Play-Dates: Making Sure Other Children Are Safe With Your Dog

Last updated on July 13th, 2015 at 10:50 am

Dog wants to be with childYou probably did quite a bit of work (maybe even before you brought your new baby home), to ensure the relationship between your baby and your dog was cultivated and nurtured into a beautiful lifelong friendship. But now, time has passed, and following the natural course of events, they are ready to establish friendships with other children.

You may have met some other parents at the park, or if you work and your child is in daycare, they may have already made some friends and you have met some of the other parents, and decide to get together for a play date. But there are a few very important things to be aware of here before making plans to host this at your house to ensure that other children are safe around your dog, and I will give you some advice on a way  to ‘test the waters’ without putting any child in danger.

To start off with, there are three very important questions you must answer:

  1. What is the breed (or the dominant breed if your dog is a mix) of your dog?
  2. How protective is your dog over your child?
  3. Does your dog tend to be a bit on the skittish side?

The first question is important because there are certain characteristic traits that each breed may have that may tell you what to expect in a given situation. But also please note that I said “may”.  Although knowing the breed of the dog can help you anticipate some possible behaviors, it is important to remember that most dogs have not ‘read the book’ on themselves, and therefore, do not always fall to ‘type’.  This is why questions two and three are equally important. You have to know your own dog’s temperament to ensure everyone’s safety.

Going back to the first question; here are some examples of why the breed of the dog matters: Some breeds, what people have termed the ‘bully’ breeds, such as the Rottweiler, Pitt, Akita, Rhodesian Ridgeback, German Shepherds, and several others, despite the general public’s fear of them, are usually great with children…. Where the problem comes in, is that they are great with ‘their’ children… the one’s they have accepted into their pack. But often they are mistrustful of ‘strange’ children (ones they don’t know) and the biggest problem; they do not understand how children play:

Prime Exampleyour young child is playing with a toy and another child takes it, and now they are arguing over it. Remember, dogs are instinctual animals, so they rely heavily on their senses, not rational thought. What you observe: two children learning to share and work out disagreements. What your dog observes: (sound) shouting or crying (sight) your child posturing and ‘guarding’ what is theirs. (smell) humans secrete different odors that dogs can detect for fear, stress, anger, sadness, happiness, etc. (I am sure you have heard the term “They can smell your fear a mile away”)

Now I want to add that I highlighted some of the breeds that people, in general, can be nervous around, but ANY dog can go into protection mode if they perceive their pack member in danger. And any dog that tends to be skittish is usually not a great candidate to be invited to the play date. Remember what I talked about in earlier articles…. Fearful dogs have two vices…. Fight or flight. If you are lucky, they will choose the latter, but I think it is better to remove them from the situation to avoid them having to make that choice at all.

So, how can you ‘test the waters’ on how your dog will react while keeping everyone safe? One way I have found that works well is to start on neutral ground (somewhere other than your dog’s home, where his job is to be the ‘protector of the realm’.) This is a two adult exercise, so please do not attempt to do this alone… you cannot be in two places at once.

The first step is to find a park where the children’s playground area is fenced in. There does not necessarily have to be a closed gate, but a fence needs to be there. Now plan a trip to this park with two adults, your child, your dog, and plenty of treats. handler holds dog at parkThe adult working with your dog needs to be the one with the strongest authority over him… the un-challenged pack leader.  To make the explanation of this exercise a bit easier, going forward, I will refer to this adult as ‘the handler.’ Double-check your dog’s equipment (leash and collar) before doing this as well. Do not trust a leash that has been previously chewed or that is frayed in any way, or a collar that could easily slip off.  Hint: If you typically use a Flexi leash®, now is NOT the time to use it. You need something with guaranteed control, not something that may or may not lock when you need it to.

Once you arrive at the park, the handler remains outside of the playground, behind the fence with the dog and the second adult brings the child in to play with the other children. Make sure your dog can see your child, but be aware that you don’t keep calling the dog’s name to make sure he is watching, as this will confuse him and make him want to come to you, and you will not know whether his reaction is stress from being away from the child, or not being able to come to you when called. Now comes the important job of the handler…. Watching. There are many ways to tell your dogs reaction long before they actually act. Body language is a clear give-away as to what they are feeling.

Here are some simple signs that can tell you your dog’s stress level:

Relaxed:

  • Ears forward
  • Mouth open with normal panting
  • Looking around at many things
  • Follows commands easily

Stressed and Reactive:

  • Ears back
  • Excessive panting
  • Pacing
  • Whining, crying, or barking
  • Scruff up on the back of their necks
  • Excessive yawning
  • Stare locked on your child
  • Difficulty following basic commands

If he starts to whine and cry as the child is walking away, a good way for the handler to tell the extent of the dogs reaction is by giving some commands. A dog that is very stressed and reactive may have a difficult time following even basic commands, such as SIT, DOWN and STAY. If he follows the commands easily enough, treat and praise.

If you had some mild difficulty (i.e. he is ‘locked in’ on your child and not listening), try refocusing him by simply walking him around in a few circles with some basic commands and plenty of praise and treats.  If you see him start growling at the other children and you have a difficult time refocusing him, I recommend walking further away, giving him a few commands that are treat-worthy so you end on a positive note, and try again another time (just try not to wait too long in between these sessions.)  Repeat this exercise as many times as it takes until your dog becomes relaxed and non-reactive consistently .

If your dog is aggressively growling at other children, trying to lunge, or exhibits behaviors that are very concerning, I would suggest not trying this exercise again until you consult with a professional trainer. *A good resource to find a trainer near you is the International Association of Canine Professions (IACP). Click on ‘find a professional’ and then enter your zip code for a list of local trainers. 

If your dog was relaxed (non-reactive) the entire time, it is a pretty good indicator that they may do well during play dates, but as an added ‘protection feature’ at the first play date after this exercise is successful, have your gates up, and the dog on a leash the entire time.  Remember, the handler’s job on that first play date needs to be focusing on the dog, regardless of how well it is going. If the adult in charge of the kids needs assistance, ask one of the other parents to help… you never know what action may set off the dog’s reaction, and things can go south very quickly, so now is not the time to ask the handler to help put out snacks.

I will end this with two last thoughts: The best defence is a good offense.

  1. Don’t over-react, but be vigilant and aware. And if neither of you is 100% convinced that you can handle any reaction, it is OK to start off using a muzzle. It is humane, and ensures the safety of everyone around.
  2. And lastly, as I always stress, no matter how great it is going, the children should ALWAYS be supervised around the dog.

An added bonus: You may have other parents there that have no experience with their children interacting with dogs. If they are nervous about there being a dog in your home, they will be impressed with the measures you have taken to ensure their child’s safety.

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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