Teaching your kids to respect dogs


Just as dogs need to be trained, so do children. At the earliest age,  you can begin to teach the fundamentals of respecting animals and their  boundaries. A staple around our house was “Tails Are Not for Pulling” by Elizabeth Verdick, whose title is a handy catch-phrase to repeat when a yank of any body part looks imminent.

In my house, however, the anatomy did not generalize. One day I found  3-year-old Allie crouched beside Blitz, who was sprawled out on his  side, long past his initial trepidation about the kids; in fact, as the  babysitter story shows, he now fancied himself their personal mascot. As  I walked by, Allie reached out to Blitz, who jerked his head up  suddenly, then sighed and dropped it to the ground, resigned.

“What did you do?” I asked Allie, who looked very pleased with herself.

“I squeezed his butt,” she announced proudly, pointing at his testicles.

That occasioned an impromptu “Testicles Are Not for Tugging”  discussion, which in turn led to an exploration of physiological gender  differences. That’s the great thing about having dogs: Being naked all  the time, they are great springboards for the “birds and bees”  discussions that make some adults so very nervous.

Reality check

As Allie’s game of tug demonstrates all too clearly, potentially  dangerous situations between kids and dogs happen. Even the best-behaved  child disobeys now and then, even the most trustworthy decides to see  what it feels like to break the rules. I was fortunate that I had a  well-temperamented dog with a high tolerance about his personal space  among his “pack.”

I remember several years back, covering a tragic story for the  newspaper that I worked for at the time. A little girl had been  strangled to death in the backyard by the family Golden Retriever. The dog was playing tug with her scarf – it was a complete freak accident.

I interviewed experts and behaviorists at the time, one of whom  announced definitely that parents should ensure that children and dogs  are never left unsupervised. I asked if she had kids. Of course, she  didn’t.

If you have kids, you know that sometimes it’s just unavoidable to  leave the two species together – if only for a minute to run some  laundry to the basement, or check the dinner on the stove. Life happens.  Constant supervision is ideal, but sometimes you just can’t be in  control of everything. That’s not resignation – that’s reality.

And 99 percent of the time, things go absolutely perfectly. But then  there are those rare, tragic events that remind us that there are two  parts to the term “companion dog.” Love them as we do, these are  animals, with sharp teeth and instincts that we sometimes cannot  predict. Always err on the side of caution. You do both your children  and your dog a favor in being as conservative as possible, and  supervising as much as you can, especially with visiting children in the  house. When in doubt, use the crate.  A bell cannot be unrung, an egg cannot be unscrambled – and some  “mistakes” on the part of an otherwise stable and loving dog can exact a  heavy toll.

Teach kids to speak dog

At every age, kids will have new questions about their interactions  with the family dog, and you need to keep your antennae primed for them.  Just this week, Stephen, now 8, woefully informed me that our newest  puppy, Gigi, no longer liked him because she was nipping at him. When I  told Stephen that Gigi was getting mouthy because she had been playing  with her visiting brother Duke, and dogs wrestle with their mouths just  as he and his sisters do with their hands, he broke into a big grin.  Gigi not only liked him, he realized; she was trying to play with him.

At an early age, I taught my kids the command “Seek high ground.”  This is useful when they are nibbling on a cheese stick and are  surrounded by a throng of red fur; standing on the couch, mozzarella  held aloft like Lady Liberty’s torch, they have a chance at keeping it.  But the “high ground” mantra always works when two dogs are playing and  the action looks intense, or when a new dog comes over and is introduced  into the pack. The children are made to understand that when there is a  lot of excitement among the dogs, they need to get out of the way, lest  they get mixed up and inadvertently hurt if things escalate.

Another thing they learned was how their behavior could elicit  unwanted reactions from the dogs. If they squealed and ran, chances are the new puppy would pursue,  and seek to engage them with those pin-sharp baby teeth. They learned  how to rebuke puppy nips by offering a toy, and, as they got older, how  to dissuade a humper. (Issue a loud, deep, “NO!” and bop on the head,  more than once if necessary. I’m all for positive reinforcement, but  when I have a 90-pound male Ridgeback looking for a hormone hug with a  70-pound second-grader, we do what works. And that works.)

Ermolaev Alexandr Alexandrovich / 

Harness the helpfulness

Younger children love to be helpers, and mine vie to do even the most  mundane tasks: stuffing Kongs with peanut butter; wetting, wringing and  freezing washcloths when teething is going full tilt; filling the water  bowl up – and up, and up …

The kids have learned to ask, “Have the dogs eaten yet?” which is a  signal they are debating whether to permit a doggie kiss on the lips.  Our home rule is no face contact for one hour after the dogs have eaten.

