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Let’s Recap – Why Is It Important NOT to Magnetize Babies and Toddlers to Dogs?
My concerns with “magnetizing” babies and young children to dogs are:
- The Curse of a Good Dog — even if your dog is perfectly tolerant of anything your children may do, what happens when the good dog has a bad day? What happens when your children do the same things to someone else’s dog who may not be as tolerant?
- Young children are not learning respect for others if they are encouraged to do what they want just because they want to do it, even if they mean well.
- Young children are not developmentally prepared to be successful and safe interacting with dogs. Neither you nor your dogs are likely to agree with what a two-year-old thinks is a good idea.
Previous posts about infants stressed the importance of not prompting your baby to become magnetized to the dog. Early magnetizing is almost always due to parental prompting and encouragement, in my opinion. Yes, babies will naturally be interested in the dog but you don’t have to feed that interest to the point where your child becomes fixated on the dog. That’s where it crosses the line and makes it harder to manage dog and baby once the baby starts crawling and toddling. Because, where do you think that magnetized baby is going to make a beeline for?
Baby Gates Are Your Friends! (And Your Dog’s Friends, Too!)
When you are not able to be actively engaged with your toddler, gates prevent her from finding her own entertainment with your dog (or any other item she cannot yet handle appropriately).
Barbara Shumannfang’s terrific book, “Happy Kids, Happy Dogs” includes a nice section on how to establish and use a Safety Zone for when it’s more appropriate for your dog to be separated in a quiet, enjoyable area. Barbara has graciously shared a summary on her website here.
Kids, too, will often need to be corralled at times throughout the crawling and toddling years. A safe play area for the kids can allow your dog to move freely through the house and for you to casually be on one side or another without fuss. Experienced parents come up with all kinds of creative gating options! We went through a variety of different gating arrangements to suit our children’s different stages. Here are some examples:
Now That My Baby is On the Move, How Do I Make Sure She Doesn’t Magnetize Herself to Dogs?
First thing, of course, is that you are pretty much always going to be right there with your crawler and new walker anyway. Even if you didn’t have a dog, you’re not going to let crawler/toddlers roam throughout the house unattended.
Since you’re right there anyway, use this opportunity to continue to instill “internal prompts” — what do you want your child to think about and rehearse in each encounter with a dog?
For example, when your child crawls in the general direction of your dog, stop and point out the dog. “Look, our dog is resting. When our dog is lying down, we move around. Let’s move around the dog.” Show your child by example what you mean by “around.” Aim for at least a three foot buffer to allow room if the child were to fall or the dog stretch out a leg or roll over.
Tell your child, “You did it! You walked around our dog. She feels safe when you walk around. You are a good friend to dogs!”
If there’s not enough space to get by with a good buffer, teach your children what to do instead. Tell them, “Look, there’s not enough space to make Buster feel safe. Let’s go the other way,” or “When there’s not enough space, I will always help you. Say, ‘Mommy, I need more space to get by Buster,’ and I will call him over to me.”
When you are sitting on the couch and your dog hops up, remark to your child, “Look, Buster feels safe and wants to be with us! Let’s sit quietly and keep our hands down and see if we can get him to stay. You are the kind of kid dogs feel safe with!”
When you establish not touching as normal, everything is easier throughout the toddler/preschool years.
“Training,” by definition, should always be focused on influencing future choices. The effectiveness of your training can easily be tested by noticing the choices the child makes for herself — and it can be maintained by reinforcing those good choices. If you wait for children to do what you DON’T want and then tell them to stop, this is neither responsible parenting nor effective training.
It’s a matter of proactive parenting to build your child’s powers of observation and good judgment. Show her the right things to do ahead of time. If it’s all just, “No, no, Honey, leave the dog alone,” after the child already chooses to mess with the dog, your child will not come away with as strong of a foundation of what TO DO next time – especially if you are not right there.
And, let’s face it, you are not always going to be right there. We are all are quick to blame “lack of supervision” when there is an incident but, while true that dogs and toddlers should not be left to their own devices, real life brings gaps to even the most vigilant parents. In my opinion, the irresponsibility lies not in the moment of distraction but in the neglect to equip our children with skills and habits that will serve them well. (And, of course, “irresponsibility” is too strong of a word when parents don’t know this. But YOU know it now and you can teach your friends until we ALL know what to do.)
What if You Have a Toddler Who is ALREADY Too Magnetized to the Dog?
This is the typical situation when I do a bite/incident consultation. No amount of behavior modification work with the dog is going to be enough if the children continue to pester the dog. Modifying the child’s behavior is always an essential part of success — and it’s not as difficult as it initially appears.
The concept is that the dog is no longer available to the child for interaction.
