Tips for Teaching Kids How to Act Around Unfamiliar Dogs

By Laurie Darroch

Children are curious and fascinated with everything. Unless they have a fear of dogs, naturally they are curious about them as well. They are likely to simply walk up to a dog that is wandering around or being walked by a human companion, without understanding that there are etiquette and safety issues involved when approaching an unknown dog. It’s important to teach children the ins and outs of their own behavior around unknown dogs, as well as how to interact with both the dogs and dog owners.

Approach or Not Approach?

Unless an adult is accompanying a young child, it is a good idea to teach kids not to approach a dog out for a walk with its human without knowing if they should or not. So they won’t be tempted if they come across a dog when you are not around, make sure your child understands not to approach a dog that is running around loose unless they know the dog and the dog knows them. They won’t be bringing home any stray dogs that way either. Sure, the pull is powerful when a child sees a cute dog that they want to meet or play with, but for safety’s sake it is best to teach them not to approach strange dogs on their own, or as an alternative to find an adult they know who will help them.

People out walking their dogs or playing with them in a public place do not necessarily want kids running up to their dog. Even a trained and calm dog may feel unsure with an unknown child and react in a nervous or unfriendly manner. Some dogs just do not do well with strangers, or may feel protective of their human. The dog may be in training and has not learned how to behave correctly around unknown people. The last thing you want is a child or dog with an injury that could have been avoided.

Ask Permission

This is an important rule. Even adults forget to ask permission to approach an unknown dog sometimes when the owner is out with their pet. Some owners would prefer their dog not be bothered. Others may need to help the dog get used to the idea, or prefer to do the leading. Some dogs are not used to children or are not child friendly.

A child needs to learn to ask for permission from the owner if they meet the two of them while they are out and about. They can ask “Is it alright to pet your dog?” or “May I pet your dog?” It is simple courtesy and respect for both the owner and the dog. Whatever the answer is, the child needs to understand that it is a firm answer.

There are also particular dogs such as Seeing Eye dogs that should not be approached. They are well trained and well behaved, but they are working when they are out walking with a visually impaired companion. If that person gives permission after they are asked then it’s fine, but no one should assume it is without asking.

You may find that meeting a person with a seeing eye dog who is willing to communicate with your child will also provide the added bonus of providing a learning experience in understanding and empathy, and might help the child become interested in service type dogs.

The Dog’s Body Language

It isn’t just the human that has a say in the interaction. The dog has some say too. Teach your child to understand the body language the dog exhibits. Their tail may be wagging in happy anticipation, or down in nervous fear.

The dog’s body position is an indicator as well. Is the dog straining to come meet the child or pulling back in fear? Obviously aggressive barking, growling or showing teeth in anger is a definite warning indicator to not approach the dog.

Patience is a Virtue

Once a child gets permission to pet an unknown dog, they need to know the right way to have contact with the dog. Many children are likely to jump forward excitedly. Depending on the dog, this may make them fearful or uncomfortable, or even be seen as a form of aggressive behavior from the child toward the dog. Trust has to be established between dog and child. Dogs interpret human body language as well as voice.

Teach your child to bend down close to the level of the dog. Slowly reach a hand out with the palm down offering the back of the hand, and allow the dog to approach the child at its own pace and comfort level to sniff the offered hand. Show the child how to talk in a calm soothing voice to the dog and to wait patiently. Some dogs may still not want to approach, so don’t push it.

Meeting a dog should be a positive experience, but a child needs to know the right and wrong ways to do it, or whether to do it at all. It is simple enough to teach a child and for them to learn.

Top photo by Janet Hudson
Middle photo by MsSaraKelly
Bottom photo by Tony Alter

Read more articles by Laurie Darroch

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