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.
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.
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 / stock.adobe.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.