Dogs and Kids: Safe or Not?

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Question: HELP!!! I have 2 dogs, an 8 year old purebred black lab, and a 5 year old lab mix named Bernie. We also have 2 lovely boys ages 5 and 3. Recently Bernie has demonstrated aggression toward our 3 year old, granted the actions are always ALWAYS after our 3 year old has been rolling on him, but I'm not sure what to do. Bernie is a good dog, but I'm finding myself unsure if he should stay in our house… Our 8 year old lab is the most mild mannered dog I've ever seen (when it comes to the boys). They roll all over him, and he's never acted displeased. My question, is Bernie now more likely to bite as a reaction because he's already done it? The thought of not having him here is very sad, but my children's best interest and safety is more important. Just trying to make an informed decision… Can Bernie be taught not to react by biting, and can a 3 year old be taught not to “love” up a dog so much it hurts them?? HELP!!!

Noelle from NY

Answer: Noelle, the answer is yes and no. For instance, imagine this. If your 5 year old boy frequently played by sitting on your 3 year old and the 3 year old used to just yell or cry but over the last week has started hitting back, will the 3 year old now hit regularly? The answer is that as long as you let the 5 year old harass him instead of playing appropriately, then yes, because the cause of the problem has not stopped.

While many people think that the job of the dog is to put up with everything the children throw at them, dogs are not saints or stuffed animals. They are family pets. If it were two kids playing together, it would be clearer. If one child doesn't like how roughly the other is playing we don't force them to tolerate it. When kids are playing, it should be fun. Similarly, when humans are playing with pets, the goal is that it's fun for both, not just for the human.

Another issue is that, although some dogs may tolerate this rough play, it's important to teach the kids to interact appropriately with pets. If they don't learn now and even if you do rehome Bernie, they are likely to get bitten if they continue to treat other dogs this way. In fact, there's a reason why young boys comprise the largest category of dog bite victims. As a group, they tend to ignore the body posture and warning signs dogs give that indicate they want some personal space. Consequently, dogs are forced to snap or bite to defend themselves.

So, in general, my recommendation is that Bernie has a place that is off limits to the kids and the kids learn to treat him gently and with respect. They should learn to read his expressions so that they know when he's happy to interact with them vs when he's “feeling sad, scared, or just tired.” You can also train Bernie to like the kids more by having them give him lots of rewards for sitting calmly and politely.

Realistically, you may need one-on-one help from a veterinarian with special focus in behavior (www.AVSABonline.org), a certified applied animal behaviorist (www.animalbehavior.org) or a CCPDT certified dog trainer (www.ccpdt.org) who has lots of experience dealing with this type of case, just to be on the safe side. In any case, for Bernie to be happy in your house and not feeling harassed to the point where he has to express it by snapping or growling, you'll have to spend a lot of energy training the kids.

For more information on dogs and kids read “Living with Kids and Dogs—Parenting Secrets for a Safe and Happy Home”

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