Updated: Sep 19
In a recent talk on “coping in hard times,” renowned veterinary behaviorist Dr. Chris Pachel expanded on something author Dr. Brené Brown famously talked about in her book Dare to Lead: “People are doing the best that they can…with the tools that they have in that moment” (emphasis is mine). That last bit he said is really important. So especially in this moment – this crazy, unprecedented moment – it is my goal to give you as many tools as possible to be successful in raising kids and dogs together (and staying sane while doing so).
A visibly frustrated mom is talking on the phone and working on a laptop at the kitchen table while holding a young toddler on her lap.
With most of the nation functioning under “Stay at Home” policies, many families are going a bit stir-crazy. The majority of parents are scrambling as it is, trying to figure out what to do regarding homeschooling and virtual learning while many are also working from home, but those with kids and dogs may be scrambling a bit more. As we all know, young kids and dogs alike thrive on routines (even if they are flexible), but whatever your routine was, it has flown out the window. While you try out different routines to see what works for your family, let’s keep the needs of all household members (both two-legged and four-legged) in mind.
Here are some tips help keep your dog and your kids both happy and safe in the coming weeks and months:
Use physical barriers (crates, gates, fences, and locked doors) when you can’t be actively engaged in direct supervision. While we want to believe that our kids and dogs will both follow directions at all times, we know that’s simply not realistic. Right now we are all being forced to get more done with everyone in the same place, in a completely different situation than before. I have already heard several stories in the past couple of weeks about kids getting hurt by siblings when they were playing together as mom or dad were working from home. This is not because their parents were ignoring them, but simply because it is impossible to focus on two things at once. Add a dog in the mix, and the risks for injury to all parties are even higher, no matter how well-intentioned the interaction was. Instead, try figuring out if it’s best to keep the kids or the dog in your make-shift office with you, then keep the other party in another room and figure out ways to keep everyone self-entertained until you can do Tip #5. Also, please make sure that your kiddos can’t reach/bother your dog if he is crated (this sometimes requires secondary fencing/barriers).
Everyone gets their separate crazy times. While it may be tempting to have the kids wear out the dog and vice/versa, running around the yard laughing and squealing can scare sensitive dogs and over-excite others. It’s very likely to incite chase, especially in terrier breeds and herding breeds, and no one needs to get knocked down or have their ankle or tushie nipped. Instead, give the dog a long-lasting chew, such as a bully stick or a frozen stuffed Kong in their Family PawsⓇ Success Station while your kiddos get their ansties out, and have the kids do their remote learning homework or give them a little screen time while you burn off some extra energy with the dog outside. Once everyone has taken the edge off, you could try some “indoor agility” or perhaps a family walk together (not all dogs/families should try group walks; for dogs with fear or reactivity issues, please consult with your trainer).
Save dress up for the dolls and stuffies. While it may be tempting to let the kids have a tea party with the pups, the vast majority of dogs are stressed when in costumes (look for any of the following: ears back/down, crouched posture, leaning/turning away, wide eyes with the whites showing OR eyes squinted with head down, avoiding eye contact, licking their lips and/or yawning, panting, or tail tucked between legs and/or sitting on their tail). These stress signs apply to any/all interactions, including those with adults. Instead, have your kiddo put on a fashion show and have your dog be the judge. BONUS: Family members wearing various kinds of outfits and costumes is actually a great game to prepare puppies and dogs that are new to your family for when they will be meeting more people out in public once our daily routines start to resemble more of what they used to be.
Practice showing affection in species-appropriate ways. While kids may love showing their affection to their loved ones with hugs and kisses (that’s my two year old’s favorite thing to do with me first thing in the morning – hug/kiss/hug/kiss/hug/kiss), both of those actions are threatening to a dog, and that’s one of the top reasons kids get bitten by dogs (75-80% of bites occur in the home by a known dog, most often in the face and neck). On the other hand, most dogs love to jump on us as a greeting, and most of us (particularly small children) don’t take kindly to getting scratched and/or knocked over. Instead, have your kids give your dog a kiss The Family DogⓇ Way: kiss their hand and then gently wipe the kiss on the dog’s back. For preventing your dog from jumping up, you can treat him for “four on the floor” before he can even start jumping, and you can teach the dog to bow, shake a paw, or even bring a toy to you instead of jumping up. I’m now offering online trick classes through Zoom as a boredom buster for families and dogs alike!
Parent-led activities are always safest (and they are a great way for the entire family to bond). While it is common for parents to want the kids to be in charge of the dog, from feeding to bathing to walking and exercise, it’s important to note that the vast majority of kids aren’t ready for those kinds of responsibility until they are at least 12 years old (sometimes even older, depending on the kid). Studies have shown that young kids can’t reliably recognize dog body language so it is critical that we practice recognizing all kinds of body language in our own dogs with our kids. Instead, give your kids certain tasks to do (such as poop-scooping and measuring dog food) under light supervision, and do other tasks and activities that include physical interaction (such as walks and training) together with awake, active supervision. See below for some suggestions.
