Mel Ritterman

Peer reviewed

Some people are dog people, some people are kid people, some people are both. Those who are just dog people struggle to understand what all the fuss is about kids, and those who are just kid people don’t understand why and how you can possibly love a dog like a family member. As a mum of three young kids, an IAABC accredited dog trainer, a Family Paws Parent Educator and a crazy dog lover, I get it all! I’m not going to lie; this is my first formal publication as I am usually more of a casual blogger. So I am writing this as a professional in the dog industry but also as a mum who has dealt with the raging hormones, the crazy sleep deprivation that comes from raising babies, the chaos in my house as the kids are growing up, and the guilt that comes with trying to find time for my beloved dog and to ensure he is happy and able to relax.

Mel with her family.

What living and working with kids and dogs actually looks like.

I know that some trainers are not kid people, so I hope this article helps you to understand a little bit more about what parenting can look like when trying to raise dogs and children together. My aim is to help you modify how you relate to your clients who are parents of young children and tailor your plans specifically for them. As a parent we want the time to train our dogs and care for them like we did before having kids, but it’s not always that simple. When you throw kids into the mix, it not only involves training the dogs and training the parents, it also involves training the kids which is often the hardest part .

This article will cover:

  • Management: How it relates to kids and dogs, and why it is so important.
  • Supervision: What it should look like with kids and dogs, and how to teach our clients to do it properly.
  • Empathy: Why do we need it and what should it look like?

Management

Management means using tools such as baby gates, play pens, crates, and tethers to help separate dog and baby/children. Using these tools is key to living with kids and dogs in a safe, happy, and positive way. As a parent it is impossible, and physically exhausting to try, to supervise a dog and child 24/7, so the use of management gives everyone a break, the dog included!

Developmental changes in children

Children are constantly changing and developing, especially in their first three years of life. Parents can learn to understand about this by reading the different parenting resources out there, but dogs can’t. To a dog, each developmental stage that a baby/child goes through is a big deal and sometimes can be frightening or threatening. So, we need to remember this and be mindful of how the dog is feeling through each of these changes, and start to think of ways to make them feel more comfortable at each stage, ahead of time where possible.

Which management tool should you recommend?

  1. Crates are a fantastic safe place for a dog to retreat to. It’s like their very own safe zone! BUT you need to be mindful of the crate once a baby is on the move. Parents need to understand that a crate is for the dog and not for the kids; it is not cute for a child to go in or near the crate. This is the dog’s space. So when a baby is on the move it is important to put the crate in a place that the baby cannot get to, as we never want the dog to feel threatened when in their safe zone. If a client is struggling with their child not respecting these boundaries, in order to keep those little fingers safe, you can suggest using a double layer of management, like putting the crate behind a baby gate. This is a much safer option for all. If the children are old enough, getting them involved in making and decorating a “do not disturb” sign to pop up beside the crate can be a nice way to include them and stress the importance of leaving the dog alone when in the crate.

A great example of how to use the crate for management. Image supplied by Family Paws Parent Education.

  1. Tethering a dog to a parent or a piece of furniture in the early stages of bringing a baby home can be very helpful for some parents and dogs. It allows the dog to stay close to their owner but for the owner to still have some control to ensure everyone’s safety. Plus, it makes it very easy to toss treats to the dog to reward good behaviour. Again, this is not one we recommend once the baby is on the move, as we never want the dog to feel trapped. But there can be exceptions to this, e.g., when working with puppies. I’m currently working with a client who has a 9-week-old Boston Terrier puppy and a 2-year-old daughter. They are having typical puppy issues with nipping, but the puppy is nipping the toddler’s ankles. A 2-year-old is just too young to take direction and know what to do in a situation like this. Additionally with this case, the puppy isn’t happy just yet being separated in their play pen (something they are now working very hard on) so in the meantime I have advised them to tether the puppy to one of the parents to help in times when the puppy gets nippy. A tether should never be seen as punishment; it is actually a way to help a dog to feel like they are still with their owner and not fully separated but at the same time can help manage a situation like this when things get a little bit chaotic.
  1. Play pens are one of my favourite management tools! To be honest, more often than not my clients much prefer using play pens to crates. I love a playpen because they are great for both puppies and dogs! Plus, they are great for kids too. I used a playpen for all my kids. It meant the dog could be freely moving about the house and the baby could be in the playpen – doing tummy time or learning to roll and move around. And I could either be in the playpen with my kids or on the other side with the dog. It’s a great way to include the dog without having them too close. It’s a great tool to use too if you need to work with a dog that doesn’t totally feel comfortable around children, as you can work with the dog and child together to create a positive association whilst having them separated/safe. The child can be on the parent’s lap and tossing treats over the gate with the parent and asking the dog to “find it.” This exercise can also be done with baby gates too. I do find that once the child is able to walk, they often don’t love being confined to a playpen, so be mindful that the child will outgrow the playpen.

