Years ago, I learned from Madeline Gabriel that children should be instructed to ask THE DOG for permission to visit. How clever is that? Yes, we all know about asking the dog’s owner, but what about the dog??!! I’m sure each person has a different way of doing it, but here’s how I have the child ask the dog:
Child stands or sits still, and calls to the dog. “Brito, do you want to be petted?” The child can bend over, pat their legs, make “pup pup pup!” sounds, etc. If they are overwhelming then the dog will stay back – that’s a clear “no”. The supervising adult might advise on some possible modifications to the child’s technique, and then try again.
For example, with a small dog or puppy, I might suggest sitting on the floor. (dog’s head should be at the sitting child’s chest level or lower for this approach; with bigger dogs the child should sit in a chair or stand – avoid face to face situations.) Still no go? Try calling cheerfully, patting your legs, make kissing sounds or call “pup pup pup!” The quieter the dog, the softer your enticing behavior should be.
If the dog doesn’t come over, then the child may not approach the dog. Ever. End of story. I don’t care how friendly a dog normally is; I cannot know if they are sick or if something is wrong that might make them unsafe on a given day. If the dog does not respond to the child’s request to interact, then there will be no interaction.
If the child is being too wild, stomping their feet, or just a bit hysterical -well…I probably don’t actually want them visiting my dogs; regardless, I will advise them of alternatives that might be more likely to get the dog to visit. If they can’t figure it out and the dog will not approach, then on that day – there will be no child to dog interaction.
It’s up to the dog.
I was at a park with Brito a few days ago and a child of about the age of eight wanted to visit. He called Brito over and it went fine. An hour later, he came back, but this time when he wanted to visit he tried stomping his feet which didn’t work very well; Brito stayed away. Next he tried approaching Brito directly and I reminded him that it was Brito’s choice. Eventually I asked the child if he thought that stomping was his best option and he figured it out from there. For the rest of the time that he was around us he never tried stomping again, and the two of them had a fine series of interactions.
Kids learn from what works or does not work, so let them try stuff out and see what happens (within reason and with the right dog). They’ll learn a ton about dog body language and behavior that way, and this “self directed learning” is likely to make a much bigger impression on the kids when there are no adults around telling them what to do.
Children act like children, and lots of dogs like them just fine! Those dogs are suitable to visit kids. Other dogs do not enjoy children, which is also fine, and those dogs should not visit kids. And still other dogs like some kids of certain ages or temperament types but are less comfortable with other ages or temperaments. It’s all fine, if the dog is given choice in the matter. Kids that are old enough and sophisticated enough to figure out how to be appealing to a more middle of the road dog? Great! They can visit, assuming I have no safety concerns.
Do you see how giving a dog choice in the matter makes the entire interaction much lower risk?
I openly admit that I am no fan of the commonly recommended “approach slowly and quietly with your arm extended for a sniff” approach. I have never seen an experienced dog person interact with a dog that way. That’s just weird and suspicious, and perfectly normal dogs often react poorly to weird or suspicious behavior. I would never do those things so I would never encourage a child to do those things either. And anyway, if a dog is so fragile that normal noise, movement and cheerful calling are a threat, then the dog needs to interact with more sophisticated dog people, not your neighbor’s kids.
Look, the dog approached; that means you can pet! Now what?
In my next blog we’ll look at Part 2 – what to do when the dog and child are together!