Fun activities to try with the kids and pups:
Disclaimer: Suggested ages are the minimum age that a child might be capable of doing the given activity. Some children may not be ready at the “suggested age,” and all activities involving kids and dogs will require active participation from an adult. Some activities may require temporary restraint of the dog (leash, crate, gate, fencing, or being placed in another room).
Fill and freeze Kongs together. You can mix some plain yogurt, plain baked yam, canned dog food, or other mushy substance with their kibble to help it stick together when frozen. Just make sure all ingredients are dog-safe; no grapes/raisins, onions, chocolate, nuts, citrus, fats, salt, sugar, xylitol/other sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners, etc, and beware of foods cooked with herbs/spices. You can find free recipes on the Kong website. (Suggested age 2+ years.)
Make feeding time fun for everyone. Help your kiddo measure the correct amount of kibble for your dog and then let them toss/scatter it in your yard for your pup to search out, or place the kibble in a puzzle toy. Just be sure to help your pup wait while your child tosses the food or sets down the puzzle, and then help your child wait and watch from a distance while your pup eats the food. INDOOR VERSION: Turn out the lights for movie time and scatter the kibble on the floor. Your pup can scavenge for his food until he’s ready for sleep while you and the kids snuggle up for a movie. (Suggested age 2+ years.)
Play hide and seek. Give the kids a handful of very small treats. Gently restrain your dog while your kiddos hide, then call out one of the kid’s names (if more than one are playing). They should call your dog and make kissy noises to help the dog find them (but start off with super easy hiding spots). When the dog finds them, they can praise and pet the dog and then drop 5-10 treats on the ground for your dog to eat (remind your child not to pet the dog while he eats). Then they can call out the next child’s name. (Suggested age 5+ years.)
Make walks a team effort. If you have a very easy-going dog who doesn’t pull on leash, you can have your child hold a 4ft leash to walk the dog while you hold a secondary 6ft leash as a backup. (Suggested age 6+ years. Children under 12 should never walk a dog unattended due to the risk of other dogs, coyotes, etc.)
Keep playtime stress-free. For fetch, you can have your child stand on a step stool and practice under-handed tosses of a ball, while you cue the dog to drop the ball and then bring the ball back to your child to toss again. (Suggested age 3+ years; kids 6+ may not need the stool, depending on the size of dog.)
Create an obstacle course in your house for both of them to complete – you stand about 10ft away and treat your dog for watching calmly on-leash while your child completes the course, and then your child can guide your pup through the course with their kibble (dropping a piece for your dog to eat after each obstacle). Courses might include different types of surfaces to walk on, furniture to crawl under, couch cushions to climb over, low bars to jump over (a broomstick laid on the floor works great), cones or buckets to walk around, etc. Get creative, but keep it safe! (Suggested age 4+ years.)
Make a treasure hunt for your dog. While your dog waits inside, have your kids make a “Hansel and Gretel” trail of kibble to an outdoor dig box. Then have the kids bury some of your dog’s non-fuzzy toys and maybe even a few treats. When they are done, have the kids stand back and watch as your dog discovers what treasure they left for him! INDOOR VERSION: Gather up towels, rags, and small blankets to make a big dig pile and have the kids bury toys and treats throughout the pile. (Suggested age 3+ years).
Make a giant treat roll. While your pup is contained (crate, gate, pen/fence, or other room), lay out an old towel and have your kids space out a few treats and some of your dog’s daily amount of kibble across the entire towel. Then help the kids roll up the towel, trapping the treats inside. Once it’s ready, you can have your kids stand 5+ feet away to watch while you release the dog to investigate the towel and find his goodies! (Suggested age 2+ years).
Play Kibble Fetch. Measure out your dog’s kibble and place it in an open kid-safe container on a counter or table. Set up a step stool or other sturdy, safe, raised surface for your toddler to stand on next to the counter or table. Each time your pup looks at your child, have him/her toss a piece of kibble (you can encourage them to say “FIND IT” when tossing the food), but don’t worry about your child’s timing. This game is all about fun, bonding, and exercise, not obedience skills. (Suggested age 2+ years). A variation for older kids (age 5+ years) is The Family DogⓇ‘s Touch & Go! – have your child cue the dog to do a hand-touch, say YES! when his nose touches their hand, then toss the kibble. It’s a great way to bond and work on Come-when-called!
Guided Teach by Family Paws Parent EducationⓇ. Have treats at the ready at sit on a couch, chair, or bed with your toddler on your lap, turned slightly toward your center so that they aren’t facing your dog-head on. (For a slightly older child, they can stand on a step stool next to you.) Call your dog over to your side and give them a treat. Now, take your child’s hand in your hand and help your child give your dog training cues with guided hand signals (such as Sit and Down). For toddlers in your lap, you will treat your dog for correct responses while your toddler verbally praises the dog, and for older children, you can hand them a treat to drop on the floor for the dog (again, they can remind the dog to “FIND IT”). (Suggested age 2+ years).