How Kids Can Help Dogs Feel Safe

These tips will help young people better understand dogs and get along with them.


Editor’s note: This article originally ran at Dogs and Babies; we’re rerunning it here with Madeline’s permission so readers can enjoy it.

Here is my nine-year-old son and a visiting Chihuahua who generally does not enjoy children. Andrew was bent on making friends with her. Given his past experience and his stage of development, he was able to put into practice what he “knows” about how to be a kid dogs feel safe with. And, sure enough, Carmen chose to go be with him.

Andrew responded by quietly stroking her side and it was a beautiful illustration of being companionable with each other. The funny thing about his picture is that it doesn’t look all that cute and friendly, right? The reason is that Carmen flinched a bit at the flash and Andrew said, “No more pictures, Mom; she doesn’t like it,so this is the only pic I got.

That’s exactly what I’m always getting at with children — that they can be the dog’s protector and speak for them. So much more empowering for children than limiting the possibilities to petting and playing!

Wanting what is best for the other is the hallmark of a developing sense of what love is about. So, Andrew can say he “loves” Carmen and his actions back that up in a more mature way than he might have been capable of at a younger age.

Here are tips on how kids can help dogs feel safe.

1. Slow and quiet wins the day

It’s the running and yelling that unnerves many dogs. Slow down, sit quietly, give the dog a chance to see that you are in control of yourself and can be relied upon. Sometimes, this is all it takes to pique a dog’s curiosity.

2. Wait for the dog to come to you

Oh, this is a hard one for dog-loving kids! But, really, the dog’s got to come to you if we want a better chance of a good experience all around. If you approach and the dog moves away, now you have to make up not only for being a kid-sized person that carries the weight of all the other kids that might have frightened the dog, but now you have your own inadvertent frightening to make up for.

If the dog stays still and accepts your touch, it might end up okay if you follow all the other steps, but it’s hard to know without seeing with your own eyes that the dog made a choice to come to you. You can’t presume on a past friendship, either. Maybe the dog doesn’t feel well that day? How else do you want a dog to tell you? With a growl or snap? Declining your invitation to come over is the most polite way a dog can say, “Not right now.” Accepting that response will make the dog more apt to want to interact in the future — because you are a kid that listens to dogs!

3. Keep a side-by-side orientation

Face-to-face or leaning into or across dogs crowds them and might make them change their mind about wanting to hang out with you. Move your body so you are side-by-side — like two friends watching a movie together! Some dogs will keep squirming around to lick your face. That’s okay (and super fun!) but you keep your mind on giving the dog space so he feels safe if he changes his mind. The space in front of a dog should always be kept clear.

4. Pet, then stop to see how the dog reacts to it

My rule is, “Pet the offered body part.” Usually, this means stroking the dog’s side, keeping your hand on that side of his body (not up and over his back). Some dogs will turn for a butt scratch or lean their heads into your touch. Let the dog tell you what he likes by petting a few gentle strokes, 1 … 2 … 3, and then stop. What does the dog do? Does he wag and lean in for more? Walk away? Check out this “Consent to Pet” explanation and video by Eileen Anderson.

5. Meet the dog’s needs

Here’s where kids are just the best! For example, our dog was enjoying (not!) the most thorough vet exam I’ve ever seen, with three vets involved. It was kind of long and we were in the talking about it stage when Andrew piped up, “Can I go get Teddy some water?” I thought he was just bored and said, “No, honey, we’ll get him some water on the way out.” The head vet, however, was savvy enough to immediately send one of her assistants out to get Ted some water — which he promptly slurped right up. Andrew felt proud of himself for anticipating his dog’s need.

I want kids to be important to dogs. That means the kids are the ones that save the day for the dog. Does your dog like a drink after a walk? Well, empty the bowl before you go and have the child fill it up when you get home. Can’t reach a toy? Kid gets it down. Wanna go outside (again!!)? Kids act as doormen.

6. Parents: Don’t fall for the curse of the kid who is “good with dogs!”

Be sure to praise and reinforce the safe and appropriate actions your child does that are likely to be interpreted as a good friend by a dog, not the vague concept that your child is “good” with dogs. Do not embolden your child to try different variations or show off! I want kids to think, “I can make dogs feel safe by doing __________,” not, “Look how ‘good’ I am with dogs!

At the end of my Canis Film Festival entry, the little girl who loved dogs too much really gets it when she says at the end, “I know how to make dogs feel safe and they like me even more!”

By the way, it’s also tempting to feel like, “Ooh, I’m such a good parent — look how good my kid(s) are with dogs!” If you’ve been a parent for any length of time, you know how those words can come back to bite you. In this case, we are hoping not literally. So, continue to be a guide and monitor your children with dogs.

Remember, the goal is happily ever after — not short-lived bragging rights. See this Should You Share That Cute Dog and Baby Photo? for general guidelines on what I think is appropriate for different ages.

About the author: Madeline Gabriel is a certified professional dog trainer, knowledge assessed, who lives with her family and dog in San Diego. She specializes in helping families build harmonious relationships between dogs and young children through in-home training and prenatal classes called Dogs and Babies — Play It Safe. Read more of her writing at her website, Dogs and Babies.

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