If you welcomed a dog into your family during the pandemic, you’re definitely not alone. There’s been a big spike in purchases and adoptions of dogs since last March, when we were asked to stay home. While this is great news for the dogs who’ve been sprung from shelters, lots of families are discovering that dog ownership isn’t always a walk in the park.
Rescue dogs and puppies from non-reputable breeders may have had a difficult early start in life, making it harder for them to learn and feel safe in the world. The pandemic has made it more difficult to give puppies the kind of careful socialization that they need to grow into calm and confident adults. Many first-time dog owners are discovering that raising happy, well-socialized dogs is a lot harder than they expected. Successfully navigating the developmental stages of a dog can be challenging enough—add kids into the mix and things get a lot more interesting.
As both a developmental psychologist and an expert in dog behaviour, I’ve been getting lots of questions about how families can solve dog and kid problems. A lot of the problems can be resolved by embracing the following six strategies for raising kids and dogs successfully together.
1. Actively supervise dogs and kids
For the safety of both, it’s important that their interactions are closely monitored. How closely? It depends on both your kids and your dog.
Do your kids have the social and emotional skills necessary to behave respectfully with the dog at all times? Do they know how to avoid behaving in ways that make your dog uncomfortable? Have they been taught how to tell when your dog is stressed or asking for space? If the answers to these questions are no, then an active supervision plan should be in place until your kids learn these skills.
A lot depends on your dog as well. Some dogs are much better suited to life with kids than others, but dogs can also become more or less tolerant of kids over time. Puppies and adolescent dogs can be easily excited and unpredictable. Fears and phobias tend to emerge in the teen and early adult stages and so some dogs will grow from confident puppies who enjoy kid energy to fearful young adults who need more space. As dogs get older, physical and cognitive decline can also lead to changes in the dogs’ behaviour and ability to handle interactions with kids. You might find yourself easing up on supervision plans at some stages of your kids’ and dogs’ development, and there may be other times when the situation changes and more supervision is needed.
What does “actively supervising” your dog and kids look like? This infographic should give you a good idea.
2. Learn how to read dog body language
Dogs use their bodies to communicate their feelings, and being able to recognize what your dog is telling you is important for keeping the kids safe. It’s also essential for ensuring that our dogs aren’t being put in situations that make them uncomfortable or afraid.
For example, did you know that a wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean a dog is happy? There are different wags to signal joy, an invitation to play, interest, stress, and even a threat of aggression. Dogs use many different parts of their bodies to signal that they’re uncomfortable or afraid. You might see them lick their lips, turn away, show the whites of the eyes (we call this “whale eye”), yawn when they’re not tired, stiffen through the neck, flatten their ears, or furrow their brow. If those attempts at communication are ignored, dogs might escalate to growling and/or biting.
It’s really important to teach kids to understand and respect your dog’s body language. Just like any other skill, it takes time and practice to develop. The ability to “read” dog body language involves empathy and perspective-taking skills, and these rest on cognitive abilities that take years to develop. Many kids will begin to be capable of differentiating their own thoughts and feelings from those of others by the time they’re around seven years old, but there’s a lot of individual variation in these abilities. With support and reminders from their parents, many preschool-aged kids will be able start to recognize some basic dog body language. However, we can expect that kids will be inconsistent in actually using these skills for at least several years. Parents do need to take an active role as interpreters for the family dog.
There are lots of great books and tools on this. I recommend the Dog Decoder app, the book Doggie Language and, for younger children, the Dog Detective colouring pages by Family Paws Parent Education. I also suggest parents check out the resources at thefamilydog.com/stop-the-77/.
3. Create a doggie den
A dog den is a cozy place, just for your dog. This isn’t a place to shut the pup in as punishment, but a special sanctuary to which your dog can retreat when needed. For an added layer of safety, you can use baby gates or exercise pens to create a safe place for your dog that is a strict “no-go” zone for your kids. It’s important to take the time to carefully introduce your dog to his new den using treats and toys so that it is a happy place for him. Some dogs will need a little extra help learning to relax and settle and you can use the techniques in this Kikopup video to help your dog develop these skills.
4. Provide enrichment activities
Dogs need activities that engage their senses, especially their sense of smell. Dogs’ olfactory systems are closely connected to the emotional centres in their brains and opportunities to use their noses are important for canine mental health. Getting outside and sniffing is essential for dogs’ well-being, but there are also ways to enrich their environment indoors. Things like stuffed Kongs, puzzle games and treats hidden in towels can help keep dogs occupied and happy in their special place. I like to have a few frozen stuffed Kongs or Toppl toys on hand to keep my pups occupied when someone comes to the door, when the kids are extra rambunctious, or when I’m preparing dinner. For enrichment ideas, I recommend checking out the Facebook group Canine Enrichment and the book Canine Enrichment: The Book your Dog Needs You to Read.
5. Know that you’ll have to teach the behaviours you want to see
This can be challenging—for most people, it’s easy to think of what we don’t want our dogs to do (e.g. jump on visitors, chase and nip the kids, etc.) but harder to figure out what you want them to do instead (e.g. stand and watch quietly while kids run around). You’ll have to figure it out, and then actively teach it. It’s also really important to consider breed characteristics and to be realistic about what you can teach; if you have a rat terrier, your dog is genetically programmed to independently find-stalk-chase-and kill rats and that’s going to make it awfully difficult to teach the dog to listen to you instead of chasing squirrels!. There are some great courses for learning more about dog behaviour and training at thedogenius.com.
6. Pay attention to your dog’s physical health
When dogs develop new undesirable behaviours, it can be related to normal developmental stages (puppies change a lot when they become teenagers!) or typical breed behaviour (we shouldn’t be surprised when dogs bred to herd livestock attempt to herd the kids). But it can also be related to physical factors like hunger (dogs get hangry too), inadequate nutrition, poor quality sleep, inappropriate exercise for their age and breed, and underlying pain. Just like us, dogs get headaches and toothaches, itchy skin can make them miserable, they can have upset tummies, and sore joints. Pain makes it more likely for dogs to have problems with everything from housebreaking to separation anxiety and aggression.