It seems really hard when you have a kid who is strongly magnetized to your own dog or to other people’s dogs, but, trust me, kids can definitely learn new habits. Especially when we are talking about toddlers, the thing is that they are always onto something new as they go through different stages of development. What seems impossible today can turn around within a month.
In my experience, it takes about two weeks of a dog being present but unavailable in order to begin to break the magnetization. It’s not that dissimilar to kids watching TV. When you cut them off the TV it’s hard at first because they don’t know what else to do, but, soon enough, they take out a game or other activity and are just as happy.
Here are some basic concepts:
- Decide the dog is no longer available. Pretend he has something contagious or imagine your dog with a painful ear condition or a broken leg if that helps focus your attention. The point is to commit to a change in perspective from this day forward.
- Meet your dog’s needs so he can be a good partner. Set yourself up for success by making sure your dog is calm and relaxed. Stock up on Kong or other “food carrier” toys and make sure you have at least three of them stuffed and ready to go each day so you know you can keep your dog occupied as you work with your child. Schedule regular walks and outings, even if you have to get someone to help with this. Remember — a two week intensive effort is much more effective than a little here and there when you get to it.
- Stock up on novel things for your child to do. Fresh crayons, paper, new activities, etc. There are lots of books in the library with fun things to do with children of all ages or research online, like this site. The idea is to have replacement activities to grow your child’s interest in doing other things. Stock up on supplies and ideas so you don’t spend the whole two weeks nagging your child to get away from the dog. That’s not the idea at all!
- Cultivate an internal radar system so you always know where your child is and where your dog is. Whenever they are likely to be within six feet of each other, calmly put yourself in the middle and intercept your child with little or no fanfare. Do not reprimand your baby or make it your baby’s responsibility to “know better.” Be calm and matter-of-fact to avoid drawing attention to this being a “hot button” issue. The dog is just not available, but you are still calm, friendly and kind.
- If the child is persistent about getting to the dog, let the dog relax in peace in his Safety Zone or do something else with your child behind a gate. Or, go for a walk or out for errands – something that changes the picture for a fresh start next time. Never get into a struggle with your child about the dog.
- Instill internal prompts and reinforce efforts at the new behaviors. Remark to your child specifically about what they did, “You slowed down when you saw our dog in the way. You are a good friend to dogs!” or “You are staying in your spot as our dogs lays close to us. You are a kid dogs feel safe with!”
- In my experience, changing the behavior of a toddler seems hard because new parents are, by definition, new at this! There is a lot of conflicting parenting advice out there, too. The best parenting book I’ve come across is called Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky Bailey, PhD. She includes lots of real life scenarios, with calm phrasing for how you might turn conflict into cooperation. You can easily extrapolate to your own situations with your dog and toddler. (It will also help you with managing other people’s children!)
NOTE: If you are concerned about your dog’s behavior to your children or think that your dog is likely to bite, in-person help is from a qualified trainer or behavior consultant is more appropriate than a list of quick tips. Same thing if your child’s behavior is not easily redirected (except, of course, that you would be consulting CHILD behavior experts, not DOG behavior experts!).
What About Kids Magnetized to Other People’s Dogs?
When my older son was a toddler, he became obsessed with basketballs, especially other people’s basketballs. We’d go to the park and he’d say, “Ball! Ball! Ball!” and take off running to the basketball court. Sure enough, many guys would let him play with the ball for a few minutes, and, before I knew it, he was magnetized.
I literally had to carry him out of parks a few times, crying and screaming because he couldn’t have someone else’s basketball. We had to work on being in the presence of basketball-playing guys without pestering them. Is this really that different than kids who are magnetized to dogs? Why do we encourage dog magnetization and feel helpless in the face of, “She just loves dogs!” when we are perfectly capable of setting boundaries in other areas of our children’s lives?
After all, we don’t do that with knives do we? How many parents go to restaurants with their babies and say, “Oooh, look at the shiny knives, Honey!” or take them around and ask if they could touch the the other patron’s knives, “She just loves knives!” Of course not! The first thing parents do is move the knives out of reach without comment and engage their babies in something else to do.
You CAN refuse to “magnetize” your baby to dogs, just like all the other things you expect your baby to coexist with without feeling the urge to reach out and grab. This is especially important with other people’s dogs. Meeting other people’s dogs is a whole series in itself but I am telling you now that people may say, “Yes, you may pet my dog” while they holding their breath, hoping the dog doesn’t bite. Other people are not good at telling your child, “No.”
I’d like to end this series on Magnetization with some encouraging photos and examples of how young children can love dogs and feel a terrific connection with them without being magnetized. It’s not an all or nothing proposition! In fact, the paradox is that you can end up with more and better friendship for the rest of their lives if you do not magnetize your children as babies and toddlers.