Children and Dogs: Two Very Different Animals

by Julia Robison, BDAR TOP DOG Volunteer

The other night, my husband and I took our three dogs (two of our own, one foster) to Cheyenne's dog park adjacent to the animal shelter. Our dogs have a great time running around off-leash. While dog parks are an excellent place for dogs to socialize and play, there are some rules that people should remember to follow for the sake of everyone’s (especially children’s) safety.

Here are some general dog park rules of etiquette:

1.) Watch your dog's behavior. You know your dog better than anyone. Intervene by walking over and physically interrupting if your dog starts behaving inappropriately (acting possessive over tennis balls, humping other dogs, playing too rough, etc).

2.) Pick up your dog's poop.

3.) If you don't know that your dog pooped, you're not watching it closely enough. Go back to rule 1.

4.) Please don't bring your small children into the dog park. This is a rule for most dog parks, and done for safety reasons. Keeping children separated from strange, excited dogs is much safer for both the kids and the dogs. 

5.) Leashing your dogs in the dog park is a recipe for disaster, unless you're just arriving or leaving. If your dog is leashed, your dog is unable to safely meet unleashed dogs. It's scary for you and for them. The dogs are trying to get to know each other in a complicated canine body-language dance, or just trying to play. They can't do either if one of the dogs is connected to you and the others aren't.

6.) Dog parks are generally separated into two play areas…one for large dogs and one for smaller dogs. Again, this is done with safety in mind. Don't bring your little dogs into the big dog area unless you're comfortable with them getting tackled or stepped on (and they're probably not comfortable with this, even if you are!) 

I have personally had an incident related to a child in the dog park. An approximately 5-year-old boy started chasing our dog, then running away, and then waving his hands in her face when she chased him. The child’s behavior was clearly agitating our dog, and she was seconds away from reacting.  Fortunately, my husband and I were able to intervene before the child was bitten. I'm fairly certain that the child's mother, who watched the whole incident unfold, had no idea what could have happened. Of course, I don't blame the child for his behavior, but this story illustrates the importance of parents educating themselves and their children on dog behavior and body language

A helpful infographic from Dr. Yin.

Plenty of articles on children and dogs have been written by dog behaviorists. Dr. Sophia Yin is my favorite and includes some cute cartoons to illustrate her points. A Google search on "children and dogs" will also bring up some great links. Humans and dogs speak a very different language, and we must be cautious to learn dog language and teach it to our children. Dogs speak volumes with their body language. If the dog stiffens its body, shows the whites of its eyes, or lowers its tail, the dog is uncomfortable. It's hard for a child to see this without being taught. However if the dog is uncomfortable for long enough, it will react and will most likely bite. It's just a matter of time. 

Please read the linked article above and take it to heart. Expecting dogs not to react to frightening, irritating or painful experiences is unrealistic and ultimately going to be dangerous. Teaching children to respect the boundaries of all creatures is going to make a happy life for everyone.