Michelle Stafford got a dog a few years before having kids. Bailey is a gentle golden retriever, but she’s always shown signs of being uncomfortable around children. When Stafford’s first child, Grant, came along, she worried about how Bailey would react and knew she’d have to keep a close eye on him. Despite her caution, when Grant was 18 months old, he pinched the dog, who then growled and snapped at him. “She didn’t bite him,” says Stafford, “but it was clear to me that she was communicating to us that he was hurting her.”
While Grant came through the experience largely unfazed, and Bailey has never shown further aggression toward him (he’s now eight) or his sister, Claire, 5, Stafford realizes that they were lucky. Toddlers, with their sudden movements, tactile nature and unpredictability, can test the patience of any canine companion, even those who have always been gentle. “It is impossible to predict a dog’s behaviour in every situation,” says Barbara Walmer, department head of behaviour at the Calgary Humane Society. “All dogs have the potential to bite, and we need to watch our dogs' body language, as this is how they communicate their discomfort, fear, pain or anxiety.”
Signs that a dog is uncomfortable include looking or moving away, repeated yawning or lip-licking, a stiff body and slow movements. If a dog shows any of these signals, the best thing to do is put distance between the pet and the child.
Ensuring that dogs and toddlers will coexist happily starts well before your babe is mobile—or even born. To get your dog used to the idea of having a tiny human in its midst, Toronto animal behaviourist Dorothy Litwin of Animal Behaviour Services Canada recommends slowly socializing the dog with children even before you have any of your own. Litwin stresses that any interaction between a dog and children must be carefully supervised and managed for everyone’s safety. Use positive reinforcement and treats when your dog performs well in these meetings.
It’s equally important to teach kids that, when it comes to dogs, “there should be no hugging, no kissing, no grabbing, no poking, no pinching, no pulling and no climbing,” says Litwin. While playing fetch is a great way for a child to bond with a pet, using the dog as a pony is not a good idea. Make sure the dog gets regular breaks from the toddler, and that the dog has a place it can go where the kid can’t get to it. Also, a child should never reach into a dog’s mouth, or disturb it while it is sleeping or eating.
The same holds true for families who don’t have a dog. Parks, being a favourite hangout spot for kids and mutts alike, are often the scene of meetings between the two (though Litwin cautions against letting a child run around an off-leash dog park). Children should be taught that they should never run up to a dog, and if they are approached, they should always check with the owner if it is OK to engage with it, and then only pet the dog on the back rather than the head. If no owner is around, kids should stand still as a tree (don’t run!), avoid making noise or looking at the dog and hopefully it will lose interest and move on. “It’s better to play hard-to-get with an unknown dog,” says Litwin.
If, despite your best efforts, your dog is still showing signs of discomfort around kids or is being aggressive, seek professional help. Your veterinarian, local humane society or SPCA branch will likely be able to recommend a trainer who can work with your dog and family to try and solve behaviour issues and create a safe environment for everyone. But it’s also important to realize that not all dogs can live happily with children, and sometimes the best thing for everyone is to find your pet a new, child-free home.