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Shirley Zindler
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Dogs and Kids

As a child I was surrounded by dogs and was always fascinated by them. When I was 5 years old I walked up to a neighbor’s dog as it was chewing a bone. I reached to pet him and received a minor bite to the hand for my inattention. As I recall, my parents sternly reminded me not to bother dogs, especially if they were eating, sleeping, or chewing a bone. Lesson learned. It was the only bite I ever received as a child and to this day I consider dogs to be one of the greatest gifts in life.

When I was six my parents divorced and I went through a long period without a dog. I missed having a dog so much that I ended up moving to my dad’s house because I could have one there. My first dog that was all my own was a little shaggy mutt that followed me everywhere and slept in my bed at night. That dog was my constant companion through several moves, childhood traumas and a few teenage heartbreaks. His presence in my life is something I still feel the effects of today.

Kids and dogs can be one of the most wonderful or one of the most tragic pairings of childhood. As an animal control officer, I investigate dog bites almost daily. Most are minor, a few are severe, and many of them are to children. I have seen nice dogs euthanized for the most minor of bites and children scarred and traumatized for life by the more severe ones.  In almost every case they could have been prevented.

Children are most likely to be bitten by their families own dog and yet for many children, the dog is their most precious friend and confidant. The value of dogs in many children’s lives is so precious that it should not be missed but children and dogs must both be kept safe.

Many breeders, shelters and rescues have hard and fast rules about what age the children must be for the family to adopt a dog. In my many years of fostering, I am often faced with the decision of deciding whether a family with young kids is suitable for a dog that I am caring for. There are so many variables that I find it impossible to pick an age and take each family on a case by case basis. The most important factor is the parents. Many parents want a dog that the children “can do anything to.” They tell me of some dog they know of that just lets the kids bounce on their backs, dress them in doll clothes and drag them around all day. I have seen dogs like that but I think it’s shocking that the parents allow the child to treat the long-suffering dog that way. And what happens when the dog gets arthritic or painful or just reaches a breaking point? Or when a child visits a friend whose dog is not so tolerant? When I see parents that understand a dogs needs, and teach them to their children, I know it’s a good start.

The second most important factor is the dog itself. Some dogs have a natural affinity for children while others don’t care for them. Unless a dog is truly dangerous, even grumpy dogs can succeed in households with children if the parents are diligent and the children respectful. Of course choosing a dog that is tolerant, easy-going and enjoys children is your best bet. It’s up to the parents to provide boundaries. In the case of children too young to follow directions adults need to be diligent and not put the dog in a situation where he feels the need to defend himself. Dogs try very hard to communicate with us but often we ignore their attempts to express their discomfort until it’s too late. A dog isn’t able to tell us in words that the child is hurting him, bothering him or invading his space. Careful observation of body language is critical, as is teaching respectful behavior toward dogs and separating them from kids if they aren’t enjoying the interaction.

I would love to hear about readers experiences with dogs and kids. Even negative situations can be a learning experience for us all and the positives between dogs and kids are truly priceless.

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Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.

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Submitted by Pat Engel | September 19 2013 |

Very well said, Shirley.

Submitted by Mike Bailey | September 23 2013 |

Thank you for a very clear, balanced, beautifully written, and insightful article on this subject, Shirley. Much appreciated!

Submitted by shirley zindler | September 26 2013 |

Thank you Mike. Dogs and Kids can be terrific together as long as there are sensible adults keeping everyone safe.

Submitted by Amanda | October 8 2013 |

I have a lab/pit bull mix who is 6 years old. She has been my buddy since she was born. The only time she ever bit anyone, it was a child, and it was very upsetting to me. The child was unattended, probably about 5 years old, and very interested in my dog. I was sitting inside the open-air restaurant and he approached her (she was leashed just outside the door, resting and waiting for me to finish eating). I went out to them, talked with him for a while, and moderated their interactions. I showed him that she can shake, sit, and lay down. I told him that she was a friendly dog. Then, when I returned to my seat, I told him to leave her alone. Don't touch. Let's let her take a break now... But, as soon as I looked away, I heard her growl and bark, and he started crying "she bit me!". He was ok, and it didn't break the skin. I felt terrible. His mom appeared, and reprimanded the child for bothering the dog (apparently she was watching him, and he was poking her in the eyes). I was relieved that she was not upset with the dog, but I also felt that I had set the poor boy up for the traumatic event. I realize now that I probably should not have encouraged the initial interaction between them, especially since I was not in the position to monitor their behavior afterwards. I am lucky that she didn't really harm the boy, and since then, have not encouraged children to interact with her. Thoughts/suggestions?

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