The bond between children and dogs is a special one.
For children, dogs can be anything from playmates and partners in crime to teachers and sources of comfort. But like any new relationship, there’s a learning curve.
Without a proper understanding of how to interact with dogs, children might inadvertently provoke them, which could lead to a bite or attack or a stressed dog. Even the gentlest of dogs have bad days and only so much patience if a toddler is pulling on their tail.
Incidents like this can end poorly for dogs, too. “People would call to surrender their dog because of incidents with children,” said Jennifer Shryock, a certified animal behavior consultant who also has a degree in special education. That’s why she founded Family Paws, which “provides specialized programs and support for new and expecting parents with dogs.”
Shryock says that the more information people are given, the more comfortable they are with dogs. “Building confidence and knowing what to look at empowers children and parents.” She believes that it’s never too early to teach kids about dog safety. “It’s like learning any other language.”
The right way for kids to pet dogs isn’t just a lesson from a parent. It’s something that all dog owners should know for preventing or de-escalating future accidents. Here’s what you need to know when it comes to teaching dog safety to kids.
1. Ask permission and don’t assume the answer will be “yes”
First and foremost teaching children how to pet dogs is about teaching consent. Above all else, it starts with asking for permission, but experts have some caveats about who you should even be asking for permission in the first place.
“When introducing your child to a new dog, always ask the owner for permission first,” said Daniel Caughill, co-founder of The Dog Tale. “They’ll have an intimate knowledge of how their dog reacts to new people and specifically children. Some rescue dogs have had rough past experiences that cause them to act aggressively toward children, so you’ll want to make sure that’s not the case.”
Kevin Ryan, professional dog trainer of Superb Dog, says it’s always better if this person is someone you know and trust since even the most honest and caring dog owner may not know how their dog will react to your child.
“For example, if the dog owner does not have children of their own and has never had issues with adult friends and family petting the dog, a child could be a new experience for the dog and you don’t want to be the one discovering how they will react. It’s best if the dog is used to being around children and comfortable with them,” said Ryan.
When it comes to asking to pet a stranger’s dog, Shryock says it’s too risky across the board, because ultimately you’re making a lot of assumptions about that person. “Since when do we trust a stranger to give us information about our safety?”
In general, she believes that unfamiliar children approaching unfamiliar dogs is not a good idea. “There’s too many variables. The context of the environment, the other stimuli going on, the lack of understanding, dogs have bad days.” Instead, Shryock says she prefers to suggest that her dog loves to show tricks, which is a contact-free alternative.
2. Observe the dog’s body language
Once you’ve been given permission, the next step is to study the dog’s body language for signs that they’re nervous or uncomfortable. This is how the dog tells you they don’t want to be touched. “If the dog moves away, pins back their ears, or otherwise looks frightened or unsure, it’s time to back off,” said Megan Marrs, a dog trainer and founder of dog care website K9 of Mine. “We always want enthusiastic consent from dogs.”
When Shryock explains this to kids, she calls it being a “doggy detective” and looking for clues. “We talk about ‘looking at the ears, the eyes, the tail, a muzzle, gathering all the clues to solve the puzzle.'”
It’s important to gather all possible “clues” because different dogs show discomfort in different ways, so just observing their face or tail might not tell the whole story.
Credit: Family Paws
Here are some other warning signs to look out for:
“If a dog yawns, blinks, squints or licks their lips, it might mean that they want to be left alone. If the dog turns their head away or turns their whole body away (usually with a paw lifted off the ground), it is a sign that they want you to stop petting them,” said Julia Jenkins, a professional dog trainer and founder of Pet Dog Training Today.
Veterinarian and Fi Veterinary Consultant Dr. Jeff Werber said stay away if the dog is baring their teeth (which looks different than a smile because they’re lifting up their lips), their hackles go up, or the tail is low and wagging at an angle towards the ground. These are all signs that the dog is unhappy.
In general, Shryock says to “believe what you’re seeing.” That may sound obvious, but some people think they’re the exception to the rule. “I see people wanting to believe that they can convince the dog to feel differently. And if you’re not their trusted person, that’s not really your role.”
3. Invite the dog over
If you don’t see any warning signs, the next step is to invite the dog over by patting your leg. As opposed to you being the one to approach the dog, inviting the dog to you gives them the chance to “opt out.”
If the dog chooses to opt out, Shryock says you can give kids alternatives to petting. “We can blow a kiss, we can wave, we can talk about the beauty of the dog, but opt out is opt out.”
Credit: Getty Images
4. Pat/pet, pet, pause
If the dog has happily accepted the invite, the next step is to start petting the dog with an approach called “pat/pet, pet, pause.” This is about waiting to see if the dog wants to continue engaging, because “that third pet could be a problem,” said Shryock. “So we pause and then see, does the dog continue to want to engage?”
“If the dog approaches, you can proceed to pet the dog,” said Marrs who calls it “pat, pet pause” since the “pat” refers to patting your leg as an invitation for the dog to approach. “After a few seconds, pause and wait for the dog’s response. If the dog noses at you, looks at you, or leans towards you, indicating they want the petting to proceed, have at it. If the dog moves away, or even if he does nothing, we can take that as a ‘no, thanks.'”
Credit: Getty Images
Marrs also says to remember that a dog’s comfort level can change at any time, which is why it’s important to keep checking. “One moment he may be fine with head scritches, but five minutes later he may not be interested anymore.”
Do’s and don’ts at the dog park
5. Teaching kids the right way to pet
Every dog has its individual preferences of how/where they like to be pet, but it’s important to teach kids how not to pet first, since these rules are universal to most dogs and not following them could be dangerous.
Don’t sneak up from behind or make sudden movements – “Tell your child to remain quiet and calm, with no quick lunges or loud vocalization. Dogs get excited by both sound and movement, so less is better,” said Ryan.
Don’t get in their face or make eye contact – For humans, making eye contact is a sign of respect, but dogs may see it as a threat. Same goes for getting too close to their face.
Don’t pet their head – “Having a stranger put their entire hand up and over one’s head can be really scary for dogs. Imagine if a giant did that to you,” said Marrs.
Don’t pull their ears or tails – Hopefully this one is pretty obvious.
Don’t give them hugs – Did you know that dogs don’t like hugs? Wrapping your arms around your dog might be a way of expressing your love for them, but it actually makes dogs feel trapped and vulnerable.
Credit: Getty Images
The experts Mashable consulted recommend petting the dog’s chest, neck, side shoulder, or under the chin. Non-threatening areas where the dog can see the child’s hands are safest.
But Shryock also raises a larger point about the importance of understanding your dog and what they like and don’t like. “We need to acknowledge that the dog is an individual living creature that has feelings and emotions and has opinions about things.”