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The holidays are here, with visitors and house guests coming and going — and that means an increased likelihood that your dog will be around unfamiliar people, particularly children. When my clients are preparing for the holiday season, I take the time to address strategies they can use to help keep interactions between their dog and visiting children safe and positive.
Most dog bites happen to children. There are a variety of reasons for this: Children often don’t know how to interact properly with dogs, and adults often fail to adequately supervise such interactions. In addition, a dog who has limited or negative experience with children may be anxious and defensive around them, which can lead to a bite. All of this adds up to a potentially dangerous situation for both the child and the dog.
It is never OK to force a dog to tolerate inappropriate behavior (rough petting, pulling the dog’s ears, grabbing his tail) from a child; at the same time, it’s not OK to compel a nervous child to interact with even the most patient dog. If either the child or the dog shows signs of discomfort or displeasure, the situation needs to immediately be addressed by an adult, using tactics like separation or redirection.
Not every dog can interact happily and safely with children; some dogs do better if they are separated from the crowd when children come over. I recently worked with a couple whose dog growled at their grandchild every time she visited. In the end, everyone felt better when the dog was crated in a separate room during the child’s visits — and the dog was happier with this solution, too.
If your dog is anxious around children but only has rare encounters with them, such as when out-of-state grandkids come to stay, overnight boarding or doggy day care can be a useful option. A safe room is also a simple way to keep kids and dogs separate during a visit.
In some cases, dogs who are initially nervous around children can be trained to interact safely with them, but this must be done with great caution. A dog who acts unsettled around children needs professional help, starting with a veterinary behaviorist or veterinarian working in conjunction with a certified professional dog trainer. A professional can help you to determine if the situation can be safely resolved and can help you take the necessary steps to address the dog’s behavior. If your dog seems unusually unsettled by children, start by calling your veterinarian and asking for help.
For kid-friendly dogs, there are ground rules that should be followed during the holidays (or any time) to keep interactions smooth and safe.
Keep greetings calm. Even well-mannered dogs can get excited during greetings, and this can spell disaster for small children who can easily be frightened or knocked down by an enthusiastic canine. Keeping your dog on a front-clip harness and leash during greeting offers greater control over the dog’s forward motion, which limits the probability of small guests getting intimidated or injured. Greeting outside on the front lawn or in another open area, rather than in an enclosed space like a narrow hallway or entry, can also help keep your dog’s enthusiasm under control.
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