What *Can* Kids Do with Dogs?

A friend recently contacted me for help with the interactions between her dog and her children. It’s a common topic and I immediately reached for many of the excellent existing resources on the dos and don’ts for safe interactions. There are a lot of them out there but none of them were quite what she was looking for. What she wanted was a list of fun things that are in the approved column and both of us had trouble finding a comprehensive version of all the great but maybe less obvious stuff kids and dogs *can* do together.

It got me thinking of the unit my pre-k class piloted this year on safe interactions with companion animals. It’s been a blast all around and something that went much more smoothly than anticipated. There’s a reason so many resources exist on what not to do and why. Children, particularly young children, are far overrepresented in dog bite incidents with 77 percent of those bites coming from the family dog or a friend’s dog. In fact, our pilot program was inspired by just such an incident when one of my students came to school with a bite to the face from his cousin’s dog. These bites are not caused by ‘bad’ children or ‘bad’ dogs. They happen because humans as a whole, well-meaning adults and children alike, do not speak canine.

 

LEARN TO SPEAK DOG

kidsanddogs4Of all the aspects of our class’ program this year, seeing a bunch of four and five year olds learn to speak dog was probably the most rewarding. It’s both easier and harder than it looks and an excellent way to develop empathy, compassion, focus, and self-control – all skills that young children need support with anyway. When we had a real dog come visit the class for them to practice with and they saw him lay down and repeatedly invite affection from a room of 19 children, they knew it was because they’d gotten it right. They spoke dog and they’d been able to make Rufus, our canine visitor, feel safe and comfortable through their behavior. It’s an accomplishment they’re still proud of months later.

So how do you teach your children (and yourself in the process!) to speak dog? Start simple, pace yourselves, and make it into a family project. We began with the help of some excellent books and videos:

For older kids and adults, also check out Tails from the Lab’s amazing Learning to Speak Dog series and consider going deeper and exploring our Behavior Resource Library.

kids-and-dogs-1We discussed and acted out the books and videos as we went along, practicing all of the skills they taught us. Then we practiced our skills some more with our class dog Pearl, by observing and reporting on what we noticed about our dogs at home, by turning our dramatic play center into an animal shelter, and by scheduling a visit with our new dog friend Rufus! Every time a new student joins our class, we help teach them safe interaction skills so they know how to help us care for Pearl.

At home, you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to practice your skills with real dogs on a daily basis!  See if you can match your dog’s behavior to body language examples and try adjusting your behavior in response and see what happens. Consider creating a journal and charting how your relationship and friendship with your dog grows as you learn to better communicate and understand one another. It’s not just safer, it’s more fun and you’ll get back a deeper level of love than you knew was possible.

 

READING BUDDIES

kidsanddogs2Having children practice reading to dogs is something schools, therapy dog programs, and even animal shelters have embraced with enthusiasm because it benefits both parties. It is easy, gentle, low-key enrichment for the dogs, it’s a low-pressure way for children to practice their reading skills (even pre-readers who are just making it up or recalling from memory!), and it’s a great bonding experience all around. Children can choose whatever book they’d like and settle in to share the story with a friend who’s eager to listen.

In addition to regular reading buddies, families can integrate the family dog into canine centered story time that expands empathy for other species. Some great dog centric books to check out in addition to those listed above are:

 

GET TRAINING

kidsanddogs3Whether signing-up for a professional class together or just learning at home, there are lots of simple skills and tricks that kids can help teach their canine best friends. As a bonus, working on training also helps reinforce appropriate behavior from both the canines and the little humans. Here are some appropriate skills for aspiring dog trainers of a smaller size to work on:

 

We recommend learning one skill at a time and having the human end of the equation practice the teaching part independently to make sure they’ve got it down before attempting to teach it to the dog. Need some training treat ideas? Here ya go!

 

HIDE AND SEEK

pearl4This game gets tons of bonus points for being super fun and adorable. For the tiniest of humans, you can even adapt this into a simple game of peek-a-boo!

To play, the dog is put in a stay (this may initially require the help of a grown-up and some treats if your dog doesn’t have the stay thing down) while their play partner hides. The dog is then released to go find them (if your dog doesn’t understand at first, the hidden party can call out to them and if needed, the facilitating adult can help guide the dog in the right direction). When the dog finds their hidden human, the hider rewards them with a tasty treat. After a few repetitions, the dog will know what to expect and shouldn’t need help with the ‘find’ anymore.

 

FUN WITH PUZZLES

This game involves kids in the set-up and then gives them a chance to practice their I Speak Doggie and Dog Stars skill of walking away whenever their dog has a food item. At finish, an adult should pick-up the completed puzzle toy. Have a child who may have a hard time simply waiting and watching for the dog to finish? Give them a puzzle to work on too!

Get your DIY food puzzle ideas here plus some you can purchase ready made.

 

CUDDLING COUNTS

jimmy-and-dogQuality downtime is just as important as the more active stuff and knowing how to appropriately give affection and use touch with their canine family members is an indispensable skill for young children. Kids learn through Stop the 77’s I Speak Doggie to ‘pet with one hand, collar to tail’ and to ‘hug friends, not dogs’ and parents can help them go deeper by sharing 5 Loving Ways to Pet a Dog and to Pat, Pet, Pause to make sure the dog is enjoying the interaction. Want to take it a step further? Learn some basic TTouch touches with Lili Chin and Boogie the Boston Terrier!

 

THE SILLY STUFF

pearl1Blowing bubbles and having a dance party are typically skills that come naturally to kids and both happen to be great activities to invite the family dog to join in! Bubbles are a harmless and safe chase game to play (kids blow the bubbles and dogs chase ’em!) and like hide and seek, both of these activities get extra points for cuteness.

You may notice that chase games and games involving toys, as well as teaching skills like leave it and drop it are not included in this post. That is not because those skills and enrichment activities aren’t an important part of a dog’s life (they are!). It’s because they are skills and games best left to adults (and knowledgable teenagers with adult approval). Young children are naturally faster and more erratic movers and especially prone to forgetting some of the more subtle lessons that make these activities safe and successful as opposed to opportunities for overstimulation and accidents. It is best practice to err on the side of caution and teach young children to walk away when a dog is in possession of something and not to play games (hide and seek is an exception where the hidden party is stationary) where the dog is encouraged to chase them.

When facilitated well by the adults involved, the relationship between children and dogs can be rich and amazing with excellent opportunities to develop the kind of skills that make us all into better humans. But if not facilitated well, the potential for tragedy is great. Learn to understand your dog, make sure your children do the same, and facilitate a relationship that is respectful, loving, and compassionate. The benefits are well worth it and you, your children, and your dog will all be glad you took the time to get it right!

Questions? Ideas? We’d love to hear from you!

KEEP READING

How Kids Should and Should Not Interact with Dogs – Dr. Sophia Yin

Stop the 77 – The Family Dog (GREAT kid friendly videos)

Doggone Safe 

Why Supervising Dogs and Kids Doesn’t Work – Robin Bennett

Bringing Home Baby: Preparing Pets for Parenthood – Dr. Kate Mornement

Family Paws

–> Visit our Behavior Resource Library.

 

*The thoughts and opinions in each post on this blog are those solely of the attributed author and do not necessarily extend to all program collaborators or to Ethics in Animal Care itself.* 

By Ethics in Animal Care

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