Kids and Puppies: Great Expectations?
Growing up with a dog is the stuff of many happy childhood memories. The arrival of a brand new puppy brings incredible excitement for the whole family, including the kids.
Done right, young children learn respect for living creatures and teach value lessons about life; and during those stroppy teenage years, a dog offers a listening ear without judgement.
When it’s not done right, the outcomes can be serious for the child, the dog and that entire family. Sometimes, devastatingly tragic. These situations, however, can be avoided.
Parents of both kids and puppies who establish the right environment for both to live together, know what to look for and when to intervene make all the difference between good and bad dog-and-kid relationships. Building this environment and nurturing a great relationship starts even before your new puppy arrives.
Before the Puppy Arrives
Young kids and puppies want different things, and overlooking this could eventually lead to stress for the puppy…and distress for the child when they get scratched or bitten.
In your role as both child and pet parent, one way for you to avoid unwanted ‘incidents’ is to teach your children about not overwhelming the your new puppy arrival and to set ground rules about calmness and consideration for the puppy’s needs.
Getting a puppy is a strong motivator for the child, so use this ‘leverage’ to lay down the law about behaviour. It will be more difficult to do this once puppy has arrived – so prior is definitely the time to start these conversations. Explain the puppy is leaving everything they are familiar with, and needs calm and quiet to settle in.
In the days leading up to puppy’s arrival, get the children to practice sitting quietly and speaking quietly, so when puppy arrives they aren’t terrified by overexcited crazy banshees (yep, your kids!) running round the house.
It helps to focus your kids’ minds if you involve them in creating a contract of undertakings as a condition of getting a puppy. Talk not just about helping with the fun things like play and grooming, but washing bowls and cleaning up after puppy. It’s also a chance to tell them about being still and calm so as not to frighten the puppy. Attaching a copy of their ‘contract’ to the fridge is a useful daily reminder to the children about their promises.
Fearful puppies are not a good mix with children; apart from anything else, a fearful puppy is more likely to grow into an aggressive adult. To avoid this, choose your puppy carefully and make sure the youngster is well socialised by the breeder or rescue.
This means choosing a breeder (or rescue) where the puppy has lived in a home environment (or the rescue has a socialisation policy) and been exposed to a wide variety of people and different experiences. A puppy that has been kept in a run until being homed and/or purchased from unscrupulous puppy farms, may struggle to cope to the hustle-and-bustle of real family life.
The Puppy Arrives
Bringing a new puppy home is a special time that sets the tone for your future relationship, so if your children are bursting with excitement, burn off some excess energy at the park before setting off to collect the puppy.
Finding His or Her Paws
For the first two to three days the disorientated puppy needs to find their paws in a new home. To stop the kids overwhelming pup with cuddles, buy them time and space by involving the kids in preparing pup’s meals and quiet activities such as reading aloud to the puppy.
Set boundaries from the start. Warn the kids that if they get too giddy around pup, you’ll call ‘Time out’. But likewise, reward their good behaviour and perhaps let them watch that new movie (which also encourages them to sit quietly).
If sounds like you are being cast as a killjoy, remember most bites and scratches happen because a dog is either over-excited and loses bite inhibition, or is fearful and protects themselves in the way nature taught.
Of course, time out cuts both ways. An over-excited puppy can misread rough play as acceptable and learn bad habits. When a game gets too rowdy and they start pulling on clothing, then withdraw attention to help things simmer things down.
Show your kids when and how to stop a game, and if things don’t calm down, to then leave the room. This gives pup a strong message that the fun stops if they get carried away, which helps teach self-control.
It can’t be said too often that a puppy is not a toy. This is both the beauty and drawback to kids growing up with a puppy. On the plus side it teaches them responsibility, on the minus some children do not understand that teasing with a toy or a careless clip with a bike, cause the puppy real distress – and can end with the child being bitten.
When treated with consideration, most puppies grow into delightful, reliable dogs. However, the puppy who is subjected to pushes, pokes, and goading quickly learns to be wary of children, and growl and nip.
Never leave children unsupervised with a puppy. You can get things off to a great start by setting an example of how to act around pup.
Learning about Each Other
Now pup is getting more adventurous, have the kids sit on the floor, holding a treat or two. Let pup approach them, and the child can reward the boldness by letting puppy have the treat.
Show the child how to stroke the puppy under the chin, rather than putting a hand over their head which may make puppy cower. Teach the children what actions are not allowed, such as pulling ears or tugging tails. And it may seem obvious, but show them how to pet gently, stroking with the lie of the fur and not against it.
Basic Body Language
Many bad habits such as biting ankles and grabbing fingers need never happen, if you know how to read dog body language. When you recognise the signs that a puppy is growing over excited or fearful, it’s the simplest thing in the world to ‘stop’ and take time out.
Signs of a fearful puppy:
- Dilated eyes
- A wide, unblinking stare, showing the whites of their eyes
- Cowering posture
- Tail clamped down or tucked between their hind legs
- Stiff or tense posture
- Rolling over in submission
- Growling when cornered
- Bearing their teeth
- Nervous pacing
Signs of an over excited puppy:
- Snapping and biting your feet, fingers or hands repeatedly
- Nipping and tugging at clothing (sometimes until they rip)
- Pouncing on feet or ankles
- Jumping up to grab arms and legs
- Rapid barking as you remove toys or try to have them obey simple commands
- Mad dashing that induces children to squeal or cry out
- Spinning about nipping and growling if you try to restrain them
- Furiously wagging their tail
- Squirting small amounts of urine
Teach your children how to stop a game by standing and crossing their arms. And help them to understand that if they run from the puppy, they’ll think it’s a game of chase and follow. If the child has to move away, show them how to walk slowly from the room whilst ignoring pup.
Both dogs and children learn by doing. It is by safe interactions that your child will grow into a caring dog owner, which is where supervision comes in. But also, involve your children in training the puppy. Depending on age, a youngster can participate in teaching ‘Sit’, whilst older children can do more advanced stuff. But remember, inconsistent commands are confusing to a puppy, so don’t overstretch the child – it’s not fair for either of them.
Have fun! You are about to em-bark (!) on the wonderful experience that is owning a dog. Do it right, and your child will learn about true, unconditional love, plus you’ll have a wonderful four-legged family member.
What suggestions or advice have you read that’s help you to create wonderful dog-kid relationships?