Teaching Your “Very Friendly” Child How to Meet a Strange Dog

Boy meets dogMany of you have children that either grew up with a friendly, sweet, loving dog, or got the pup after you had your children, so it is easy for those children to mistakenly think all dogs are friendly. It is these same children that often do not think twice about approaching a dog they do not know in an open and friendly manner; just to potentially receive a growl, or even a bite.

So how can you teach your child how to appropriately and safely get comfortable around other dogs…. The ones they do not know, and who do not know them?

In my next article, we will talk about how you can help your child if they are very fearful of dogs, how to help them to overcome it… But let’s tackle the ‘overly friendly’ child first. Here are some important rules to set down for your child when meeting a strange dog for the first time…..

  • Always ask the owner first. It is very important to teach your children to ask some important questions before approaching any dog. For example:
  • Is your dog friendly? (Too many people stop asking questions after this one. It is important for your child’s safety that they learn to ask a few other key questions as well….such as…..)
  • Does he like to be petted?
  • Has he ever been pet by kids before?
  • Is there a specific way I should pet him?
  • Are there areas that I should avoid petting?
  • Be aware of the dog’s body language. Even if the owner has said it is okay to pet the dog, and that there are no sore spots or anything on the dog that need to be avoided, not all dogs are in the mood at that moment to be approached. The dog may have been out on a long walk already and may be tired, or maybe the walk was more stressful that day than usual. (See my previous article on recognizing a dog’s body language)
  • Stand to the side of the dog to pet them. When we stand directly in front of a strange dog to pet them, especially a child who is lower to the ground, direct eye contact usually occurs….which any dog can perceive as a threat or a challenge. Also if they get spooked for any reason, they will not think to go around your child if they go to bolt…. They will barrel straight ahead, potentially causing your child to be knocked over in the process. It is better to go from the side of the dog rather than in front (usually by the dog’s shoulder).
  • Let the dog sniff your hand first. Many people think this process is to let the dog get your scent first. This is not really the case…. They caught your scent long before you approached them. However, many people instinctively go to pet the top of the dog’s head first, which can tend to spook them… as some dogs are what we call ‘hand shy’. In some dogs, it can be perceived as a precursor to getting hit….especially a former shelter dog. So by approaching them from the side and placing your hand palm down under their nose first, it is a very non-threatening gesture to them. It is often said to ‘let them sniff you first” because it is much easier than explaining all the other stuff.
  • Do not hug the dog or get in its face. This may be a common sense thing for us adults, but remember, we are dealing with children. Once they see the dog likes to be pet and is friendly, more often than not, they go in for a hug or to kiss the dog. Hugging a dog…. Any dog, can tend to make them feel trapped or threatened, and in a matter of seconds, they can go from ‘digging this petting session’ to ‘why am I being grabbed and restrained’ and try to break free of the hold. Especially from your children that tend to have a ‘death grip’ so to speak. Also, a dog that might be fine with humans might not be so with other dogs, and a child moving in for a kiss might be reminiscent to the dog of another animal moving in for a bite.
  • Use slow gentle strokes when petting the dog. This piece of advice is for adults as well as for kids…. Often, after we get in the initial pets and see the dog is okay, we tend to be a bit less careful, and may start rubbing the ears, or just scratching the sides…. And more often than not, we take this cue from the owner, seeing them do it, we think it is safe to assume that the dog likes it, and it is therefore okay for us to do it too. But remember, ears, paws, and tail are sensitive areas on a dog’s body…. And even though they may be comfortable with their owner doing this….it is important to remember the owner has already built their relationship with the dog as a safe and comfortable one. The dog does not know you yet, any more than you know them…. So take it slow and pet with slow comforting strokes from the back of the neck to the base of the tail and their sides. Long slow strokes are much more comforting to a dog than quick and rapid movements. And remember to keep ‘checking in’ with their body language. Just because they were okay at the start, does not mean they remain that way. If you notice their body language change, it is time to end things on a good note and move on. This makes for a positive experience for everyone involved.
  • If your child is going to a friend’s house that has a dog, remind them of these rules. It is important to remind them that their friend and the dog have had time to get to know each other, not to just ‘jump in’ and act the same way around the friend’s dog that the friend did, but to take their time so the dog can get to know your child as well.

So a quick recap of everything, make sure to ask all pertinent questions before petting a strange dog…. get in the habit yourself of always doing this. Remember that kids mimic everything we do, and if this is always the way you do it, it is a pretty good bet that going forward, your child will always do this as well, even at a friend’s house when you are not there to remind them. Go slowly, take your time, greet the dog from the side by its shoulder and put your hand, palm down, under its chin first. Pet slowly from the back of the neck to the base of the tail and the sides, and remain vigilant watching their body language. If it has changed at all, it is time to move on and end things on a positive note. As always, an ounce of awareness equals an advantage in your and your child’s health, safety, and well being.

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About the Author

I trained as an EMT in NY, than recertified in Atlanta. I loved being an EMT and was involved with it for several years. I worked on the “Rainbow Response Unit” at Egleston’s Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, and when not on a call, worked in the PICU and NICU, which was both a blessing as well as a heartache because I learned and saw so much. Helping to create a child safety seat for ambulances was my way of making sure children who were already compromised health-wise, would not be put in any more danger. When I realiized I could no longer be an EMT due to medical reasons, I found an alternate outlet for my desire to nuture and protect; I became a dog trainer...something that was always a second love and passion for me. Now, whenever possible, I combine my passion for children and canines by working to make the world a safer place for both. Suzanne is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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