This is the playpen I used for all of my kids! It’s fantastic. Comes in different sizes
and shapes – bought off eBay.

  1. Baby gates are the perfect option if you want to have your dog in another room but still want them to be able to see you. They can be used on stairs too, or in the nursery or the kid’s playroom. I love baby gates too as they are very versatile, but not all of them are suitable for containing dogs — make sure the dog cannot jump over the top or open the gate. Feeding time when you have young kids and a dog can be incredibly stressful, so baby gates are a perfect option for this. When my first child started eating food (usually around the 4- to 6-month mark), she would flap her hands off the high chair and my dog would come running and start licking her – she thought it was hilarious and the dog loved it! It became a game, and my baby didn’t end up eating any of her food. Very quickly I realised I needed a management plan in place. If your client has a room off the kitchen, putting a dog behind a baby gate where they can still see what’s going on is a great option for mealtime. I still allow my dog to clean up the mess at the end as that’s a win for both of us. But this gives the child a chance to eat, and ensures the dog doesn’t eat anything unsafe. Plus, you can still toss the dog some treats during mealtime to help get them used to this type of separation.

A nice image capturing the use of a baby gate for management.
Image supplied by Family Paws Parent Education.

There are lots of options to choose from and depending on the dog, the behavioural issues, and the developmental stage of the child. Work together with your client to find the best option for them. And by no means does it need to be limited to one. Having multiple options around the house is great for different situations and life stages.

The advantage of using the management tools listed above is that the dog can still feel included, since they can see what is happening whilst observing from a distance and know that they are safe. In addition, their owner can still reward them by tossing treats for good behaviours: a win-win for all. You can suggest putting the dog outside or in another room if the dog is happy with that form of separation, but depending on the issue and the age of the children, you may need to suggest a baby gate on the door for that double management again. However, I wouldn’t recommend they do this too often. We still want the dog to feel included in the family’s daily activities as long as it is safe to do so.

The key to success with all these options is to have clients plan ahead of time and make sure their dogs are comfortable with these management tools before they need to use them. Using a Kong, a Lickimat, or any chew or treat-dispensing toy can be a great way to help a dog settle into this new type of separation, as long as the child cannot get anywhere near the dog whilst they are enjoying their treat.

A puppy learning to enjoy separation from his humans with a Lickimat in his playpen.

Once the dog learns to be okay with the management tool your client is using, the dog will quickly realise that this is their safe place, the place they can come to relax and get away from the chaos. Plus, the parents can have some peace of mind knowing that baby and dog or kids and puppy have been separated.

Supervision

“Supervise supervise supervise!” “Never leave your child and dog together unattended!” These are some of the things parents hear all the time. But supervision means nothing if you don’t know what you’re looking for. According to Colleen Pelar, “A dog’s only method of communicating is body language. A dog tries to tell us what we need to know. Unfortunately, people don’t recognize the signals a dog sends, so many valuable canine messages get lost in transmission. Consequently, a person can believe that a dog bit without warning, whilst the dog actually gave multiple warnings—but no one listened.”1

So many dogs will tolerate things a child will do to them, like climbing on them, or pulling on a tail or ears. But why should a dog have to tolerate that? It is our job to teach parents that’s not good enough.2 We want dogs to enjoy their interactions. If a dog is merely tolerating something or clearly not enjoying an interaction, a supervising parent should always intervene.

It is so important that as trainers, we start teaching our clients about how dogs communicate and what they need to start looking out for. By no means is this everything but it is some of the key signals that people often miss.

Our job as dog professionals is to help people understand what to look out for when they are supervising! Education is how we can do this. Let’s help make dog owners and parents aware of how their dogs are communicating and then how they can become their dog’s advocate in those times when they are feeling uneasy. Once people know that a simple yawn, rolling their eyes (half-moon/whale eyes), licking the lips, turning their head away, shaking off, excessive grooming such as scratching or licking, quick and shallow breathing, a stiff body, tense facial muscles, and a closed mouth can equal a sign of discomfort, they will never be able to unsee those images.3 It’s so simple once you have the information. But until they do, it really isn’t their fault. With this information, I truly believe that so many dog bites to children could be avoided in the first place.

