won. Even though this was an extreme case, every kid should be taught to ask permission to pet a new or unfamiliar dog from the owner. It’s something that is so easy and could save lives, doggy and human.

Something important to keep in mind: just because someone (whether a child or adult) asks permission to pet your dog does NOT mean you have to say yes! You know your dog better than anyone else. If you think the interaction will make him uncomfortable, it’s not only your right to say no, it’s your obligation. We have to be the voices for our dogs. This doesn’t mean you have to be grumpy and rude, of course. Just politely explain that your dog prefers not to be touched by strangers. If you see a scenario unfolding like the one I mentioned above (like a child running wildly towards your dog), run interference! Jump right in front of that kid to stop him dead in his tracks. If you help make your dog feel safe, then everyone involved will stay safe.

Lesson #2: dogs have boundaries. I expect that I can sit on the couch and watch TV at night without my family constantly poking me, pulling my hair and generally irritating me. Our dogs should be able to expect the same thing. There is no blanket statement that defines when too much is too much. Every dog is different. My sisters talk about how their schnauzers allow their kids to pull on their ears and beard hair. That is EXTREMELY tolerant. I don’t like when kids pull on my ears or hair so why should I expect that from my dog? However, even the most tolerant dog has a threshold. There is always something a child (or adult) can do that will send a dog over the edge. We all love our kids and we all love our dogs. Let’s show this love by keeping kids safe and not pushing our dogs past their point of comfort. Teach kids that it’s NOT ok to climb over dogs, to pull on fur or tails, or to stick hands in a food bowl. Show kids the RIGHT way to pet a dog (gently scratching their chest or stroking down their back). Let your kids feed the dog (if there are no food aggression issues), play fetch with him, and most importantly, be involved in training! Older and stronger kids can walk the dog. Just be sure every interaction is supervised.

Have a kid-free zone your dog can go to if he’s feeling tired or needs a break from the chaos. Kids come with a lot of energy and it might be too much for some dogs. Or maybe your kid has friends over. Just because your dog feels comfortable with your child doesn’t mean he feels the same about a group of them! Allow your dog a quiet retreat if he needs some space from the craziness.

Most importantly, NEVER punish your dog for growling. People do this because they want their dog to “be nice.” Here’s a universal truth: you can’t smack or yell niceness into your dog any more than you can smack or yell politeness into your child. And trust me, your dog isn’t growling to be mean! He’s growling because he is uncomfortable. Growling is one of two ways a dog has to communicate his discomfort. The second way is biting. When your dog growls, he is warning that if something doesn’t change, the next thing he’ll do is bite. I was bit in the face when I was young. Looking back at the situation, the dog gave me every warning he could. I was lying on the floor face-to-face staring at this poor dog. He growled and growled and I continued. I was freaking him out and not listening to his warnings. So when I wasn’t backing off, he took things to the next level to make sure I did. He bit me right on the lip. (I’m so sorry, Woody.) If you punish your dog for growling, then guess what? He’ll stop growling. Great news, right? Wrong. He’ll stop giving you that warning signal and instead, go straight for the bite. I know it’s scary for your dog to growl at a child, but be extremely thankful that the situation didn’t escalate beyond that. So instead of yelling at your dog, tell him thank you for expressing his feelings, turn around and give YOURSELF a firm talking to. Shame on you for allowing a situation to progress to the point where your dog felt he had to defend himself! Your dog looks to you for guidance and safety, so BE those things for him. Now that the lesson is learned, we move on and next time, we’ll try harder to help our dogs feel safe.

For couples who have a dog but are expecting, consider having a Baby Makes Four lesson with a professional dog trainer. Many soon-to-be parents don’t realize that sort of support exists. Have your trainer give you tips on how to get your dog ready for the homecoming of a new family member. From a dog’s perspective, out of nowhere there’s a new human that makes a lot of noise and smells interesting, there are new objects around the house that sing, light up or roll around, not to mention the drastic change in routine. This is also a great option for parents who are expecting a second or third child. Maybe the family got a dog after the babies turned into kids and are now expecting the first baby since bringing Fido home. To dogs (and humans!), babies are a whole different ballgame from older children. If any of you reading this are expecting, give me a call! I’d be happy to help you and your dog prepare for the new bundle of joy.

Now, what can we do with our dogs to ensure they enjoy the company of children or to help those already scared? If you have a puppy, get involved in a puppy class that also focuses on socialization. Outside of puppy class, do everything you can to get your pup around some kids. This is where I failed Sully. When I got him, I was a junior at Texas A&M. I lived with my two best friends in a college town. There weren’t kids in any of the places I took Sully. Back home I had a nephew, but that was a 3 hour drive away, so they only spent time together once when I came home for Christmas. He didn’t see or interact with any other child during the most critical socialization period of his puppyhood. For you puppy owners who don’t have kids, try to find some (without being a creep). If you have friends or family who have kids, ask if the kids will feed treats to the puppy. Make sure every interaction with kids is an enjoyable one for the dog. And of course, be sure to supervise. Continue these little interactions until the puppy is about 6 months old.

Because I failed to get Sully the socialization to kids he needed as a pup, we deal with this issue often, especially now that I have two nephews and a niece. First of all, I recognize my limitations as well as Sully’s. Even though I am a trained professional, attempting to implement training at family activities is very difficult. Secondly, as much as I want Sully to be out with the family, I know he cannot handle it. I can’t put my selfish desires before the comfort of my dog. You will do more harm by forcing your dog to be inundated with the thing he is afraid of. Thirdly, we train a lot. He has great basic obedience, so I take him to park where there are kids and baseball games going on. We practice recalls, down-stays, and loose-leash walking far from the action but close enough so that he can still see, hear and smell the kids. Every session, we work on getting closer and we’ve even been able to walk through a crowded concession area. I’ve had a few well-behaved kids feed Sully food from their hands. Now, please note: there was a lot of management going on during this exercise and I am a trained professional. The process can be long and tedious. I am trying to teach Sully that these miniature creatures with big heads that are loud, run all over the place, scream and throw things are not scary. It’s a tough sell – hell, sometimes I’m afraid of them!

I want to promote the idea that doing these things I’ve discussed is not mean, in fact it’s a way to show your love. Teaching our kids to respect dogs’ boundaries and getting our dogs proper socialization to kids can save lives. Kids stay safe and bite-free. Dogs are never pushed over the limit to the point where their families feel like they must be given up or euthanized. What better way to show our love to our shmoopies?

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