How Can I Prepare My Children to Visit Dogs?

Toddler and dog
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Q. We want to take our 3-year-old on vacation to visit family who have dogs. What can I do to make sure it is a good experience for my child and the animals we visit?

A. The visit should be a proactive team effort. As a parent, it’s your job to advocate for your child, and as a pet parent, it’s your host’s job to advocate for their pet. By working together, you can avoid miscommunication and ensure a good experience. Before the visit, talk to your hosts and discuss the following questions.

Has the Dog Had a Pleasant Experience With Children in the Past?

If the dog has had numerous good experiences with children the same age as your child, then it’s likely he will also tolerate your child. If the dog has had little exposure to children (especially during his socialization period of 4 to 12 weeks of age), or has had a negative experience, use caution and watch for signs of stress in the dog.

Are There Any Rules We Should Discuss With Our Child Before the Visit?

Asking this question ahead of time can help the pet owner think about how they will manage specific situations. The following are general rules that should always be discussed. 

  • A dog always has the right to say no.  If the dog walks away, it means he’s saying no to the interaction, and the child should not follow him. The dog and the child should each have “safe places” where the other is not allowed, and they should be taught to go there whenever asked to.
  • An adult should be present any time the child and dog are allowed to interact.
  • Teach your child to treat the dog as he or she would like to be treated. Dogs are not stuffed animals. They will not and should not tolerate everything a child can dish out. This is an excellent opportunity as a parent to teach your child respect and empathy toward another creature. A good rule is “if you wouldn’t like it done to you, you shouldn’t do it to an animal.” Even beyond that, dogs generally don’t like to be carried, hugged or kissed. This can be difficult for children to understand since they want to connect with the pet and don’t understand that although humans enjoy kissing and hugging, most dogs do not.
  • Food, children and dogs are often not a good combination. Children and dogs should be separated when either are eating. Plan ahead of time how snacks and meals will be managed.
  • Do not bother a dog that is eating, chewing or resting.
  • Don’t play chase games. Although chasing can be fun for both a child and a dog, it can also go horribly wrong quickly as the excitement level increases. A better game is supervised fetch.

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