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How to Teach Kids Safe Dog Handling

If you live with or around dogs, teaching the young ones pet etiquette is a must

In the eyes of a small child, dogs are usually just another thing to pull on, climb on, run screaming from and point at while yelling, “Doggie! Doggie! Doggie!” 

While some canines might not mind any of that — hell, they might even like it — others require a certain degree of respect and consideration. But how do you teach your kids proper dog etiquette so they can become good dog owners one day? 

Elizabeth Verdick, author of the Tails Are Not for Pulling series of children’s books, helped me put together a few safe dog-handling tips that you can teach your young ones.

Set a Good Example

Kids do as their parents do, so showing them how you interact with dogs is a great starting point. “Young children need to learn that animals are living, feeling beings,” Verdick says. “Children watch parents for cues, so you can show how you approach a dog calmly, and treat it with care and respect.”

Teach Them Basic Behavioral Cues

Dogs do a pretty good job of letting you know how they feel, so teaching kids to observe and react to simple cues is an easy way to keep them out of trouble. “Your child can learn that a wagging tail signals a dog is happy and excited, a growl means ‘stand back’ and that barks have different meanings — a warning, for example, or an invitation to play,” Verdick explains. “Encourage your child to spend time observing animal behavior. Our pets can’t talk, but they have their own special ways of communicating.”

Supervise, Supervise, Supervise

Even if your kid seems like a natural dog whisperer, it’s important for you to keep an eye on them — and the dog — while they play, especially if this is a new pooch. “Children have different reactions to dogs: One child might show fear, while another is eager to play and make friends,” Verdick explains. “Either way, the introductions and interactions need to be supervised. Teach your child to approach animals slowly and calmly. If you’re on a walk or at the park, and someone has a dog your child wants to pet, be sure your child knows to ask first: ‘Can I please pet your dog?’ Watch to see that the dog has the ability to sit calmly while being introduced to your child. If the dog is untrained, your child could get scared or hurt.”

Emphasize Gentleness

You can never really be too gentle with a dog, so there’s no harm in telling your kid to be extra careful while handling one. “Let children know that dogs may not appreciate some of the ways that humans show love — giant hugs or smothering kisses (although, some dogs like this),” Verdick says. “Dogs often prefer a gentle scratch behind the ears or a chest rub. Teach kids that hitting, pulling tails, grabbing ears and so on hurts a dog and leads to distrust.”

Use Positive, Catchy Sayings

Sometimes you just need to simplify with kids, and that may mean coming up with memorable lessons that will stick in their brains. “I personally like to use a lot of positive language when working with kids and dogs,” says Verdick. “It’s more effective and kinder than shouting ‘no’ all the time. You can use positive phrases as you teach your toddler or preschooler: ‘Touch gently,’ ‘tails are not for pulling,’ “pets are for loving, not teasing.’”

If All Else Fails, Just Wait Until Your Kids Grow Up

Kids are more than enough to handle, and sometimes it’s just best to wait until you bring a whole new life into the house. “The holidays are a time when families start thinking of giving a pet as a gift,” says Verdick. “But with all the excitement and busy-ness of holiday time, bringing a new animal into the home can lead to more chaos. Consider waiting until a calmer time, and give careful consideration to what type of dog would be the best fit for your family. One that needs a lot of running? A more sedate breed? Big, small, medium? Long-haired, short-haired? Do you have time for training? Are your kids truly ready for a new pet and the responsibilities that come with it? Also, consider adoption from a shelter — lots of wonderful dogs are in shelters, just waiting for a family of their own.”

Whether you have your own dog or not, if you can manage all this, your kid will be the neighborhood dog whisperer in no time.