Children and Dogs: An Open Letter to Parents

Dear parents and guardians of small humans,

Meet Josephine.  To you she’s just another dog but to me, she’s my best girl; my shadow and my friend.  She’s a good dog.  She has modelled with Victoria Stilwell, had a wee in eight different European countries, conquered the escalator and learned to live in London.  She walks to heel, sits without being asked before crossing a road, and won’t touch food on your plate unless she’s invited.  She is a good dog.   Every last thing that I ask of her, she gives it to me.  Because her heart is enormous.  Because she’s my dog.

She is also the big sister to these two:

Josephine doesn’t know children well.  Until the twins were born, we were a two-adults family.

What she does know of children, she doesn’t much like – they’re high-pitched and loud, fast and unpredictable.  She can’t anticipate what they’ll do next and that makes her nervous.  Nonetheless, we’ve brought baby twins into her life and she is acclimatising.  She’s a good dog and she wants to please us, and so she is trying very hard to learn that babies and children are not a worrisome thing.

It’s going really well.  She is relaxed in the twins’ company because she knows that when those graspy little hands dart toward her, we’ll intervene.  We won’t let our children harm her.

Our children aren’t the problem.

Your children are the problem.

Every time she has a positive interaction with a child, she learns that they are a good thing: that they have gentle hands, or that they bring something equally as pleasant into her world.  It’s lovely when she is walking through the park and a child asks to stroke her; she stands comfortably to be petted, is able to move away when she’s had enough, and her confidence around children increases.  To the parents of those children, the parents who teach their children to ask, who encourage them to stroke her body and not hug her head, who tell them to stop when she’s had enough and walks away, thank you.  We all come away happy from those interactions and your child has put another penny in her ‘children are good things’ piggybank.  This letter isn’t for you.  We are all grateful for you.

But every time a child descends on her at a run, or yanks on her fur or ears, or grabs her face, or lovingly squeezes her tight against their body, she is learning that children are an unpleasant thing, that they are to be avoided.  To the parents of those children, this letter is for you.

Parents, our dogs are not sentient cuddly toys.  They have feelings and preferences and anxieties.  Also, they have teeth.

Did you know that in 2013, more than a thousand children were hospitalised because of dog bites?  This isn’t because dogs are vicious, snarling beasties and it’s not because your children are little hellions; it’s because children no longer seem to know how to behave around dogs.  The children causing the problem are lovely children, I know, they’re sweethearts.  They love dogs.  I know this because they squeal in their sweet, squeaky little voices about how cute she is as they fling themselves at her at a run and cuddle her against themselves because in that moment, they so want to share in her and her life.  They’re exactly the sort of child that I could have been, had appropriate behaviour around dogs not been drilled into me at an early age.

Your children deserve better than for that love to be turned to fear.  Please don’t let that happen.

I’m a parent to now-mobile children (two of them!  At the same time!) and a guardian to a dog and here’s what I do when the two are in the same place at the same time, and what I expect you to do as well:

Keep an eye on them.

Well – at the moment I have a zero-touch rule because the twins can’t be trusted not to pull fur, but when they’re older I should expect that I’ll be able to relax a bit and just keep an eye on them.

You need to monitor their interactions.  Yep, all of them.  If the dog seems unhappy, intervene.  Familiarise yourself with signs of unhappiness in dogs – it’s not just growling.  It can be yawning, panting, a rigid posture, fixed staring or complete avoidance of eye contact.  With your own dog too but especially with dogs that you barely know.  Teach your child these signals too.

Here are the other rules that every dog guardian wants your child to know:

Always ask the dog’s owner before you pet her

Never approach a dog at a run.

Always approach a dog one at a time – don’t overcrowd her

If a dog moves away, don’t chase after her; the dog is telling you that it doesn’t want to interact right now

Never put your face next to a dog’s face

Don’t squeeze her!  She’s a DOG, not a cuddly toy.

And please, please teach your child that these rules apply every time, with every dog, not just the first time that they interact with that particular dog.

Please remember that every time my dog is forced to endure your child’s inappropriate behaviour until I can politely extract her, my dog is learning that children are something to be avoided.  In the interval between your child grabbing my dog and me being able to sweetly and kindly remove him (because we can’t physically pluck other people’s children off of our sentient beings in this day and age, can we?) she is learning that she is on her own, that I can’t immediately remove the thing that is holding her against her will, that much like she would with an irritating puppy leaping up at her, she needs to defend herself.