This is a great example of how a shift in eye contact can make a dog feel uncomfortable. Something so subtle your client might not notice it. And by no means do I think this means the dog is going to “attack” the child. Rather it is important information. A sign of communication and in that moment we need to teach our clients what to do to help give the dog space from what’s making him feel uncomfortable.

Another example of how things can change in a moment. Child gives dog space = dog is happy. Child invades dog space = dog is trying to communicate that he is uncomfortable. His ears are back, he’s turning away and his whole body shifting away. Good intentions are not enough. Even though she is trying to show affection, we shouldn’t allow the dog to have to tolerate this.

According to Family Paws Parent Education there are five different types of supervision. It is also up to us as trainers to make parents aware of these different types. See the image below for a great explanation of these.

Active supervision – which is two adult eyes watching – is what we want people to be doing. However, as we know this is not possible 24/7. That’s where proactive supervision – which is the use of the management tools mentioned above  –comes in.

Far too often I see parents using reactive supervision, which is when they respond after the dog or child are too close and it’s usually in a negative manner, with yelling, screaming or being forceful. But what they don’t realise is that being reactive can create a negative emotional response for the dog and/or child and this is the last thing we want to happen. Hence, this is something that we as trainers really need to stress that they try to stop. We want to create positive associations between kids and dogs. Redirecting the child or the dog away from one another in a positive manner before an incident occurs (where possible) will be much more effective. For example, dog is sleeping, toddler is heading toward the dog to step on the tail, instead of the parent screaming at the child to stop, they should call the child over to them in a really happy enticing way (and yes this happened in my house just the other day and it worked beautifully). Another example, a puppy is heading towards the kids who are relaxing nicely watching tv on the couch, again instead of yelling once the puppy is nipping and jumping, get in before, grab that squeaky toy and call the puppy over to you in a happy voice! Always rewarding the behaviours we want to see more of – that goes for both the dog and the children.

Examples of Reactive Supervision. Image supplied by Family Paws Parent Education.

Empathy

I think once you have been a parent with young kids and a dog, the empathy comes naturally. But to those who are not kid people, it can be much harder to understand. Parents generally have a lot on their plates. You never know how many times their child got them up during the night. Or how many tantrums have happened that morning. Parents of young kids or brand new parents are usually tired and run down. It is part of our job to approach these circumstances being mindful and sensitive to this.

Here are some ideas to keep in mind when working with these families:

  1. Keep it simple. As a positive reinforcement trainer, I know all too well that sometimes there’s no quick fix to the family’s issues. But when you are working with a family that is in the middle of juggling chaos, you need to try and keep your training plan for them as simple as possible.
  1. Break it down for them. Don’t just explain. Show them what you mean and then get them to show you back to make sure they were listening and understood what you said and did.
  1. Send a simple summary after your session. Even if it looks like they are listening and concentrating, they might not be!
  1. Follow up with them. Continue with follow-up steps that are practical, to reiterate what you have said.
  1. Be supportive. I know you are not a counsellor. But sometimes, your client might have called you because they are on the brink of a meltdown or even wanting to rehome their dog, and to them you are the last hope. So be that shoulder to cry on or just be there to listen and help them through it.
  1. Think about what else you can offer them to help take a load off. Do you offer dog walking, grooming, day minding, a walk-and-train session? Have a think about other services that might help this family and perhaps get you a little more business to.

Conclusion

As professionals in the pet industry, it is our responsibility to help implement the right management tools and ensure proper supervision is taking place. We need to educate clients on the importance of understanding body language, so they know what to look out for when supervising their dog and child. We also need to have a great deal of empathy when working with these families in order to get through to them and help them. If we can do this, so many dogs, children, and parents around the world will be so much safer, more relaxed, and happier!

References

  1. Pelar, C. (2009) Kids and Dogs: A Professionals Guide to Helping Families. p.68.
  2. Ritterman, M (2020) Good Intentions Aren’t Enough. We want dogs to enjoy their encounters with children rather than just tolerating them.
  3. Ritterman, M (2020) Our dogs are always communicating let’s learn to understand them and help prevent dog bites to children.

Mel Ritterman is an IAABC accredited dog trainer, a Family Paws® Parent Educator and a busy mum to three young children and her Golden retriever, Cooper. So she absolutely understands the chaos and the juggle that comes with running a busy house with kids and dogs together. Her business, Cooper and Kids specialises in creating safe, happy, and positive relationships between babies, kids, and dogs.