Hey Laura, can kids and dogs coexist peaceably?

I have two kids+dogs questions to tackle today. This should be a long one!

Betty asked:

Hey Laura,

You have BIG dogs and SMALL children together in a household.  My question is 4 part:

1) How did you introduce the babies to the dogs? And vice versa?
2) How did you teach children to be gentle around the dogs? Children don’t know not to make fast movements, tug pull on dogs, not to grab their toys or food….etc. How do you teach them that?
3) Are you ever concerned that the dogs will bite or be aggressive with the children (especially your newborn)?
4) What breeds work best with children? Or is it really about training your dogs not the breed?

And David wonders:

So how do you help a 2 year old lose her fear of dogs (and now animals in general)?  If a family were going to get a dog, what would be the best kind for kids?

Choosing the Breed
For those of you who don’t know, we have a female Great Dane named Gracie and, until April 16, 2010 (::sob::), a male Boxer named Oscar. Both breeds are reputed to be excellent family dogs and gentle around children. We found this to be entirely true.

So yes, there are breeds whose demeanors work better for families with small children, but even those animals need to be well-trained. A disobedient, unsubmissive “family” dog can be just as dangerous around small children as a dog whose breed is not suited to children.

If you’re looking for a dog and are not sure what kind would be best suited to your lifestyle, DogBreedInfo.com has one of the better breed selection quizzes that I found. AnimalPlanet.com also has a 10 question quiz. I got similar results from both, although AnimalPlanet’s quiz gave me a longer list of options in the end. I was surprised that neither of my results listed Great Danes as good family dogs, however. This page summarizes quite a few breeds in context of their compatibility with children.

The Fearful Child
One of the main things that will create fear of dogs is negative experiences with bad mannered dogs. Even a small-breed dog can seem quite large to a little kid. Imagine being jumped on by an exuberant cow - that is how it could feel when the neighbor’s new puppy greets your child; how terrifying!

Here is an excellent article explaining What to Do When Your Child is Afraid of Dogs. The card game that teaches children the signs of aggression and submission in dogs is a stroke of genius!

The fearful child needs to have closely supervised positive interactions with well-mannered dogs. Sad to say, those can be hard to come by! (You should come visit me!) :)

The fearful child also needs to be reassured that she does not have to enjoy interactions with the dogs that scare her. It’s important that our kids learn to trust their instincts - and really, her fear of dogs is probably well-grounded in the scary situations in which she’s found herself. Even my 4 year old, who has grown up with two very large dogs and is quite comfortable with canines in general, is quite nervous around unsubmissive, out of control dogs.

We don’t want to kill that instinct! Far more dangerous than the fearful child is the child with no fear at all!

Training the Dog
Proper training is vital. It doesn’t matter how small or how “mellow” or how anything wonderful your dog is; you must train your dog. I have no faith in the treat-based training, either; do you really want your dog’s obedience to be based on what you have in your pocket?

We had excellent results with implementing what we learned by watching Cesar Millan’s “Dog Whisperer” show. We later bought his book: Cesar’s Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems to really refine our approach with the dogs.

I must say, “Cesar’s Way” of training your dog (or, as Cesar says, “I rehabilitate dogs; I train people!”) is excellent preparation for becoming a parent. The fundamentals are about Calm-Assertive energy, being the Pack Leader, and establishing rules, boundaries, and limitations: exactly what you need to do for children, too!

Introducing the Baby
We used Cesar’s way to introduce your dog to your baby. Everything went very smoothly. I highly recommend following this protocol.

I have never worried about our dogs being aggressive with our children because we have invested hours and hours into maintaining a correct human-over-animal hierarchy in our home. That said, we are not foolishly over-trusting. These are big animals and little people; accidents can happen! We don’t leave the baby unsupervised where the dog can interact with her.

Training the Child
You begin training the child to be respectful of the dogs as soon as she begins to interact with them. No pulling or yanking, no climbing, no shrieking in their sensitive ears, etc. I think it’s also very important for the dog to have a “safe place” - a place to which he can retreat, fully away from the child. In our case, it was our dogs’ crates. The crates were their sanctuaries; no babies allowed!

Very small children need constant supervision around dogs, even well-trained, calm ones. A mis-placed paw can squash or scratch a tiny foot (or, in our case, a cheerful Great Dane tail can knock a toddler right over!), and those tiny hands are very curious and not very obedient yet!

Child training at its early stages is very similar to dog training, so if you’ve successfully gotten your dogs in line, you should have no trouble setting those rules, boundaries, and limitations and enforcing them with your calm-assertive, pack leader personality! Especially if you have dogs in your home, you want to set a strong foundation of mutual respect between your child and pets so that they can grow to be wonderful friends.

Hey Leslie!
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Laura’s husband, Leslie. Laura asked me to add my own thoughts at the end since I’m the one who converted her into a dog lover.

A dog properly integrated into a family is a unique experience that you’ll treasure your entire life. However, properly is the key word. A dog added haphazardly can lead to disastrous results for your family, the dog, or both. Laura covered a lot of ground above so I’ll keep my additions brief.

Puppies and new borns don’t mix

If you have a child less than a year old and have never owned a dog before, now is not the time to start. Wait until your life has normalized and you are a solid routine with your new family member. Why?

The most important aspect of integrating a dog into your family is your time. Training is no joke. My dogs are well trained because they spent their first 3-4 weeks literally leashed to me every moment I was home. Training a dog properly requires a lot of time and energy, two things that are in short supply if you have a new born. Make sure you time getting a dog when you are relatively sure you have a solid 3-4 week time period where you can devote 2-3 hours a day to training your dog, even if that training is simply have it leashed to you learning without question that you are the alpha and where you go, puppy goes.

Giant breeds and children under 5 don’t mix

If you’ve never owned a dog and have a child under 5, don’t start with a giant breed. Yes, the giant breeds are famous for being family friendly and some of the best family champions ever. But going from no dog to a dog who will go from 1 pound 2 inches to 120+ pounds 36 inches in about 10 months is not the way to start if you have small children. Gracie, our dane, was our second dog and we still really weren’t prepared for the speed at which her body grew compared to the speed at which she could control her body. I’m really glad we did not have a newborn when Gracie was going through this awkward stage.

Do your research

Laura already mentioned it but I want to really emphasize this. Don’t just take an online quiz, ask real people about their experiences. If you see a dog walking down the street that you might like, be friendly and ask the owner about their experience. For the most part dog owners are open and friendly about their pets and tend to be honest about their experiences. I spent about 9 months researching breeds on the internet, library, reading books, magazines, etc… Yes, that’s probably overkill. But I hope you get the idea that researching a breed should involve a lot more than 30 minutes on the net looking at breeds.

Training yourself

Laura mentioned training the dog, which is indeed vital, but equally important is training yourself. There are two vital lessons you will need to teach yourself. First, the dog is not a human and should not be treated like one. The best way to love your dog is to treat it like a dog. This leads to the second lesson. You need to learn how to act like a pack leader, an alpha dog, and interact with your dog as such. You are not the dog’s “master” you are its “alpha,” its role model. Its very important to understand how dog packs work to make sure that the dog understands it is at the bottom of the authority rung at all times, unless you specifically command otherwise (intruders, bad people). Dogs make bad humans, but they make incredible dogs. Read that sentence again, carefully.

Enjoy the experience

Don’t let all these warnings scare you off. We give them because we believe a dog as part of your family is completely worth the effort. Finding the time to research and then timing when you actually get the dog are very minor compared to the years of love, affection, and loyalty you receive in return.

Best Friends



Hey Laura, I think... Hey Laura, can kids and dogs coexist peaceably?

comments powered by Disqus