Summer is in full swing, and as such, people are out and about enjoying the few months we get of warm (or in terms of this Summer-HOT!) weather. During these months, dogs and children may come into closer contact then they normally would in the winter months and learning how to ensure safe interaction between the two is of great importance.
Both dogs and children tend to be very curious, with kids sometimes approaching dogs without fully understanding (they have simply not been taught) how to successfully do so. As with everything, knowledge is key. Children must be taught how to approach (or not to approach) dogs:
Kids at the Dog park
I am often encountering well-meaning parents bringing their very young children to off leash dog parks. I have always found this genuinely concerning, as the potential for injury is quite high. Off leash dog parks are designated fenced in areas where our canine counterparts can enjoy the freedom of running and playing off leash in a secure environment. This freedom is not often possible anywhere else due to by laws regarding off leash dogs. The dog park often gets a bad rep as dog fights CAN occur and anytime you have a group of dogs (not always familiar to one another) there can be “disagreements,”–ensuring you are aware of the warning signs can prevent a fight from occurring in the first place.
Adding children to a situation where humans are not always aware of the warning signs to look out for (re: stressed-out dogs) can be a recipe for disaster. Add in a large group of unfamiliar dogs with varying temperaments and this can lead to a tragedy.
I have witnessed countless times parents look on as their young children approach very obviously stressed dogs. Often these children have not been taught the safe way to approach a dog and witnessing these encounters always makes me very nervous. As much as our dogs are family members, we need to remember that they are not humans. We cannot always expect them to react to stressful situations the way we would. Dogs give their own signals to let it be known they are uncomfortable, and it is up to us to learn those signals and teach our children to do the same. Not all dogs have been exposed to children.
I passionately believe children 5 and under should not be in a dog park environment. The risks for injury are simply too high. Babies should under no circumstance ever be taken into a dog park.
Dangers to Children in Dog Off Leash Parks
I and countless others in my profession have been knocked down countless times by groups of dogs running after each other. Dogs seem to lose all sense of direction when they play and usually come barrelling right towards human legs. This has led to serious injury in adults (popped kneecaps, torn ACL’s, etc.) Imagine this same scenario with a young and tiny child. The result is disastrous.
Dog bites can also be a risk when children are brought into a dog park environment. Dogs have many ways to show us that they are uncomfortable, the trouble is that many humans are not sure how to read these signs and signals. Children are very unlikely to see these warning signs. Unfortunately, since these warning signs are often missed, a stressed-out dog may resort to snapping or biting in order to get its message across- “I am not comfortable” “Please give me space”.
Aside from the physical dangers associated with young children at a dog park there is also the aspect of potentially traumatizing a young child. A dog bite or dog attack of any type can seriously alter a child’s perspective on dogs well into adulthood. Fostering a mutually respectful relationship between children and dogs is a beautiful thing.
Teaching Children to Interact with Dogs
Some parents are well intentioned when they bring their child to a dog park. They may believe the early exposure will help their child overcome any potential fears. While this is a nice thought, a better controlled environment would be much better suited for a young child.
Its best that to expose children to dogs early, parents find a friend or family member with a dog. This way the interaction can be done in a controlled environment without many variables that can lead to scary, unnecessary situations. Teaching children early on how to properly approach a dog can prevent many unnecessary situations from occurring.
Below are two immensely helpful posters created by the late Sophia Yin, world renowned veterinarian and applied animal behaviourist. They beautifully illustrate how we can teach our children to act around dogs to create an environment safe for all involved-not only in the dog park but in all interactions.