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.
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.
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