Considerations to make before welcoming a dog in to the family
Modern parents eternally seem to be short of time - they are constantly dashing between drop offs and pick ups, preparing meals, washing clothes and helping with homework. Is it sensible then for a young family to take on the responsibility of dog ownership? Ultimately that question can only be answered by each family. Parents need to ask themselves if they have the time and the money to adequately care for a dog. Generally children benefit from the experience of dog ownership but parents need to ask themselves if there is any reason why it may not be a good idea. For instance, if the child has a known allergy to dogs or a deep fear of dogs (cynophobia - ‘cyno’ is Greek for dog).
Children who grow up with dogs gain numerous psychological benefits including improved temper control, social skills and self-esteem. Sharing the care of a pet improves relationships between siblings and encourages responsibility. If children are stressed or lonely, cuddling their dog can reduce anxiety and boys find it an acceptable way to play a caring role. Early readers are often more comfortable reading to their pets and many children confide their secrets to pets knowing that they will not be betrayed. Children who have pets get more exercise through walks and strangely have a reduced risk of developing allergies and asthma.
How to choose the right dog for your family
If the parent’s decision is to get a dog the next question is what breed, age and sex. Often these decisions are personal, based on the parent’s previous ownership and experience. While there is no ideal type or breed of dog for children, there are a number of considerations:
- Medium to large breeds are a good idea because they are neither too delicate to handle like toy breeds, or lumbering, awkward and possibly clumsy like giant breeds
- Select a dog with a coat which does not require too much grooming because busy families rarely have time to do this
- Low to medium energy levels are ideal; a busy family does not need a dog that demands constant attention, entertainment and exercise
- However, if a dog has manageable energy levels, it does not follow that it has a low intelligence. Family dogs should be intelligent so that they can learn the complex rules of human relationships
- New mums and developing toddlers have large networks of friends and households can have many comings and goings. It is very important that the resident dog is very tolerant and accepting of visitors. For this reason guarding breeds are best avoided and early puppy socialisation and obedience training is very important.
- Most importantly, dogs which live with a young family should be submissive because every parent’s first priority is their child’s safety. Children are more vulnerable to dogs than adults because their faces are closer to the dog’s face and because they are weaker than an adult.
Developing a child’s relationship with a dog
Thankfully children are rarely bitten by dogs, but when they are it’s usually the family pet or a friend’s dog that does the damage. This is often during play or when the dog is eating or asleep. Most problems are encountered in children less than 6 years of age and are not the fault of the child or the dog. The blame usually rests with the supervising adults. Most bites are warning snaps and while few leave physical scars they often leave psychological scars which can take years to heal.
- Young children, babies, toddlers and infants should always be closely supervised around dogs especially during play, whenever food, bones or toys are around or the dog is asleep
- Once children are juniors, over 6 years old, they should be taught not to approach dogs that they are not familiar with. Children do not innately understand warning signs when a dog is likely to respond aggressively. They must be taught to avoid dogs that are growling, lifting their lips to expose their teeth and are backing off
- Dogs in discomfort, possibly following surgery or from arthritis, will be less tolerant with children than normal and should be kept separated from children
- Children should be taught not to attempt to retrieve food or toys taken from them by a dog
- Children must be taught not to tease, surprise or frighten dogs and never to deliberately hurt them
- Children’s unpredictable and erratic movements and vocalisation can excite and/or scare dogs. So it’s important to teach children to move slowly and quietly around dogs and definitely not to scream
- If children are scared, parents must not force them to interact with dogs. Children need to be given time and space to overcome any fears.
Teach your child how to behave around dogs
Children learn best how to behave around dogs and how to treat them by following the example of their parents. Before approaching an unfamiliar dog you should ask the owner if it’s OK to ‘pat’ them. Don’t approach the dog head-on, but instead from one side being careful not to startle them. Curl your fingers into a loose fist and allow the dog to sniff the back of your hand. Don’t raise your hand over the dog because this can be perceived as a threat, rather stroke the under side of the dogs chin and chest to start with. If your child is going to try this, they must be supervised.
If you are confronted with an unfamiliar dog that is behaving aggressively you should stay calm and never run or scream as it may encourage the dog to chase you. You should stand still with your arms by you side, form fists with your hands and look down at the ground, not into the dogs eyes. Similarly children should be told to do the same - ‘standing still like a tree’. A dog is unlikely to knock an adult over but it could knock a child over. If this happens, they should be told to roll into a ball and lie still.
Preparing the family home for a new baby
A family introducing a new baby to a household with a dog needs to start preparing months before the arrival. It may be useful to define dog-free areas within the home. I recommend that dogs are kept out of bedrooms and ideally not allowed upstairs at all. This is a good way of managing children’s allergies to dogs. While mum is in the hospital with the new baby, the partner should take items of unwashed baby clothes home so that the dogs can become accustomed to the baby’s aroma. When mum and baby return home, it’s a good idea for the partner to hold the baby on entering the home so mum can fuss and treat the dog. It is important that the resident dog associates the new baby with positive experiences so mum should consider providing the dog with treats when she is occupied with feeding or changing nappies.
From 8 years of age children can start to become involved with the care of the dog and at this point the bond between them starts to become very strong. Feeding, watering and grooming are all tasks that children can assist with, but training and exercise should be supervised by adults. Regular treatments for worms are essential, particularly for puppies which tend to excrete more worms than adult dogs.
- Parents are very busy people; can you afford the time to care for a dog?
- Make sure a dog is the right pet for your child
- Take care choosing the type of dog
- Socialisation and training of your dog are essential to avoid problems
- Teach your child how to behave around dogs
- Treat your dog for worms regularly
David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®