“Holding” Dogs For Children to Pet

The director of the organization Suzanne volunteers for once each month was telling her that another volunteer – we’ll call her Jane – had recently adopted a dog from a local animal shelter.  The director – “Ann” – and her two young boys – one around 7 years old, the other between 2 and 3, had visited Jane shortly after Jane acquired the dog.  Ann was describing how Jane “held” the dog so the kids could pet him.  The dog was husky size, so “holding” probably meant restraining the dog by the chest or collar.   

This is probably the worst possible way for a dog to meet two young unfamiliar children.  We know that dogs most often bite children because they are fearful or anxious around them.  When a dog owner or parent restrains the dog for petting, the dog cannot escape or avoid the children should he feel the need to do so.  When escape is impossible, it’s common for dogs to become threatening or aggressive in an attempt to put distance between themselves and the children. 

This illustrates what current research has uncovered – people are not very knowledgeable about what constitutes safe interactions between children and dogs.  In our recent webinar, “Developing Safe Relationships between Dogs and Children” we described research results from Dr. Ilana Reisner, a veterinary behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania.  Relevant to this discussion, Dr. Reisner found most dog owners and parents surveyed thought dogs should tolerate petting from unfamiliar children.  This is a dangerous belief.

Rather than holding dogs still for children to approach and pet, the situation should be reversed.  A child should be told to stand quietly while a dog approaches.  If the dog is reluctant to approach the child, it is a clear signal the dog isn’t comfortable with the child and interaction between the two should not be forced.

Instead, as the child stands still, she can drop tidbits or gently toss them in the dog’s direction, to entice the dog to approach with a trail of treats.  There is no need, and in fact we do not recommend, holding a hand out to the dog.  Both children and adults should keep their hands and arms close to their bodies, palm up and open as the dog nears.  If the dog touches the hand, then it may be safe for the child to gently scratch the dog under the chin.  For first time greetings between unfamiliar individuals, that should be sufficient interaction to start. 

This introduction scenario is much safer because the dog is making the choice as to whether he wants to approach the child, rather than being forced to allow something he isn’t comfortable with as the owner "holds" him.

To learn more about the latest research on safe dog-child relationships and how to promote them, you can purchase our 90 minute On Demand webinar “On Demand” for $27.

OR join our BehaviorEducationNetwork.com subscription site providing scientific education about pet behavior and you get unlimited access to this and TONS of additional multi-media, scientific education for just $25/month.  Discover all the benefits of a BEN membership on BEN's  information page.

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