When I have a litter, I could not ask for better puppy socializers.  My kids are in the whelping box constantly. They delight in handling  the puppies, naming them, noting their differences in appearance and  temperament. They are never there unsupervised, and have been taught to  be gentle; if they break any rule, they lose their box privileges. This  results in puppies who are programmed to love little kids; as adult  dogs, when they see a little human, even on the horizon, their bodies  waggle and wiggle in delight.

It’s important to remember, though, that kids, like dogs, are  individuals. My youngest daughter, Krista, could take the dogs, or leave  them. I suspect both nature and nurture have a hand in being “doggie”:  Some kids are just more drawn to these furry folk than others, and  that’s OK.

Chicken or the egg?

What’s the better approach: Get your dog first, and then add the  kids? Or acquire the dog as a puppy once the children are old enough, so  that there are no adjustment issues?

Tough call, and a very individual one. Your mileage may vary, but,  having done both, I have to say – with younger children, at least – the  former worked best for me, hands down. I have added three Ridgebacks to  my household since I had my kids, and I can honestly say that the amount  of time I spent training and socializing my first dogs was  significantly less. Not to say that my later dogs are hooligans, but in  the push-me-pull-you that is parenthood, you can’t do it all.

Having dogs first gives you a chance to enjoy them fully, learn their  quirks and idiosyncrasies, and lay the relationship groundwork for the  challenges that come with kids and an expanding household.

Another advantage to bringing kids into a household with dogs is the  immune-system benefit. Studies show that children who grow up with dogs  (and cats) are less likely to develop asthma and allergies to a wide  variety of allergens, but – here’s the clincher – exposure during the  first year of life is key.  After that, the preventive benefits are  severely decreased.

Know your breed

Ridgebacks are the consummate family dog, and once mine recalibrated  their definition of our family, we were in for smooth sailing. My babies  were foreign things to Blitz until, over time, he came to realize they  were ours. Once he understood that, he became their friend, their protector, and their dear friend.

Other breeds may have different default settings. Mastiffs,  for example, are hard-wired to adore women and children, even ones they  do not know; they may be quicker than my Ridgebacks to embrace new  human pack members. Terriers,  by contrast, sometimes have less patience with small children. Again,  your breeder or a reliable trainer can help you sort out some of these  questions, or give you an in-depth evaluation if your dog is a mix, or a  rescue of any breed or combination whose history you may not know.


Taking it to the next level

Because I spend so much time at dog shows,  I wanted to make them a family affair. I have a special “dog-show bag”  in the car that contains games and books that can only be played with at  a dog show. This not only keeps the kids distracted when I am showing –  frantic calls of “Mommy! Mommy! He hit me!” on the go-round do not do  much for my ring presentation – but also is an incentive to go in the  first place.

Stephen and Allie have started to go to handling classes, and I try  to reward them with positive reinforcement: A trip through the  drive-through for a celebratory smoothie, or a chance to interact with  (and sometimes do a few laps with) other dogs in class, including  “exotic” breeds like Leonbergers and Bernese Mountain Dogs. The biggest  pay-off for them, however, is being told by the instructor that they  have done a better handling job than I have. Ahem.

Learning the mechanics of any dog sports, from agility to obedience,  can be overwhelming – so many nuances to master – and in this the basics  of dog training apply: Break the task up into small pieces. Teach the  pieces backward. Reward every accomplishment. Don’t fixate on the  imperfections. Don’t drill. Make it fun.

Step back

Kids and dogs are a lot of work, both can make spectacular messes if  not supervised properly, and it takes a lot of time to raise them  properly. They bring to the surface all your shortcomings, as in the  crunch of bringing them up you confront old patterns and programming  that makes you work on yourself, too.

But their gift is their visceral delight in the world that many of us  adults lost sight of long ago. When you watch a relationship between a  child and her dog – the whispered confidences, the gleeful playbowing,  the sheer joy of running in the grass together – you rediscover what  it’s all about.

And as the dogs turn gray and then white and then are no more – Blitz  passed last year, and Diva grows older by the minute, it seems – I  don’t have any better explanation for the children than the one I give myself: The dogs leave to make  room for the new ones to follow, to give us a fresh infusion of joy and  wonder at this marvelous, unfolding miracle called life.