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Family dog owners: The dos and don’ts you need to know

The UK is a nation of dog lovers, but with babies and toddlers it’s important they are safe around them, here’s what you need to know

How to keep babies and toddlers safe around dogs

Important things to remember when young children are around family pets to ensure they are safe

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British people are recognised the world over as a nation of pet lovers.

While most families will enjoy a long, loving and rewarding relationship with man’s best friend, there are a number of things that can, and do, sometimes go horribly wrong, and in rare cases, have serious consequences. Dog attacks in England have risen 76% in the last 10 years and are rapidly increasing in frequency and severity.

It’s therefore essential that any family with a pooch is aware of the doggy do’s and don’ts, and the key danger signs to look out for.

Why dogs bite

Any dog ….even the smallest and cutest ones… are capable of biting, and causing injury. It is important therefore for families to understand why a dog may bite, and how to prevent this from happening.

A dog may bite because:  

1. It feels scared or worried about the situation/place/person.
2. Feels trapped/ backed into a corner.
3. Is unwell/in pain/ or injured.
4. Believes they are protecting the person/property.
5. Overexcited.
6. Surprised or shocked.

People often mistakenly think they are more likely to be bitten by a dog they don’t know, or by a particular breed, but statistics show that most attacks are either by the family dog, or the pet of someone they know.

The golden rule for parents is never leave a child unsupervised with a dog, no matter how much you may ‘trust’ the dog, or how small the breed. Parental supervision is vital … even stepping out of the room for a few minutes could spell disaster.

Danger signs to watch out for

No matter how comfortable a family feels with their pet, always keep a keen eye out for these ‘doggy danger’ signs.

Fear

Stiffening and straightening is a sign that something is bothering the dog and they could be scared. Look out for wide eyes and flat ears as well as cowering, as these are all signs that a dog may be frightened and could lead to defensive bites.

Anger

Anger leads to aggression so being able to identify when a dog is angry is vital. Growling should never be ignored, even if the dog has never bitten before. It is a warning.  Showing of teeth, barking and flat ears may also be a sign the dog is becoming aggressive.

Stress

A few easy-to-see signs of stress would be yawning at inappropriate times, lip licking when it is outside the context of eating, paw lifting, panting and tail low between the legs.

Avoidance

It is important to watch for signs that a dog is engaging happily with a child/children with healthy body language. If the dog is attempting to avoid the child by moving away, backing off or trying to leave the room, then allow the dog the opportunity to do this. If the child keeps following, the dog may snap/growl or even bite to warn them away

Preparing for the new arrival

When a new baby arrives a lot will also change for the dog. Feeding times, walks etc. will often need to be readjusted. It is important to help manage a dog’s anxiety by getting them used to changes before the baby arrives. If the dog is going to be kept out of certain rooms, start doing this as soon as possible. Ideally the dog should be kept completely out of the baby’s bedroom. If there are new rules such as keeping them off the furniture introduce them as soon as possible.  

In preparation for the change the dog should be left alone for short periods each day so they will get used to being happy with their own company. Parents should develop a routine with their dog that they intend on sticking to when the baby arrives. For example, if they intend to change their walking or feeding times, then gradually switch to the new routine. If the dog is used to lots of exercise, and this is difficult after the baby comes, then a dog walker may be a good investment.

Bringing the baby into the house for the first time can be overwhelming for dogs, with new sounds and smells. Again, preparation is key. Equipment like cots, playpens and high chairs should be introduced gradually. Parents should teach the dog to walk gently next to the pram, and the difference between their toys and the baby’s. A CD of baby noises played for short periods can help the dog get used to the noise. 

Mum-to-be should start to use some of the baby’s lotions and creams to get the dog used to the smells, and borrow baby clothes so the dog can become familiar with general baby smells.

When baby arrives

Even with all the preparation, a dog is bound to find it stressful when a newborn arrives. The golden rule is that a baby or child should never be left alone with ANY dog. Parents should teach the dog how to approach the baby properly and gently, and be given praise and treats when it behaves well around the baby. Babies should never be placed on the floor with a dog. 

Parents should never shout at or hit the dog if they approach the baby in the wrong way, they are still learning and won’t understand what they’ve done wrong. The trick is to make sure the dog has enough to do and is kept well exercised; a bored dog can get up to mischief and cause problems.  

Toddlers and young children

As the baby grows and starts crawling, it’s essential they are taught how to behave around the dog. Here are some good guidelines:

Respect the dog’s space

Have a quiet area of the house that is solely the dog’s. This can be a crate or a bed, somewhere the dog can retreat to. Dogs may enjoy getting hugged and kissed but will likely find constant affection from a child to be overwhelming or even threatening. Parents must keep a vigilant eye out for signs of distress.

Let sleeping dogs lie
Dogs can feel particularly vulnerable when they are sleeping, eating or drinking, and it is important the child understands they must be left alone at these times, otherwise the dog could react badly.

Pulling, poking and teasing
It is important to make it clear that hair pulling and eye poking can hurt or irritate the dog. Over time this could cause the dog to lash out. It can become incredibly frustrating to be teased constantly and the child should be encouraged to understand it from the dog’s perspective.

Keep it down
A dog’s hearing is vastly more sensitive than our own, so running and shouting can frighten the dog or even over-excite them. If the dog thinks it is time to play it may jump around and nip. It is best to teach a child to always be calm around the dog.

It is also important to teach older children how to stay safe with other dogs they encounter eg in the park, woods, or a friend’s home. These are useful tips:

• Always ask the owner before touching any dog, no matter how cute they look.
• Never touch a dog that is left alone tied up outside a shop, or to a fence etc.
• Never run and shout around dogs, this can over-excite or scare them
• Do not enter a garden if there’s a dog running loose in it and never put your hands through a fence to stroke it.
• Never chase or tease any dog.

Dogs are loyal, loving and make great companions for children of all ages, and with some training, forethought and common sense, it’s possible for families to be dog smart and enjoy a great relationship with their pooch.

Family dog owners: The dos and don’ts you need to know