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How kids can play it safe with pups

Tips for making sure your kids play safely with dogs

All Animals magazine, May/June 2017

by Colleen Jaskot

Supervising children around dogs can help keep everyone safe. Photo by Tetra Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

When Kathleen Summers met Peanut at a Missouri animal shelter, the staff members were upfront about the Chihuahua mix’s challenges. Overall, Peanut was a really good dog, they said, but she had a history of snapping at people when frightened.

This detail didn’t stop Summers, director of outreach and research for the HSUS Puppy Mills Campaign, from taking Peanut home, where she joined a household that included Summers’ husband; their 8-year son, Carter; and two other Chihuahua mix rescues.

Two years later, Peanut is a beloved member of the Summers family, with a bite-free record. She still gets nervous around strangers, so when Carter’s friends visit, Summers makes sure to tell them how to behave around Peanut (don’t approach her—she’ll eventually come up to you). Summers also has rules for herself, which include never leaving the kids and dogs unsupervised.

Teaching kids how to properly act with dogs isn’t only important when you have a nervous dog. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, kids are the most common victims of dog bites, and most are bitten by a family dog or another dog they know.

This shouldn’t deter parents from getting a dog, says Summers. After all, a bond with a pet can be one of the most rewarding experiences of childhood. But dogs and kids don’t always make the best decisions, and they don’t always understand each other.

Fortunately, a few simple rules can go a long way to keeping your children safe around dogs—and vice versa.

Rules for your family dog

First and foremost, your kids should learn to respect your dog’s space, says Nina Wingfield, director of Collierville Animal Services in Tennessee. Wingfield finds that analogies—like “you don’t want your brothers and sisters to come and steal your toy”—can help youngsters recognize that dogs, just like people, have feelings and can get upset.

Just as kids should know not to tease dogs or take their toys, they should be instructed not to bother dogs who are eating or sleeping, says Joseph Michael Cornwell, a retired veterinarian who teaches dog bite prevention through his program “Animal Safety Is Fun!”

Even if your dog is easygoing, any animal can have moments when his tolerance threshold may be lower because of anxiety, discomfort or pain. So it’s important to teach your kids how to interpret dog body language—a skill that will also serve them well when interacting with unfamiliar dogs.

Flash cards and online videos—Amelia Curtis, education manager for the San Diego Humane Society, recommends videos available at thefamilydog.com—can help kids judge when a dog is in the mood to play or be petted, and when he wants to be left alone.

Lessons in gentle handling can help ensure interactions are positive for both parties. Instruct your children to pet your dog on the back in the direction of his fur, says Curtis; that way, their hands aren’t near the dog’s mouth.

Kids also need to understand that while they may like hugs, kisses and piggyback rides, most dogs don’t. Summers tells her son and his friends never to pick up her small dogs, even the two who don’t mind it. Instead, she lets them interact in a way the dogs enjoy, like by giving them treats.

Meeting a new dog

Perhaps your family dog is so friendly you joke that any home intruder would risk being licked to death. But if your kids expect every dog to have a similar attitude toward strangers, it could lead them into dangerous situations, says Jason Taylor, the director of youth education initiatives at the Atlanta Humane Society.

In its Pet Permissions program, Atlanta Humane teaches kids how to properly greet dogs and cats. The classes are tailored to preschoolers and kindergarteners, because children at that exploratory age are more prone to approach unfamiliar animals, especially if they have pets at home, says Taylor.

Even if your dog is easygoing, any animal can have moments when his tolerance threshold may be lower because of anxiety or pain.

The solution, he says, is getting kids to think: “This is a dog or cat that I don’t know. I need to go through a different process to meet these dogs and cats.”

The three basic rules kids should follow for meeting a dog are: Ask your parent (or the adult watching you) if you can pet the dog; ask the owner (or the adult responsible for the animal) if you can pet the dog; and ask the dog’s permission by reading her body language.

Parents should encourage their children to view all interactions from a dog’s perspective, says Ana Rodriguez, humane education coordinator for Citizens for Animal Protection, a Texas-based nonprofit. “How rude and creepy would it be if I—a strange lady—just came up and put my face in your face?” she asks the kids at her dog-safety classes.

Accidental encounters

Just as you tell your kids that they should stop, drop and roll if their clothing ever catches on fire and to look both ways before they cross the street, you want to teach them to “be a tree” and “be a rock” (or “act like a log”) if a dog approaches them in a threatening way.

“Be a tree” means standing completely still, with your head looking down and your arms folded up under your neck.

“Be a rock” or “act like a log” is for situations where you are already on the ground or get knocked down; you should stay on the ground, face down, covering your head and neck.

“Dogs bite bodies and body parts that move,” says Cornwell, which is why these two methods work, and why they haven’t changed since he began teaching dog-bite prevention in the 1970s.

In addition to these rules, children should be instructed to leave any free-roaming dog alone, cross to the other side of the street, if possible, and tell an adult there’s a loose dog, says Wingfield. It’s important to tell them not to run or scream, which might likely be their first instinct, she adds.

Knowing how to behave around dogs is an important life safety skill, says Cornwell, and lessons should begin at an early age.

Summers agrees and points out that the benefits go beyond personal safety. “I think that it’s a good experience for kids to learn that animals have feelings and that some animals are more sensitive than others,” she says. “I think that only makes them more compassionate people in the long run, and maybe more understanding people.”

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