Mutual Respect – Dogs and Children

First and foremost, you must teach your children to respect dogs. While being an ear-pulling-resistant pet was a requirement for my dog, Nala, that is not to say that I allow my girls to pull ears and tails. We have had many long talks about treating Nala with respect, but they are little girls and I know there will be “incidents.” I have taught them that dogs are not toys and that not all dogs are friendly. Indeed, many dog bites occur because children do not know they should never tease or approach strange dogs.

I was pleased during a recent trip to the park when a little girl approached me and asked if my dogs were friendly. When I said yes, she then asked both her mother and me if she could pet the dogs. Her mother said, “Okay. But remember to put out your hand.” And the little girl gently and slowly placed her hand out, palm downward, so that Sosi and Nala could sniff her. Of course, the only danger she faced from those two was to be kissed, but it was good to see that she was already learning how to properly approach strange dogs.

Between one and three million dog attacks occur annually in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half of all American children will be bitten by the time they are 12 years old. They will be bitten by their family’s dog or a neighbor’s dog. Little girls between the ages of two and four are the most bitten group of people, because they tend to walk right up to dogs’ faces.

There are several rules you can teach your children about proper behavior around dogs that should help them to avoid being bitten:

  • Never put your hand through the window of a parked car to pet a dog.
  • Never put your hand through a fence to pet a dog. Dogs will always protect their territory, whether it is their home, yard, or car.
  • Always ask the owner of a dog for permission to pet him. If the owner is not around, leave the dog alone.
  • Never tease a dog.
  • Never go into someone else’s yard to retrieve a ball.
  • Never play near a yard in which a dog seems agitated. Again, dogs are protective of what they perceive as their areas.
  • Always greet a new dog with your hand facing down, stretched out, so that the dog can smell you first (after you have gotten permission from the owner).
  • Never yell or jump around strange dogs. And absolutely no hugging around a dog’s neck! No matter how sweet the canine, this makes some pooches nervous.
  • Never run away from a dog. Even a non-aggressive dog will chase someone running away from him.

Having said all this about teaching your children, you still must be cautious about the breed you pick. Many parents are tempted to get smaller breeds believing that a smaller dog will be less likely to hurt their children. This is not so. I cannot tell you how many times I have had a family come in for training because their small dog had bitten the kids. Smaller breeds are often more temperamental because they can be more easily hurt than larger breeds. Often, child’s play can get too rough, and the smaller breeds will snap to warn children to get away.
There are exceptions. Jack Russell Terriers and Beagles, for example, have excellent reputations with children. I grew up with a Beagle mix and “tortured” her endlessly. I stuffed her in doll carriages, forced her into baby clothing, pulled ears, taunted her with her own food, made her walk on four plastic doll toe shoes. Never once did she even growl. Yorkshire Terriers, Silky Terriers, Lhaso Apso and Malteses are other breeds noted to be good with children, but they are classified in the canine world as “Toys.” Toys can be very delicate physically, and a rough child could easily provoke them to bite. Had I grown up with a Toy, I’m sure I would be riddled with well-deserved scars.

If you want a smaller breed and you have children, be selective. Talk to your vet. Pick a few breeds that are appealing to you, and do some research. Most importantly, take an honest look at your child or children. Are they rough? Loud? Or do they play quietly? My sister could have easily had a Tea Cup Poodle, but I needed a Saint Bernard. I always recommend a mixed breed from the shelter. It is hard to go wrong with a shelter puppy, especially a Labrador mix. Every dog is different, and it is important to research any breeds in which you are interested.

If you are considering a larger breed, again you must think about your lifestyle and your family. Not just any large breed will do. There are several large breeds that are more aggressive or temperamental than others. If your child is very active or loud, I would recommend staying away from hyper, more active breeds. For example, contrary to popular belief, Doberman Pinchers are very loving with children, but they are very active and could quite accidentally bowl someone over. Boxers also are wonderful with children, but they too are very rambunctious dogs. It is possible that a child could be hurt by their enthusiastic playing and loving. Like Dobies, they are very powerful dogs. Having said that, though, I would like to note that there are exceptions to every rule. An example is Roxy, a 10-month-old Boxer. Her owners, Dawn and Gerry, have four little girls, and Roxy is exceptionally gentle and quiet around them. She seems to understand that they are more fragile than adults.

