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Best friends forever: how to make safe and lasting relationships between kids and dogs.

With spring having sprung and summer just around the corner, more children will be spending more time outside with the family dog, and probably with their friends' dogs, as well. More outdoor activities--and reading about the extremely rare but terribly tragic fatal attack on a child by a dog--are reminders about how important it is for parents to promote safe behaviors between children and dogs.

Statistics show that children under 10 are the most common victims of dog bites, and data regarding the circumstances of these bites make most pet professionals believe that many bites are preventable. Parents are the key when it comes to preventing the family dog from biting a child. Here are three preventive actions parents can take to create a safer environment for both their children and their dogs.

(1) Have realistic expectations. A dog is not a child's personal plaything and cannot be expected to accept any and all behaviors from children, even if they are well intentioned. Far too often we hear parents say their dog will "tolerate" the children crawling over him, hugging him or petting him, even when toddler's hands, still lacking fine motor control, accidently pull hair or skin. Tolerance in this instance is potentially dangerous.

Think of annoying habits of a family member or close friend that you "tolerate" until one day you've had enough and yell at them to stop eating crackers in bed, cracking their knuckles or whatever behavior suddenly becomes intolerable. When dogs have had enough, they growl or snap.


Avoid repeatedly putting your dog in situations where he has to "tolerate" your child's behavior and instead manage interactions so your dog learns to enjoy having your child around.

(2) Teach safe alternative behaviors to replace potentially dangerous ones. Without someone to teach them differently, both children and dogs are predisposed to interacting with one another in ways that are unsafe. Children, for example, love to hug dogs, and dogs are prone to jump on children during play and greetings. Either make it a house rule that hugging the family dog is not allowed, or teach the child how and when it can be done. Similarly, dogs can be taught to run up to children and touch them on the arm with their noses rather than jumping up.

(3) Recognize that young children will mimic the behaviors of their parents. Parents know that their children learn by example. If your child observes you hitting your dog, grabbing or prying something out of his mouth, or picking him up, the child will very likely attempt to do what you do. Clearly, adults picking up small dogs is not a problem, but parents must make it clear that children don't pick up dogs without help from an adult.

When a dog has something in his mouth that he shouldn't, rushing over and grabbing or prying it out is a good way to create a dog that guards objects or swallows them. The child that attempts this is engaging in dangerous behavior. Model good behavior for your child to copy by starting with trading a treat for what the dog has, and then working with a good trainer (visit to find one) to teach your dog to "give" an object when asked without always having to rely on a treat.

Hitting an animal is not appropriate "discipline"--and a child who learns to hit a dog is at significantly increased risk of being bitten. Consult a trainer or behaviorist who can help you identify why your dog is doing things you don't like, and then find alternative ways to address them that don't involve hitting.

For dogs, living with children means living in a constantly changing world. Just when the dog gets used to an infant who can crawl over to him, the next day he's dealing with a toddler who is unsteady on his feet and may fall on him, and before you know it, there's an active three-year-old who wants to ride him or carry him around.

When people are "dual" parents--of both children and dogs--constant supervision and always teaching appropriate behaviors are daily responsibilities.


Dr. Hetts, a certified applied animal behaviorist, owns a behavior consulting practice with her husband, Dr. Dan Estep, in Littleton, Colorado. Send your behavior questions to: DogWatch, Box 7, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New York 14853-6401.

We regret that we cannot respond to individual inquiries about canine health or behavior matters. In this column, we often mention useful products to help with behavior issues, and they can be ordered at
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Title Annotation:Behavior
Publication:Dog Watch
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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