A household in which a child and a dog live together brings many advantages for both, but also some dangers. Managing children and dogs in everyday life is often not that easy. To avoid accidents, it makes sense to set up rules for everyone involved. As a supervisor, it is your responsibility to protect both the child from the dog and the dog from the children.
The path to harmonious family life
The basis for a harmonious family life is a good relationship with you. The dog should trust you and feel comfortable. Dogs are allowed to “say” when something is too much for them or they feel uncomfortable. Never forbid your dog to growl, for example, because then it has to climb the escalation levels and may bite without warning. Your dog should (continue to) be kept busy in a manner appropriate to its species and not be neglected.
Before the baby is born:
If the dog was here before the baby, you can train many things in advance.
- Things that he was allowed to do before, but should no longer do when the baby is here
- Noises (baby crying, etc.)
- Walking with the pram (also an important exercise for you). The dog should not be tied to the pram!
- A doll can also be used for training.
- Relaxation despite noise and movement stimuli
- Staying alone
- Impulse control
- Let the dog have positive experiences with children
- Reduce attention (dog does not get your attention immediately when he wants something, except in emergencies of course).
- Practise walking with other people, perhaps strangers.
- Walk behind you: In case of insecurity, the dog should come to you and stand behind you, not flee or fight.
- Put a signal blanket on the couch so that you can breastfeed in peace later and your dog can lie next to you with some distance or on his bed on the floor.
- Take worn baby clothes home and leave them in the flat so that the dog can get used to the smell. In addition, you can give him something nice (e.g. a treat) when he sniffs the garment.
- Let your dog participate and do not lock him out.
- Baby should be positively linked by the dog. Praise him when he approaches in a friendly and calm manner. If you keep your dog busy with feeding or diapering, he will get a good chew.
Everyday rules for the dog
- Basic signals: The most important signals are recall, sit and/or down, stay.
- Everyday exercises: Your dog should be able to do the following exercises: Leash walking, on the blanket/in the basket, muzzle training.
- Taboo zones: There should be places in the house where the dog is not allowed to go. For babies, this can be the crawling blanket, for children it can be the entire children’s room and the children’s play area. Think about the places where your dog should not be allowed. Practise this by making the other rooms exciting for him and calling him away again and again if he wants to enter a taboo zone. In an emergency, you can also separate these rooms with child gates and secure them in this way.
- Out: It is often helpful to be able to send your dog out of the room. Only after your permission is he allowed back in.
- Do not pick anything up: The dog should learn to leave food lying around, especially if it has fallen down, or to pick it up only when you give the signal. This will prevent your dog from eating something poisonous and also prevent him from defending food on the floor when the child grabs it.
- Swap: If your dog has something in his mouth that he should give away, it is good if he can swap. In other words, he gives you what he has and gets something better in return. In this way, you prevent him from having to take it away and promote a defence of resources.
- Do not jump at him: Even if you don’t mind, a child can easily be knocked to the ground and hurt. So the dog should learn to stay on the ground. To do this, you need to be consistent, because when you are with a child he is not allowed to do this, which is confusing for some dogs at the beginning. So reward your dog before he jumps up or show him an alternative behaviour (e.g. sit).
- Retreat: A place that is only for the dog, where he can retreat and not be disturbed by anyone (not even you). Depending on the dog, this can be a box, his dog bed or a blanket. Some dogs like to retreat in peace, others like to be surrounded by their family.
- Play: If the child is playing alone, with other children or objects, such as a ball, the dog should not interfere and withdraw. The best thing is to send him to his place at the beginning and give him a great reward.
- Warning signal: Teach your dog to say “Attention” as a warning signal. You can use this before he spooks or in emergency situations so that your dog can prepare for something unpleasant to happen. This way you reduce the risk of the dog snapping out of fright.
- Proximity to the child: The dog should not lick the child’s face, and the dog should learn not to take toys and not to steal anything from the child’s hand.
Rules in everyday life for children
- No Gos: Holding the dog, sitting on it, scaring it, throwing things at it, hitting it, pushing it, pulling it, etc.
