My process of getting my dog comfortable around kids
Today, my partner sent me a video via text of my eighteen month old Dandie Dinmont Terrier in a nearby park playing happily with 3 children. The video was adorable and all parties seemed thrilled to be out in the sun together. Adorable videos like those are very special to me as my little Leroy wasn’t always comfortable around children.
I admit it was all my fault. Dandies usually love children. I believe they are the only Terrier who get their love of children mentioned in their introduction during the televised Group judging at Westminster. When Leroy was a puppy, I lived in a condo in downtown Toronto. We walked everywhere as we didn’t have a yard and he quickly became very accustomed to the commotion of the city. The traffic sounds, the crowds, other dogs and public transportation. Leroy was, in my opinion, “bomb proof”. He loved everyone, every dog and even my neighbour’s cat.
When I moved out of the city and into my new house in January, I had a small housewarming party. Leroy along with my Standard Poodle Measha were thrilled to see so many of my friends both new and old. A friend of mine asked if she could bring her son over for a bit earlier in the night. I said that she could of course bring her son not thinking anything of it. When they arrived, my Poodle couldn’t get enough of the little boy and my Dandie was nowhere to be seen. Leroy is a true terrier through and through meaning I had never seen him shy away from anything before. As soon as I went downstairs, there he was in my basement as far away from the little boy as he could be. It dawned on me that I had never introduced him to a child before. My bad.
To be honest, it had never crossed my mind until that embarrassing moment. Leroy was around people all day, every day. But when you are young and downtown Toronto, the chance of seeing children is low considering very few of my friends in the city have kids. I didn’t even have a friend who was a parent in the downtown core. It seems as though you don’t really see children that often in downtown Toronto unless you have a child of your own in which case you see other children at parks, pools, etc.
Regardless of why I didn’t get to socialize my puppy to children, there wasn’t any valid excuse, so it became my mission to make him comfortable around kids.
I need to clarify here that Leroy was nervous around children. He was not growling, barking or acting aggressive in any manner. This blog will focus on how I helped my dog who was nervous around children in becoming more confident around them. I am not a professional dog trainer. Regardless of how good Leroy is around kids now and how much I trust him as he is a very good dog, I would never leave any dog alone with any child for any length of time.
Why are some dogs nervous around children?
There are two main reasons why dogs can be fearful of children. One is lack of early socialization. I write often in my blogs about the importance of a puppy’s experiences during the first 16 weeks of his life and how they can shape a dog’s future outlooks in so many ways. Apart from their smaller size, children look, smell, sound and move differently from adult humans which is why introducing your puppy to children early on can save you a lot of work in the future.
The second reason why a dog might be fearful of children is through a prior negative experience. Just as a positive interaction with children can shape their future, a negative interaction can do just the same.
If you are in the lucky position to currently have a puppy between two and four months of age, you can avoid your dog developing a fear of children by safely introducing him to kids. Invite a friend or relative’s children over for a quick play date. Give the children a briefing on how to gently pet and play with a puppy. Explain that sometimes puppies nip and what to do if he does (Read more about that topic on my blog Puppy Nipping.). Make sure the play date includes safe toys, treats and upbeat vibes throughout. Depending on the size and age of the puppy I wouldn’t let the playdate go on for longer than 20 to 30 minutes. Socialization is a continuous process for your dog’s life so invite the kids to return in a few days.
If your dog is afraid
If you find yourself in the situation I did – my dog was afraid of small children – then you have to make it your priority to socialize your dog with kids more, but to also understand that takes lots more work and patience.
Give them space
The first thing I did when I realized Leroy was scared of the young boy was to allow Leroy to steer clear. He was in the basement where his crate and toys are. That’s a safe spot for him and I explained to the little boy that Leroy had never seen a kid before, why kids can scare a dog if they haven’t seen one before and that Leroy would be staying in his comfortable spot in the basement for the rest of his visit (luckily my Standard Poodle was more than willing to receive attention from the boy). The last thing I would do with a dog that is fearful of children would be put them in close quarters and hope they’ll get along eventually. This is unfair for a dog and can be downright dangerous for both dog and child.
Following Leroy’s nervous reaction meeting a child, I got in touch with a friend who herself has two well behaved dogs and two daughters who are very comfortable around dogs and invited them over to play.
The girls stopped by with their mom on their way home from school. The main rule I explained to the girls was that Leroy might to come to them, but that they were not to go to him. Once that was understood, they began playing with my Standard Poodle in my downstairs common area. The crates are all down there and the crate doors were all open so Leroy could go into one at any time. I also made sure that no doors or obstacles were blocking him from retreating upstairs.
Leroy’s reaction to the girls was one of interest. He wanted to see what they were doing, but did not get too close. I thanked them all for coming and invited them back in a few days.
Keep it going
When the girls and their mom returned I explained once again that they were to basically ignore Leroy and not to go to him as he would come to them in his own time. Initially Leroy behaved as he did the first time they visited. Curious, but not exactly confident, but near the end of their visit Leroy slowly approached the youngest girl and smelled her. Because this young girl is so comfortable with dogs I told her that she could slowly and calmly pet him after he had sniffed her hand which he happily allowed her to do.
While this step forward was a success in my eyes, I knew that I wasn’t close to done.
As the days grew longer and warmer, I invited several of my friends and their kids over to our backyard. The rules were explained, and the kids were invited to play games with my Standard Poodle and my new Doberman Pinscher puppy (who was socialized very early with children as this process was already going on when she arrived in the spring). The backyard allowed more space where the kids could run, jump and make more noise. Leroy enjoyed the visits, but still took a while to go greet the kids and sometimes stayed on the parameters of the yard when the kids got excited. I also started to let some of the kids who already live with and understand dogs give Leroy treats (first by tossing them on the ground near him, then by handing them to him). He’s ruled by his stomach so this gave him a good association with the kids.
Now that summer is coming to an end and many parents are back at work, Leroy continues his socialization process by visiting my partner’s mom and the children she cares for at her home daycare at a local park. He now gets excited to see the kids and I get cute videos sent to me of the children and Leroy playing in the grassy park.
The first few months of owning a puppy can seem both long (when will they be toilet trained?) and very fast (how are they already this big?). Even though I knew better, I let socializing my puppy with children slip my mind and didn’t think to arrange early meetings. Only because of the effort I put in later that I luckily now have a dog who not only is comfortable around kids, but enjoys their company.
This is just my story of one of my dogs’ reaction to children and how it changed for the better with some planning, patience and perseverance. Not all dogs come around this quickly and some dogs never really learn to enjoy the company of children. In many circumstances would I recommend working with a dog behaviourist if the fear was intense and especially if there were other more intense reactions to children such as growling, intense barking and/ or lunging. I would only use a behaviourist that trains using positive reinforcement techniques as punishing a scared dog will only reinforce the behaviour.