Or another dog, a dog with less restraint than my dog, that dog might use teeth.  Not out of malice, but because your child is hanging around its neck like a predator and its first response is to do anything to get it off.  And that dog won’t be a bad dog; just a frightened dog.  A dog that should never have been put in that position.

By not teaching your children proper dog manners, you are putting your children in danger.

Not only are you putting your child in danger, but you are putting my children in danger.  You are teaching a dog that lives with my children that children are an unsafe thing.  You are taking pennies OUT of her ‘children are a good thing’ piggybank, so that I have to do twice as much work to undo the damage and restore her confidence.

And yes, you are putting my dog in danger.  My good dog, who walks to heel through the rush hour in London, who is happy to be petted by children who interact with her properly, who passed her Pets as Therapy assessment and her Canine Good Citizen awards.  The dog whom I love fiercely, to whom I would donate a kidney if I could and if she needed one, the dog who has rarely had a disobedient moment in her life.  The dog whose only crime is finding your children frightening when they tug at her, when she can’t get away.

You are good parents.  You’re not negligent parents.  I watch you laugh with your children, play with your children, value your children.  You want to keep them safe.

But you are doing your children a major disservice in not teaching them how to behave around dogs.

For all of our sakes, please take the time to teach your children how to behave around dogs.  I am losing every shred of patience that I had.

Regards,

Amber

Parent to two, guardian to one

Note: I could probably write a separate ranty post about a-hole dog owners with badly-behaved dogs!  At some point, I probably will.  What do you think?  Were you aware of appropriate small-people behaviour around dogs?  On the flip side, have you experienced the opposite – children doing everything right and dogs ruining the experience for everybody?  We’re no strangers to this issue too.

My Two Mums and Goblin Child have made it to the finals in the Mad Blog Awards!  We would love it if you would vote for us to win in the Best Baby (Goblin Child), Best Family Fun (My Two Mums) and Best Photography (Goblin Child) categories. 

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8 Comments

  1. June 21, 2015 / 7:39 pm

    Yes, to all this, great tips which every parent should ensure they pass on to their children.
    Just like humans, there are dangerous dogs, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
    We grew up with Rottweilers and they will be forever my favorite breed, yet when people see my two boys out with Alfie, (not on their own) who is a 10 stone rottweiler they scream, run the other way and basically cause a fuss, all of which is so unnecessary and just stupid.
    People need to education themselves on proper behavior rather than react to a sensationalised news story, you wouldn’t expect to yang a strangers hair, pull their ears or jump on them without some kind of retribution, it baffles me why they expect to get away with it from dogs.
    Phew, mild rant over

  2. June 21, 2015 / 8:01 pm

    beautifully written Amber. This is all so true and people are so quick to blame the dog in question but never actually think about why that dog did what they did. I love your doggie. She’s beautiful. M

  3. Shivie P
    June 21, 2015 / 10:59 pm

    Great post Amber. However, I don’t think all dog owners are as responsible & caring as you. My son has been “attacked” on 2 separate occasions on the pavement by dogs that appeared from nowhere, while we were out walking. The first was when he was 2 years old, & we were walking with him holding my husband’s hand & me pushing the pushchair. A black labrador appeared off a street we walked past & jumped at him. The dog was obviously wanting to play, but my 2 year old was terrified. He screamed & my husband & I could not get this dog to leave him alone. Moments later, a man appeared panting, saying that the dog was a new pet for his daughter & had escaped. He muttered sorry once & ran off. I pointed out that because of his irresponsible parenting, my son would now be scared of dogs. Up til that point, he’d not really paid much attention to them.

    The 2nd occasion was 10 months later, when I was 31 wks pregnant with my 3rd son. We’d had a scan & as baby was not in a great position, we were told to walk round the block & come back for a rescan. So, as we were walking, a dog appeared out of no where (again!), & once again picked on my little boy as a “plaything”. Eventually, the owner appeared from one of the houses, called the dog back in & shut the door without making any eye contact!

    My son is now officially scared of dogs. It’s such a shame & I feel so upset for him, but angry at the owners too.

    Also, babies being mauled by dogs is always the fault of the owner. I know 2 people who have had to find new child free homes for their dogs, when they became jealous of their new babies & growled/snarled at it.

    Your dog sounds wonderful. I grew up with dogs, but I would not have one in my house until my youngest is at least 6-7 years old, when she is old enough to understand the concept of mutual respect for a pet. As a former oral surgeon, I’ve dealt with the consequences of dog bites. It’s not something you forget.