- Taboo zones: Food bowl, dog’s sleeping place, hiding places (cave-like under the table, couch, bed, etc.), dog toys.
- Keep away: When the dog has something in its mouth, is playing, is concentrated (e.g. during training), is sleeping
- No object games: Children should not play tug-of-war or ball games with the dog, nor should they play rough-and-tumble. Instead, play quiet search games, look for toys, hide treats, go for walks, etc. Play only in the presence of an adult.
- Do not run away: Running away can trigger a chasing behaviour in the dog. If the child is afraid, it is best to stand still or walk slowly into the dog’s taboo zones.
- Do not crowd the dog: Do not push the dog into a corner, do not bend over it, hold it, hug it, …
- Stroking: Only if the dog lies down with the child and wants to. Look together at the places where the dog likes to be touched and where it doesn’t like it at all. Ask the dog: The child should talk to the dog before touching it so as not to frighten the dog with a sudden touch.
- No stuffed animals: Dogs are not dolls or toys.
- Quiet: Children should learn to behave quietly around dogs (no noise, no hectic movements).
- Retreat: Children also need a place where the dog is not allowed (children’s room, play corner).
Why children are particularly at risk
For a child, a dog is an equal, i.e. they assume that they are understood by it and often have a brotherly/sisterly relationship with it. Children perceive the world differently and have a limited field of vision until about the age of 11. That is why they want to cuddle the four-legged friend and feel him. In doing so, they usually go close with their head to the mouth. However, children do not yet understand the dog’s body language and thus quickly overlook the fact that the dog is threatening them. Showing the dog’s teeth is understood by children up to about 8 years of age as a smile. Since small children are not yet fully grown, injuries in the head area in particular have more serious consequences for them. However, there is no connection with the breed of dog (keyword listed dogs). Every dog can become a danger if it feels threatened and is not noticed or taken seriously.
Children under 5 years of age do not yet understand rules very well, so special attention must be paid here. Up to the age of 8, they like to test their limits and do the opposite of what they are told, here too it is important to keep a close eye on the child.
The majority of bite accidents happen with known (mostly own) dogs in the absence of the caregiver. The danger of the family dog is often underestimated. It is not uncommon to hear sentences such as: “You can do anything with him, he is sweet or he does nothing!” This is exactly what is dangerous! Most dogs appease long before they bite, because biting is usually the dog’s last resort when its communication has been ignored.
It is precisely this communication that adults need to observe and take seriously. Just being present in the room is not enough. One must always be attentive and keep an eye on the child and the dog.
Your tasks as a caregiver and how to manage everyday life
- Never leave child and dog alone!
- Caution is better than indulgence. De-escalate situations in time and don’t wait for them to resolve themselves.
- Be a role model! Children learn by imitation. So if you say, “Only I can do that,” when you do something with the dog, be sure that as soon as you are not looking, the child will do the same. So behave in the same way as you would expect the child to behave.
- Playpens or baby gates are important if you don’t have full attention when cooking, for example.
- If you have to leave a room, take the child or the dog with you so that they are not left alone in the room together.
- Try to distribute your attention “fairly” to avoid jealousy.
- Train the dog positively with rewards; if the dog is stressed or frustrated, it may take it out on the weaker child. Encourage desired behaviour and build up substitute actions for undesired behaviour.
- Practice reading the dog’s body language with the child, being empathetic and becoming sensitive (motor).
- It takes education of both child and dog. Loving and reward-oriented.
- In case of gross actions by the child: Take child away, praise dog so he doesn’t link it quite so badly.
- Daily routine: Routines can give security. Try to create a certain structure as much as possible. Fixed play times for child and dog can help the other to understand that it is not their turn now, but their needs will be met later.
- Keep an eye on health. Especially with dogs, pain can be a reason for behavioural changes and resentment.
- Get support in time. Everyday life can sometimes be overwhelming. It is perfectly legitimate to get help in the form of a dog sitter, dog trainer, baby/child sitter, but also a family counsellor or therapist.
Child and dog can be a great team. Nevertheless, care should always be taken and the two should never be left unsupervised. With a few rules for everyone, nothing stands in the way of a happy family life.