Another good family dog is the Newfoundland. This wonderful breed was awarded a gold medal in 1919 when a Newfoundland pulled some twenty shipwrecked people to shore. Since then, there have been numerous accounts of these brave dogs saving drowning people. They are extremely affectionate and loyal. But they also are very large and powerful dogs and need to be trained not to pull on the leash or knock people over.

Rufus, a 10-month-old Newfoundland, was enrolled immediately in training classes by his owners when his owners learned they were expecting a baby. They decided to enroll him in a group class so that he would be trained before the baby was born. Throughout the training, Rufus proved himself to be a very stubborn dog and talked back to his owners on several occasions. The group classes were wonderful for him because he learned to work for his owners and even grew to enjoy the attention. Initially, he was testing to see how serious they were about this training idea. Once he realized they were going to be in control, he responded beautifully. It is good that they worked through all of this BEFORE the baby came. Now Rufus’ true Newfoundland characteristics are showing, and he is a great family dog.

You also need to consider that the popularity of a dog may not mean the breed is a good choice for your family. An example of a breed that may not be right for you anymore is the Rottweiler. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the breed has become very popular. Due to over-breeding, today’s Rottweiler can be unstable and unpredictable. Although this breed has had a wonderful reputation with children, there have been a series of disturbing stories in the last few years about Rottweilers attacking small children and doing considerable damage. I know the problems of over-breeding or poor breeding all too well. On December 8, 1990, I had to put down my beloved Spenser, a two-year-old Rottweiler, because he had become increasingly aggressive and unpredictable. It was one of most painful things I have ever had to do, but I had no choices. He was dangerous! I wouldn’t want anyone else to ever have to go through this. Do not get a dog because his is the new “in” breed.

Rottweilers are only an example; in no way am I saying that the Rottweiler is an unacceptable companion for children. In truth, most Rottweilers are fabulous dogs – great companions for children, adults, and other dogs if they have the right heritage. In fact, in Dog’s Best Friend, Mark Derr downplays the importance of the pure breed because the smaller gene pool allows for a greater risk of genetic problems. Amen.

I do seriously caution you about the results of “backyard” breeding – that’s when people decide their dogs are “pretty” and breed them without doing any research or making any attempt to study the dogs’ heritages, and the result of this lack of knowledge and experience can be disastrous.

If you think you would like a pure breed, talk to breeders, vets, and trainers who have worked with the breed but have no personal stake in a sale. If the dog is a mixture, try to determine what kind of mix she is. An example of an unfortunate mix would be a Gordon Setter/Samoyed mix. I knew one named Tikva. She was extremely loving, but stubborn and “dingy.” The Gordon Setter in her ate alarm clocks and locked herself in dark closets without the good sense to bark for help, and the Samoyed in her did not learn from the lessons — she would just do it again.

Still, don’t assume that once you have done your research and found the breed for you, that the test is over. Like people, all dogs are individuals. You may have decided on the perfect breed only to find the puppy you selected does not possess the overall characteristics of that breed. Again, ask your vet and a trainer to look at the puppy. There are ways to test the puppy for certain behavioral characteristics. And regardless of whatever dog you choose, you will still have a major influence on what kind of dog your pup will grow up to be!

Last but not least, never get a pet to teach your children “responsibility.” Pets are wonderful additions to the family and make great friends for your children but, ultimately, these living beings are your responsibility. If your children fail the lesson of responsibility, who suffers the most?

by Alexandra Allred
Excerpted from Teaching Basic Obedience: Train the Owner, Train the Dog
[Teaching Basic Obedience: Train the Owner, Train the Dog by Alexandra Allred, ©2001 T.F.H. Publications, ISBN 0793805244]