Throughout 2015, we will regularly release blog and media items that relate to educating readers, but more particularly children, in how to live in harmony with dogs that enter their lives. This article is aimed at providing parents, carers and teachers with the information required to teach children how to approach a dog.
Why teach a child how to approach a dog?
Children have no natural fear of animals, only learnt ones; they do however possess a natural curiosity about animals. Most children have positive encounters with dogs; these positive encounters create associations and learned behaviours.
Here’s a fictional example.
Little Mary’s gran has a dog called Fido who is balanced and socialised. All of their time together is controlled and managed, as a result they have a great relationship based on mutual trust and friendship. Mary can hug Fido, feed him treats and play with his doggy toys. All of little Mary‘s experiences of dogs have been with Fido; they have all been positive and as a result she is very enthusiastic about petting dogs.
Based on the above, can little Mary be expected to approach and interact with other dogs in the same way she does with Fido?
The answer is unequivocally NO.
Little Mary has created an association between dogs and good experiences. She has also learned that dogs can have their space invaded and that she can give and/or withdraw their food and possessions. She will continue to approach and interact with all dogs in the way she does with Fido. In most cases this will be fine, but in some she may be at serious risk of being bitten by an unsocialised, nervous or possessive dog. All children must be taught how to approach, read and pet dogs safely.
A step-by-step guide to approaching dogs
The first thing to teach a child is that all dogs are different; some dogs are confident, happy and well socialised, whilst others can be scared, nervous and unpredictable. Some are happy and confident in some situations, yet scared and nervous in others. Therefore, each dog’s response to being approached will be different. Below you’ll find a step-by-step guide to teaching children how to approach a dog. These each step relate to the poster that is attached below. This poster can be downloaded and printed to display in a child’s bedroom, a school classroom or printed as a handout. Please use the poster and the lesson text together as a complete teaching aid. You should teach your child to follow each of these steps every time they approach a dog:
- Never approach a dog that is not under it’s owners control – This includes dogs that are off lead in the park, dogs that are tied up outside shops or schools or even your neighbours dog in the front garden.
- Always ask the owners permission before approaching a dog – Be calm and polite when asking permission. Do not excite the dog. A dog’s owner will know how their dog reacts to being approached. If the owner says “No” you should thank the owner and walk away calmly.
- Let the dog come to you – If the owner agrees to being approached, gently offer a hand in the direction of the dog. If the dog wants to meet you it will come and sniff your hand. If the dog doesn’t come to you it probably doesn’t want to be petted, you should thank the owner and walk away calmly.
- Read the dog’s signals – A dog cannot talk, but it can give very clear signals to tell you if it is comfortable with your approach. Before you start to pet the dog you should look for the following signals:
Positive (Good) Signals: Wagging tail, open mouthed, tongue out, rubbing against you, sitting or lying beside you, climbing up your leg.
Negative (Bad) Signals: Moving away from you, cowering or retracting from you, barking, showing their teeth, tail tucked between back legs, tail up and curved over like a scorpion’s tail, fur along the ridge of back standing up.
If you are receiving only positive signals you can move on to petting the dog. You should continue to monitor these signals throughout your interaction with the dog. If at any point you see any of the negative signals you should slowly step back from the dog, thank the owner and walk calmly away.
- Petting the dog – Dogs should be approached for stroking from the side. Gently stroke the fur on their back in a head to tail direction or in the area of the dog’s chest between it’s collar and front legs.
Never lean over the top of a dog. Never stroke the top of a dog’s head. Never pull on or play with a dog’s tail or ears. Never grab or hug a dog
You should continue to read the dog’s signals throughout your interaction. If at any point you see any of the negative signals you should slowly step back from the dog, thank the owner and walk calmly away.
- Say “thank you” – After petting the dog slowly step back from the dog, thank the owner and the dog and walk away calmly.
Download this text as a pdf to print and use when teaching your child How to Approach Dogs – Lesson Text
Download this poster as a pdf to print and use whilst teaching your child or to display in your home How to approach a dog – Poster
Practice and reinforce
By following the above steps to introducing a child to a dog, you are creating a new learnt behaviour. You should teach your child to follow these steps each and every time they approach a dog, even if it is your own dog in your own house for 2 reasons:
- Repetition reinforces the new behaviour to a point where it becomes natural. Your child subconsciously become a good reader of a dog’s signals and be able to assess the risks in approaching it.
- A dog’s reaction to being approached will change depending on many factors. A dog you approached and stroked on your way into the park may have had a fight with another dog and become scared and nervous whilst you had a picnic. A dog you see and stroke every day may be feeling unwell and not want to be stroked. As a result, you should always restart the steps if you wished to re-approach a dog.
We hope this guide provides you with the tools required to teach your child how to approach a dog.
We are keen to hear your views and comments on the above article, please feel free to add them below.
Contribution by Matthew at Heppiness