Toddler and dog

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.

Is There Anything the Dog Doesn’t Like?

The goal of this question is to determine if the dog has issues like guarding or being touched. Dogs that have anxiety around spaces, toys or food are not good candidates to play with children. Also consider the breed of dog. If you are visiting a herding breed, it will innately want to chase and herd children.

When discussing what the dog likes and doesn’t like, consider these red flags that the dog you’re visiting might not be comfortable with children:

  • Not social and prefers to avoid strangers. 
  • Easily excited and has difficulty calming down.
  • Guards food, space, or toys.
  • Doesn’t like to have his body parts touched.
  • Can’t be called back to his owner easily.
  • Doesn’t recover quickly when startled.
  • Has bitten in the past.

How Will We Handle Supervision?

Supervision should be from a team approach, with both the pet owner and the child’s parents on the team. Parents are responsible for the child’s behavior, while the pet owner is responsible for monitoring the stress level in their pet.

Both proactive and active supervision are key to preventing issues from occurring. Proactive supervision means to prepare the environment to prevent issues, predict what situations should be avoided and have a plan in place for those situations (i.e, the dog goes to his “safe place” when the child has a snack). Active supervision means keeping both eyes on the child and dog at all times. You can’t prevent or intervene in a potentially frightening experience if you aren’t there to see it. Avoid passive supervision, when you’re watching but also might be distracted.

While supervising your child at all times, also be aware of what the dog is saying. This article gives a list of signs that could mean the dog is experiencing stress and anxiety. The article also offers tips on how to modify the environment to reduce stress, which often means either removing the child or allowing the dog to leave the situation.

You can also be proactive by teaching your child basic “dog language.” The board game Doggone Crazy is a fun and educational way of teaching your child when a dog should and should not be approached. Another excellent resource is the video “Dogs Like Kids They Can Feel Safe With.” It shows how to teach a dog and child to greet each other appropriately using clicker training and TAGteaching.

Having positive interactions with animals is a wonderful way to teach children empathy and compassion. By being proactive and discussing rules ahead of time with your child and the pet owner, you can avoid miscommunication and ensure interactions go smoothly for your child and the pet.