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Happy Dogs and Safe Children

Melanie is a qualified Dog Behaviour Consultant and an expert on getting to the cause of behaviour problems in dogs. You can visit her website for more helpful information and contact details here.

Why parents must be involved

Pets make wonderful companions for children and can reduce asthma rates, help children recover from illness and encourage exercise. Although most pets will tolerate a lot from the children they love, they often feel more stress than we realise. It is important to understand how to help your dogs stay calm around children not only for the dog's sake, but for child safety.

About 70% of dog bites in Victoria occur in the home and involve a dog the child knows. Children under five years are at most risk, particularly two year olds. Most of these bites occur when dogs feel anxious or overexcited in relation to the way the child interacts with the dog.

The good news is that this means bites can be prevented with proper supervision. There are four simple ways you can keep children safe around your dog - and you can try them on your cat and rabbits too.

1. Always supervise children around dogs, even if they know each other

This means proper supervision - if a dog makes a sensible decision to walk away when he's had enough, do not let the child follow him around. Teach your child about what annoys dogs (teasing, pulling tails and ears, fingers in ears, hugging, staring, dragging by legs... kids can really torture dogs when they 'play' with them.) Become familiar with canine body language (more on this below), always watch what is happening and step in as soon as the first sign of stress appears. This will prevent the stress escalating towards a bite.

2. Learn to listen to what your dog is telling you.

Dogs have quite a vocabulary, but it uses mostly body language which we often miss or misunderstand. Here are some signs of growing stress - ask your kids to give your dog a break before they run out of options:

- Subtle signs your dog needs a break: yawning, lip-licking, excessive panting, avoiding eye contact, leaning away from a touch, walking off.

- Signs of growing tension: tense body, whining, cowering, urinating, freezing up or scoffing foo when people approach, hard staring.

- Last resorts: growling, snapping, biting.

Thank you for growling!

Growling is your dog's way of warning you that he is really stressed out. Immediately remove the children and call the dog to a safe place to relax. Your dog is not trying to 'dominate' anyone, so telling them him off will just create more anxiety - dogs who suddenly snap without warning have usually learnt they will be told off if they growl. Instead, thank your dog for communicating clearly and quickly help him out. Call us Melanie Norgate or us if you're worried or if growling is common.

3. Respect your dog's space

- Choose a place where your dog can have a break. Dogs need somewhere to escape and rest, so ensure children leave your dog alone when he is in his crate or bed. If you think he has had enough, you can call him there until he learns where to go himself. You can also train him to come and sit beside you if he wants protection from kids.

- Teach children how to call a dog to them rather than moving into the dog's space. If the dog doesn't come to them, they should not approach the dog. Neve let children pat a dog that is tied up or in a cage - even if they know the dog well. Be sensible with dogs on a lead too. When dogs are confined, they have less chance to use body language to retreat so they tend to feel stress much more strongly.

- Teach you children to leave the dog alone when he is eating, resting or sick. These are times when dogs might feel vulnerable or need a break. 'Let sleeping dogs lie!' When dogs are asleep they have vivid dreams and can wake up disorientated, just as people can. So a normally friendly dog might accidentally lash out if a child suddenly wakes him. If you need to wake your dog, make some noise until he stirs rather than touching him.

Help your dog feel relaxed eating with people nearby:

You do this by standing near the dog and tossing even yummier treats to hi while he is eating his normal food. You need to create a positive associated between people and food, so NEVER force food away from your dog.

- Teach children safe ways to spend time with the dog. Do not let children under 10 years old play rough games (tugging, jumping or wrestling). These games easily overexcite dogs and increase the chances of nipping, snapping and jumping. Also remember that no matter what they put up with, dogs don't really like being hugged or having their heads patted - they much prefer a stroke on the chest.

Older kids can teach the dog ticks like 'shake' and 'roll over'. Even toddlers can ask the dog to 'sit' or 'come' and give him a treat. This gives children a chance to play safely and teaches them how to communicate with dogs. And as a bonus, it will help your dog learn that kids are great little people to have around.

Teach your dog to enjoy eye contact!

Toddlers are often face to face with dogs and love starting contests. This is a threat in dog language, so teaching 'look' can help your dog stay calm about it. Show your dog a treat, say 'look' as you move it up to between your eyes, then praise and reward the dog with treats for making eye contact.


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