"Maaaveriiick Shmaaaveriiick! Mav! Where are you?!" She’s awake. The "she" is my 4-year-old daughter. The first thing she does each morning is look for our 8-month-old Labrador Retriever puppy, Maverick. Just a couple of months ago, my daughter was afraid of dogs. Now, she is a certified dog pest.
She wants to be with Maverick all of the time. She insists that he go in her room with us and play Hello Kitty Bingo (no, he has not won yet, although a plastic piggy bank beat me once before), go to the potty with her, and accompany her at bath time. She closes the door to whichever room that he is in so that he can’t escape. If he goes outside, or anywhere for that matter, she appears magically. Luckily, he loves her and wants to be with her. He dresses up in beads, tiaras, superhero costumes, and bandanas for her.
I can hear you now: "Isn’t this what you wished for?" Well, yes. I did wish for my daughter to have a dog best friend. But where does it say in the dog handbook that a dog has to take every little thing that a child dishes out and keep a smile on his face? No matter how good natured your dog is, there will be a time when your kid irritates him. In my opinion, every living being has the right to say "no."
In my clinical experience treating aggression cases, many of which involve children, most dogs have asked for personal space in polite ways long before they acted aggressively. If the parent had simply been taught to pay attention to their dog, had realistic expectations of what their dog should tolerate, and had taught their child to respect the dog’s personal space, a fair number of dogs would never have had to meet me.
It is the parent’s responsibility to control interactions between their dog and their child and to educate both as to how to behave together. How does that work in real time? Read on…
One bit of caution first…
I am working with an even tempered, friendly puppy. If your puppy has fear or aggression issues, please seek help from a board certified veterinary behaviorist or an applied animal behaviorist before letting him interact with any child.
- Control your child. Under no conditions should your child ever be allowed to climb on top of your dog, pull his ears or pull his tail. This is just plain unkind. Don’t allow it under any circumstances.
- Read your dog. Take the time to learn about dog body language. You can find out more at this link: Canine Body Language
Let’s look at an average interaction between Maverick and my daughter. Maverick is lying on the floor near us while we eat dinner. He is awake and holding his head up. My daughter goes over to him and hugs him around the neck, gushing with love.
- Scenario One: Maverick leans into her trying to lick her face while wagging his entire butt. He clearly likes what she is doing.
- Scenario Two: Maverick wags his tail slightly, but turns his head away from my daughter during the interaction. He wants to interact with her, but that level of intimacy, at this moment, makes him uncomfortable.
- Scenario Three: Maverick doesn’t wag his tail, averts his gaze, licks his lips and after my daughter stands up he walks to the corner and lies down. Maverick is clearly upset by this interaction and has to display a large distance increasing signal (walking away) to make sure that he avoids this type of interaction in the future.
- Teach your child. I make sure that I teach my daughter what these canine body language signals mean so that even when I am not with her she will have the ability to read any dog’s body language.
Each time I see a distance increasing signal such as a stress yawn or a lip lick, I make sure to tell her to back away from him and then reward her for her actions. I make sure to draw parallels to her own life so that she can understand that sometimes the dog needs personal space just as she does.
- Reward your dog for tolerance. The fact is that I will not always be able to intervene quickly enough to keep Maverick from feeling uncomfortable. I have to help him to be tolerant of our mistakes. Go back to Scenario Two. This is the one where Maverick gave my daughter mixed signals. He wanted the interaction, but it was just too close for comfort. While she is still hugging him, I can either toss a treat to him or click a clicker and follow with a treat. In this scenario, I am using a technique called counterconditioning. I am pairing the goodness of treats with the discomfort of the love of a four year old.
By making these four simple steps a part of our daily life, I am conditioning my puppy to appreciate the inappropriate advances of kids, teaching my daughter to be polite with her canine friends, and ensuring that we will have a happy and peaceful household.
Dr. Lisa Radosta