  4. June 21, 2015 / 11:49 pm

    I have to say I have never looked at this way, and always held the belief that dogs should just be tolerant, because actually some really are. I assume it is also down to personality too. But thank you! thank you thank you thank you Amber for reminding me the importance, and from a dog’s perspective too how important it is to be mindful and that like you say they don’t want to be tugged at or hurt mistakenly of course by children’s clumsy hands.I have always just trusted my children with dogs and always asked the dogs guardian first but never assumed my children might be too rough and make the dog uncomfortable! Silly me. So thank you, you have reminded me just how important it is to be proactive and truly a ‘good’ parent and look out for both my child and the dog. Because not in every case do dogs, well cared for dogs lash out for no reason. During the camping trip I did see how close you are to Josephine and it is a very special relationship you have nurtured there. She trusts you so very much and you do a fantastic ‘job’ (don’t like that word in this context, but can’t think of another) nurturing her she is a lovely dog. Truly Truly. This post is truly great in raising awareness and really inviting parents to watch and teach their children how to interact with dogs. Lovely to read and something to think about too xx

  5. June 22, 2015 / 10:58 am

    Excellent post. A lot of people just do not realise that their children need to be taught these things, I hope this post helps some people understand the need to teach their children how to act around dogs in order for everyone to enjoy the experience.

  6. Caroline
    June 23, 2015 / 11:58 am

    I love this post. I wish I could have written it.
    I’ve never thought about how every negative interaction a dog has with a child will stay with our dogs, perhaps eventually amounting to their permanent distrust in children or fostering a permanent desire in them to avoid young people.

    ‘Never approach a dog at a run.’
    Couldn’t agree more. My dogs aren’t anywhere close to being as well behaved as Josephine nor are they as large as her, but they are probably a greater threat than she is.
    They have little patience & are always on high alert. Their anxiety levels are high. They are natural guard dogs & teeny protectors. They will always bark when children run at them… And even though they are small, they still have the potential to do damage. Although they’ve never bitten anyone, including us, I don’t ever want to be blamed for them harming someone’s child, because that child’s behaviour made my dogs feel fearful or under threat. I don’t want them ever to lash out at a child who has not been taught how to interact appropriately with a canine.

  7. June 23, 2015 / 1:52 pm

    This is such a well-written post and it’s a shame we don’t all have the same consideration for everything and everyone. I’m a dog-owner but not a parent and love my doggie as much as you love Josephine and have put long hours into socialising her, training her, making her as obedient as you can make a gun dog with it’s nose to the ground 24/7 ;). I am always very careful with her around adults and children but could only ever dream that others will be as considerate. Having said that, my frustration isn’t always parents with children, but other dog owners who really don’t show the same patience, love and confidence that we do. There are sadly many people out there who shouldn’t be owning dogs, and it’s not a reference to so-called danger dogs but people who don’t handle their dogs confidently and create so many issues as a result X

  8. July 22, 2015 / 9:06 am

    THIS THIS THIS!
    (Sorry I know this post is from ages ago. evidenlty I am having a stalk!)
    We used to have a little Jack Russell and he HATED children. Hated them wish a passion. Consequently, he never went off the lead and he was always close to us.
    Why did he hate kids? Because soem irresponsible parent left her child running around him as a puppy for so long that, when the kid couldn’t get his attention, he kicked him square in the stomach. Gizmo barked, the woman started shouting at me and the kid started crying. Very traumatising when you’re a Jack Russell puppy.
    So, anyway, he always used to be on the lead. No exceptions. He did have an extendi-lead, but we would keep him close if there was a child nearby. He could walk past them just fine. He could be in the same area as them just fine. What he did NOT like was children RUNNING at him, arms outstretched towards his face shouting “DOOOOGGGGGGGYYYYYYYYYY”. No! Scary! I would pull him back to keep him calm, but quite often he would flip out and start barking and trying to get at the child. Which would then inevitably end in me having a “discussion” with the parents/carers. They always said my dog was out of control and “should be muzzled”.
    However. My dog was on a lead, by my side. My dog, although showing aggression (admittedly fear aggression because of the screaming kidnappers!) was not able to get anywhere near their child. It was THEIR CHILD that ran screaming at my dog. Yet the dog owner always comes off worse. We always said no to muzzling as he was under control and was once attacked by a much bigger dog who was off the lead, so muzzling would have left him unable to defend himself. We made up for it by keeping him close all of the time and not expecting others to take responsibility for our dog’s behaviour.
    Unfortunately some (SOME!) parents seemed to think that their darling angels could do whatever they wanted, and if Gizmo didn’t like it that was his problem not theirs.

    *steps down off soap box*

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