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This is kind of an “in the moment” post because it illustrates how we tend to “push” kids on dogs when both the kid and the dog are quite happy in their own space.
Here’s how it played out:
- My 14.5 year old dog a week out from surgery to remove a (thankfully benign) tumor
- Nice, well-mannered four year old boy who I love dearly and is a frequent visitor to our home
- Boy’s grandmother who I also love dearly
- And me, of course
- Dog is off by herself in a back bathroom trying to sleep with her inflatable cone around her neck
- Boy comes to visit with his grandmother
- Our new little dog (Grandpa’s dog) comes to the door as I let them in. Betty remains in the bathroom.
Boy: “Where’s Betty?”
Me: “She’s not feeling well so she’s resting in another room.”
Boy: “Oh.” (Looks around for something else to do.)
Grandmother to Boy: “Why don’t you go see where Betty is and say ‘hi’ to her?”
Boy takes a couple of steps down the hall.
Me: “I think she’d rather be by herself today. She’s not feeling well and needs to rest. “
Boy stops and goes back to doing something else.
Grandmother: “OK, then just go look in on her and say a quick ‘hello.’”
Me to Boy: “When a dog is staying by herself, she just needs her own space. If she comes out, we can say ‘hello,” but it has to be the dog’s idea to come over.”
Grandmother seems a little hurt. Boy says, “OK!” and finds something else to do.
Me trying to explain to Grandmother: “I don’t want him learning it’s OK to go in search of dogs in other people’s homes. That’s a habit that can lead to trouble down the road. He may get bitten by a dog that wants to be left alone.”
Grandmother: “He’s just so good and full of compassion when I am sick and I wanted him to see how Betty looks so he will understand.”
Me: “It is particularly important that young children not be encouraged to approach sick dogs. He’s only four years old and will likely come up with his own variations if this is encouraged. I don’t want him practicing this and being praised for it and having it turn into him wanting to do MORE with a dog that doesn’t feel well, like giving a dog a hug…This is not safe for him.”
I’m afraid I hurt my friend’s feelings a little bit. I know she meant well and this is a very nice boy who follows directions and behaves well with my dogs. Nothing bad was likely to happen in that moment. But it’s these individual, seemingly innocuous moments that lead to a young child acquiring the habit of approaching dogs, specifically in this case, dogs who are sick.
This is routinely praised and encouraged by adults as an example of being “good with dogs,” but it sets up these good kids for a higher risk of a bite down the road. The boy was perfectly OK with not going over to my dog — it made sense to him that she didn’t feel well and wanted to be by herself. We could have easily reinforced that idea and made him feel proud to be a good friend to Betty by letting her have her space, and thus made it more likely that he would do the same with someone else’s dog.
Is there ever a situation where an adult should be telling a young child to approach a dog? Think it through before you do it — you may be planting the seeds for future behavior that puts the child at risk. And for what purpose? Good intentions abound, I know, but today’s cuteness may have a price to pay later. No one wants to hear it now, but I can guarantee that when there’s a bite, we would all do anything to go back in time and undo it. Now’s your chance to not let it happen in the first place!
Dogs need space.
Kids should never “close the gap” on dogs.
Pass it on.