How Can I Prepare My Dogs to Visit With Kids?

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Q. My husband and I have two large, active dogs. We don’t have children, but many of our friends and family do. What are some things we can do to make our dogs as prepared for little human visitors as possible? And are there things we should do while children are visiting to make sure all goes well?

A. The first question to ask is if your dogs want to interact with children. Sometimes we just assume our dogs should be social with all humans when, in reality, that’s not what they would prefer. Some humans prefer to not interact with children, and dogs are no different.

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Have your dogs been exposed to children in the past, and what was that experience like? Keep in mind that babies, toddlers, children, teens and adults are all very different “animals” to a dog, so consider each experience with those age groups. If a dog has had no experience with a child, that often equates to a bad experience later in life. This is especially true if a dog did not meet children during puppyhood, specifically 4 to 12 weeks of age.

Is Your Dog Good With Kids?

The second thing to consider is whether your dogs have the characteristics that make them a good candidate for interacting with children. 

  • Have they had a positive experience with children in the past?
  • Are they social and do they enjoy visitors, rather than avoid strangers or bark, back away or hide behind you?
  • Can they calm themselves and not become overly excited or attention seeking?
  • Have they been trained with positive-based training techniques? Can they reliably go to their safe place, sit, target and happily come to you when you call them?
  • Are they able to rebound quickly from startling situations?
  • Can they be called off a chase?
  • Are they comfortable being touched anywhere on their body?
  • Do they have a history of not biting any humans?
  • Do they never guard objects, food or space?

If you believe your dogs would enjoy being around children, be proactive and set ground rules before the visitors arrive. Be sure to also discuss these specific rules with the child’s parents.

Rule 1: Dog and Child Must Be Actively Supervised

Supervision is the key component for keeping your pet and the visiting child happy during the visit. You cannot prevent or intervene in a potentially frightening experience if you aren’t there to see it. Supervision should be from a team approach with both the pet owner and the child's parents on the team. As the pet owner, your supervision should focus on how your pet is handling the visitor, while the parent's supervision should be on the child's behavior. If the roles of supervision are discussed ahead of time, it will decrease miscommunication, hurt feelings and confusion during the visit.

You want to use both proactive supervision (preparing the environment to prevent issues, such as planning for your dogs to go to a safe place when the child has a snack) and active supervision (keeping both eyes on the child and dogs at all times). Avoid passive supervision, which means you may be watching but distracted. Passive supervision is a recipe for disaster because your dogs’ signals of stress could be missed, putting you into a reactive situation with little information as to what occurred.

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