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Safe Dogs, Safe Kids

Growing up with a dog in the home is one of the great joys of childhood.  Kids learn to be responsible, have a playmate that is always ready for a game and become totally bonded to their best friend.   But whilst we assume that children and dogs are natural buddies the truth is that dogs can react badly and kids can behave in a way that encourages that – even in play.

Most reported dog attacks occur in the dog owners’ home and most commonly to the owners or their friends’ children and almost half of all dog bites involve children under 10.  Dog owners are responsible for socialising, training, controlling their dogs at all times for the sake of the family, visitors and the general public.

Preventing dog bites and attacks is very much about training.   Not just of the dog, but of the children and adults in the family as well.

Teaching kids to keep themselves safe around dogs is a delicate balance between getting them to understand that some dogs can be unpredictable yet not making them feel scared of every dog that they see.  For parents, the best approach is by modelling the correct way to approach or be around dogs and then talking children through that process as well.  A few simple rules will also help a child to enjoy dogs safely without being intimidated by them.

Don’t assume that a small dog is safer than a big dog or a dog that looks cute actually wants a cuddle.  Without being scared of all dogs, kids should be taught to read the body language of dogs, even their own dog that they spend time with every day.

Always ask the owner before patting a dog you do not know. Not all dogs like to be patted or cuddled and you can never tell just by looking at them.  Even the cutest dog might react badly to an approaching hand.

Hold out the back of your hand in a relaxed fist for the dog to sniff before patting it. If the dog is happy to be patted, it will sniff and move forwards.  If it backs away and doesn’t sniff the hand, it is saying that it doesn’t want a pat.

Don’t pat a dog on the top of its head or put your arms around its neck in a type of “head lock”. Some dogs may interpret this as threatening behavior.  If the dog appears happy to be patted, start by stroking it under the chin, on its chest or on the shoulders.

Never pat or disturb a dog when it is sleeping or try to take its food away.   Dogs can be scared by a sudden disturbance and most will want to defend their food.  If a dog is sleeping, always call it to get its attention first.

Never approach an injured dog.  A dog that is frightened or in pain is more likely to bite, even if it is being helped.  Kids should find an adult to help instead.

Don’t ‘play-fight’ or play ‘tug-of-war’ games with dogs.  These games teach a dog to be aggressive and bite.  Even in play, a dog can grab hold of a body part with their sharp teeth.

When playing loud games, dogs should be moved to a quieter place.  Not all dogs cope well with lots of loud and sudden noise and they may become frightened or feel threatened.  They will be much happier in a quiet place.

Never smack or scream at a dog.  Kids often want to discipline a dog and resort to behaviour that a dog sees as aggressive.  Kids need to know that a firm voice is just as effective and if this doesn’t work, they should leave the adult to ‘discipline’ the dog.

If a strange dog approaches, stand still and avoid eye contact.  This might be very hard in a scary situation but to a dog, this behaviour will appear non-aggressive.  If a child squeals, runs or jumps, the sudden noise may cause a dog to either think it is a game or see the child as a threat.

Don’t approach a dog that is wandering on the streets with no owner.  Kids that love dogs will instinctively want to help one that they believe might be lost.  They should know that the best way to help a dog is to tell their parents who will be able to assist.

Children should never be left unsupervised with dogs ever for a few seconds.   Both are very unpredictable and with kids often lowering themselves to a dog’s height, even a small dog can cause damage if startled or in play.

Socialise a puppy or new dog so that it won’t be fearful or become aggressive around other dogs or new people.  Dogs learn the most about social behaviour between the ages of 6 and 16 weeks so puppy classes introduce them to a whole range of new experiences, noises, smells and other animals and humans.  These make a dog more confident and establish basic commands which form the basis of all future training and good behaviour.

Obedience training is one of the best investments of time for a new dog owner.  Dog obedience clubs are inexpensive and available throughout WA.  They teach the owner tricks to handling and training their dog and throughout the process the dog learns to walk safely on and off the lead as well as basic commands.  A well trained dog that is quick to respond to a command is much safer around the family as well as out in public.

Be consistent when introducing a dog to a home or when it is in training.  Start as you mean to go on.  Establish the ground rules early and ensure that everyone in the family understands them.  Puppies and adult dogs can easily become confused and this could lead to naughtiness if they are allowed to do something one day but then get told off the next.

Use a kind but firm voice when training a dog and always use the same commands.  Simple words like “No”, “Sit” and “Come” get a dog’s attention quickly.  Always praise and reward the dog for good behaviour.  Remember the “5 second rule” for reprimanding a dog.  You must react within 5 seconds of the incident or the dog won’t understand what it is being disciplined for.

Never call the dog to you in order to discipline it.  The command for a dog to “come” must always be associated with a reward of a treat or a pat.  If a dog never knows if it is going to be disciplined or rewarded when it returns it will soon stop coming to you even when it is at the park or in danger.

Teach the dog not to jump on guests to the home or strangers when out in public.  Whilst it might seem cute for a pup to jump, as it gets older this behaviour becomes difficult to manage and sometimes scary.  For children especially, having a dog jump on them can be frightening. The child may instinctively react in a way that then scares the dog and a dangerous chain reaction may easily occur.  At the very least, the child would have had a frightening experience with an unknown dog that may affect him for a very long time. Professional advice can be sought to help with this training but at the very least, the dog should be isolated or restrained when guests enter the home or strangers are nearby.

Researching and then choosing a breed to suit the family home is a good place to start to ensure a safe environment but the temperament of each individual dog must be assessed.  All breeds have the potential to cause injury but this risk can be increased if a dog is not suited to its living environment.   Don’t be swayed by the “cute appeal” of some dogs as the best choice for a family is not always the most attractive but the one that is relaxed, gentle, easily trained and suited to the home environment.

When choosing a puppy for the family, it is essential to deal with reputable breeders or a reliable rescue group.  Reputable breeders are serious about producing dogs that are healthy and good natured and when visiting the kennel, you will be able to observe the temperament of the breed and discuss their pros and cons with the breeder.  Rescue groups also have the advantage of having observed and handled a dog over several weeks or even months and can provide good advice as to its suitability for a family environment.  Before making a decision, spend time with the puppy observing how it interacts with other people and other dogs and even though it is difficult, don’t let yourself get swayed by the first puppy that looks at you with those big, round eyes.  Try to make a decision with your head and not just your heart.

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