While there are many awesome things that happen when a dog lover becomes a dog trainer, one of the not-so-awesome results is that the cute social media videos of dogs and kids interacting are ruined for you. What seemed really precious and harmless before becomes terrifying and anxiety-inducing once you have a good understanding of dog body language and communication.
I cannot tell you how many videos I’ve seen that are shared as “cute,” but immediately make my heart race because the dog is sending so many signals that they are uncomfortable with their boundaries and personal space being invaded. It scares me for the child, of course, because no one wants to see a child injured. But I’m also scared for the dog, because despite the fact that the dog is trying to be patient and sweet, and despite the fact that it sent signal after signal and often even looked to the adult behind the camera for help, if he does finally have enough and snaps at the child, odds are he will be quickly re-homed or even put down.
So here is a list of rules so we can protect both the children and the dogs!
Rule #1 – Remain Calm
Remain calm! Dogs respond to energy levels, so when we are around them, we need to stay calm and keep our energy low to so that they can be successful. When children first see a dog, they typically yell “Oooh puppy!” and/or rush in the dog’s direction. This is incredibly rude and intimidating to dogs. Sure some dogs, especially puppies, get super happy and wiggly when they receive this attention. But even if they are socialites, they are much more likely to jump up or even put their mouth on you when approached with this level of excitement.
Rule #2 – Always Ask
ALWAYS ASK! “May I pet your dog?” needs to be the very first thing. It needs to be asked BEFORE you make contact with the dog, not as you’re reaching down to pet it. Ask this with some distance between you and the dog as well, before you enter the dog’s space. And of course, if the dog is wearing a service dog vest, please do not approach the dog, as they are performing an important job!
Rule #3 – Respect the “No”
Do not get your feelings hurt if the owner says no. If someone tells your child that they can’t pet the dog, please do not get upset. Calmly explain to your child that the dog needs a little space and they need to respect that. The dog could be nervous or reactive or sensitive. They could be working on a specific training goal and your attention would be distracting. The owner might just not want to talk with you. There might be a million reasons, but please respect their no.
Rule #4 – Be Your Dog’s Advocate
If your child is approaching your own dog (and not a stranger’s), watch your dog’s body language and be your dog’s advocate if they seem that they don’t want to be approached. Your dog has a right to their personal space just as your kids do! And if your dog knows that you will advocate for them, they are less likely to make corrections themselves.
Here is an awesome chart by Dr. Sophia Yin that illustrates some of the ways we should and should not approach dogs. Pay attention to the signals that your dog may give if they are uncomfortable. If you see any of these signals, explain to your child – if they’re old enough to understand – that your dog just needs a little space. If they’re not old enough to understand, you can physically pick them up and remove them to give your dog space.
Rule #5 – Use Calming Body Language
If you are being allowed to approach a dog for pets, again, remain calm. Don’t raise your voice or move very quickly. Crouch down next to them and let them meet you halfway. Don’t bend over them or put your hands/face in their face. Calmly and gently stroke their side and back, not their head, face, or tail unless they are completely comfortable with you. If they get too excited and start to jump, calmly stand back up and remove your hands. Not only will this approach make for a better interaction in that moment, but if repeated enough, it will help the dog in future greetings as well!
Being Respectful Protects Everyone
As a dog lover myself, I understand the desire to want to “pet all the dogs.” Even though I work with dogs every day of my life, I still get excited when I see a dog out in public! Dogs are awesome! But we’re not doing them any favors by getting them too excited to think about their manners or by invading their personal space when it is not welcome! Encourage your kids to empathize with the dogs they’d like to interact with and teach them we should respect dogs’ boundaries just as we should expect other people to respect ours! This will help protect your children and the dogs in your life!