Is Your Child Dog Safe?

By Nancy Holmes 1/2011

Dog nurse II

Dog nurse II Originally uploaded by overdrive_cz

Many children love animals and will happily approach any dog they see, wanting of course to pet or play with it.

Some parents grab their children and pull them away in fear telling the child to get away from the strange dog. Sometimes this gets a reaction from a dog that might otherwise have been fine with a child. Sometimes the dog’s owner feels badly about the parent scaring the child and teaching that dogs are to be feared.

Some parents encourage petting a friendly seeming dog as a part of their child’s experience of the world. Some dogs like this and some do not.

Some parents tell their children to ask an owner’s permission before approaching a dog to pet it, even if others are already petting the dog. I’m always delighted with such requests and carefully thank children who ask before reaching out to my dog.

I’m out and about with my giant dog and she is quite attractive to children and adults due to her size. I meet many who are delighted to pet her , and some who pat her only after being reassured she is safe, and because she is trained well she handles most situations, including all sorts of people and enjoys the attention she gets. Even so, she sometimes can get a little overwhelmed and look to me for reassurance when it’s a big crowd of kids or someone stands on her tail by accident!

Things I see that commonly disturb dogs, and that parents and children appear to not know is a problem, include petting the fur against the ‘grain’, bonking a dog on the top of the head as ‘patting’, grabbing a body part and pulling (usually really small children do this out of curiosity), and often a child will hug a dog around the neck in excess of affection.

Most children understand about a parent combing or brushing hair the wrong way and it being uncomfortable, so typically I explain to children that petting the fur the wrong way could hurt like that and might make a dog react if it hurt too much. I show them how to pet the fur the way it grows to be most comfortable for the dog.

As for head petting I suggest you try this – tap the top of your own head with the flat of your hand, then do it a few more times. Notice how fast it goes from nothing much to not very comfortable. While petting is nice, for most dogs bonking is not always appreciated. Using their own hands on their own heads children can usually see how the bonking might not be such a great idea if they want to be friendly with a dog.

Senna and Martijn (en Lennen)

Senna and Martijn (en Lennen) Originally uploaded by Jilles

Then there is grabbing and hugging. While my big dog is carefully trained to permit grabbing, and simply looks to me for help if something is uncomfortable, for many dogs it is startling, and upsetting, and may cause a reaction as if the child was an attacker, or as if wild rough play was being instigated, which can lead to too much of a rough reaction for a child to handle.

One day I watched my big dog figure out what to do when a toddler insisted on trying to grab her feet and toenails and pick the foot up.  As my dog was on her leash she could not leave so that solution was not available. After moving the foot that was being grabbed away a couple of times, to no avail, my dog settled down to the ground and tucked her feet out of sight underneath her and completely out of reach of the curious toddler. Not all dogs would react that way. Training, plus a personality that simply likes humans and even the ‘short people’ she meets when out, makes her much safer than many dogs might be in a similar situation. Parents need to watch their children to see how they are handling the dog and how well the dog handles their interest.

Neck hugging is particularly dangerous with a dog that is not accustomed to this as affection from a human.  A grip around the neck can be construed by the dog as an attack or as an attempt at dominance. Commonly, in a dominance situation between dogs, one dog will put a leg up over the shoulders and neck of the other indicating superiority.

A child who hugs a dog may accidentally trigger a reaction in a dog that has a high level of self esteem and a low level of training to permit handling by any human. So while your pet dog at home may simply roll its eyes, or wag a tail, at being hugged again, a strange dog might react with bared teeth in rapid reaction at such an unexpected insult.

Teaching your children dog safety with strange dogs as well as their own pets is a good option to limit chances of a negative encounter between your child and mans’ best friend. is an excellent website to help you improve your child’s and your own safety with strange or family dogs. The author Karen Peak, of Westwind Dog training, does speaking engagements and was on Dogs 101 on the Animal Planet station last October along with her children and her Shetland Sheepdogs.

Karen’s site is full useful information on why dogs bite, how to read dog body language, picking out a family dog plus more, and has some neat quizzes at the bottom of the home page to see how much you and your children know about safe dog handling. There is an e-book available for you for free and some other printouts which can be printed for personal use. Its an excellent resource for you to help your children learn about safe interactions with dogs.

As with anything else in life, practice makes perfect and working with your children so they know how to safely handle a doggy encounter is an excellent choice!

Boy and dog praying

Boy and dog praying - Claimed by Flickr user marcelosells


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *