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I’m 6 months pregnant and own two basset hounds, and have been reading your magnetization posts with much interest!
I do have one question – how important do you think it is to only let babies/small kids see their parents interacting with the dogs in “safe” ways? I’ll admit to sometimes cuddling/playing with my dogs in ways that I wouldn’t want my kids repeating with strange dogs (or even my dogs, if they’re in a bad mood) – things that my dogs will tolerate or even enjoy, but a) not all dogs will and b) I’m an adult who understands dog body language and can back off if they don’t like it. (For example, my dogs seem to love having their heads enclosed and cuddled – freak dogs, I know. Many dogs would absolutely hate that!)
Is it enough to make sure the kids are not magnetized, but not limit what they see of our interactions with the dog? Or do I need to cut out anything I wouldn’t want my child mimicking if they’re within sight?
These are great questions — you’re really thinking things through!
The short answer is, yes, you should demonstrate to your children only safe, appropriate ways of interacting with a dog. If you don’t want to see it pop up in your child’s repertoire, don’t suggest it by your own behavior. “Do as I say, not as I do” is rarely an effective strategy.
The longer (and more practical for real life) answer is, I think, much more interesting and need not preclude enjoying your dog or finding age-appropriate participation for your child.
Just like everything else in parenting, you decide where to draw your lines. There are lots of things your children will see you do that they are not yet allowed to do:
- Drive a car
- Use the stove
- Put makeup on
- Paint the walls
- Use power tools
Then, there are those behaviors adults may choose to engage in that we can mostly agree are reasonable to avoid in the presence of young children:
- Getting drunk
- Using profanity
- Even eating snacks that the kids can’t have
- (I don’t need to keep this list going, do I? Use your imagination!)
We do not feel bad about “depriving” our children of adult experiences in one way or another. There are many things that adults do that children do not get to do. This should not be a new concept for children or parents.
What’s different with a dog is that we think we want that “relationship” between the dog and young child and forget that we don’t get to make that happen. With young children under five years old, particularly as new parents, we don’t even know what we’ve got to work with. They are not themselves yet, if that makes sense.
So, In Which Category Do YOUR Dog Interactions Fall?
Be thoughtful about what you do with your dog in the presence of young children. You have to look at what you want to do, knowing children’s tendency to mimic, and decide if your desired activity with your dog is more like smoking marijuana (i.e., do it in the garage, out of sight of your baby) or cooking dinner (restrict/supervise access until child can be safe, find safe ways to include child):
How might my child be hurt if he/she did this with my dog or anyone else’s dog?
Will my dog, or anyone else’s dog, LIKE it if my child did this with them?
Does seeing me do this with my dog make it more likely that my child will be “magnetized” to my/other dogs?
Am I able to keep my child from mimicking this behavior through preventive supervision and/or use of Safety Zones and gates? At all times? Even if I have a second baby and there’s a big poop explosion to tend to in the other room?
Is it practical to change what I’m doing or do it apart from the child?
For me, the key is to avoid getting caught up in the fantasy that “my” child is going to be more advanced or I’m just going to be a “better” parent and be able to raise a child that does exactly what I say all the time. With babies and toddlers, you just don’t know what crazy variations will make sense to them as they are growing into their judgment.
Regardless, no one gets to escape developmental stages, and you can’t make a child be ready before she’s ready. Assuming appropriate parental guidance and support, she’s going to walk when she’s ready to walk, talk when she’s ready to talk and have self-control and empathy when she’s developmentally able to recognize and choose another’s welfare over her own.
In the meantime, parents choose what they will make available to their children to interact with and what behaviors are more or less likely to crop up in their children based on how appealing those behaviors appear. Since we want our dogs and children to live in close proximity, but a bite can happen in a split second, we as parents have a responsibility to pay attention to what we’re teaching our children through our own actions.
(Does anyone need to be reminded why this is all so important? If your child makes a mistake and prompts a reaction from your dog, you may or may not feel safe keeping them together. Rehoming a dog that has snapped at a child is heartbreaking at best and, at worst, can be a death sentence for your dog. Your dog needs you to pay attention to this!)
What Makes a Parent’s Behavior Appealing and Thus Likely to be Mimicked?
This is based on my opinion and my distilled experience so take it as things to ponder for yourself more than something set in stone from an “expert.” It really all gets back to thoughtful parenting and observing the results of what you do vs. what you hoped to get across.
- Making it “Off-Limits.” If it’s always, “No-No,” there are going to be some kids, at some stage of development, who gravitate towards that exact behavior because they are not allowed to do it or because they are angry with you.
- Making it Look Really Fun. Obviously, if you are having a great time, kids want to do it, too. It’s a double whammy if it looks fun AND you say they can’t do it.
- Reinforcing/Magnetizing Child’s Behavior. It’s very sweet when your young child tries to do what you do with your dog out of concern and love. How you respond to that expression will determine the direction it takes. You may intend to praise the impulse to kindness and end up with more behavior your dog may not like.
- Expression of Love. If you are showing lovey-doveyness with your dog with hugs and kisses, your child is going to notice and learn to display feelings of love in the same way – which, as we’ve discussed, will not always be received as intended.
- Expression of Anger. This probably can do with a post of its own, but I especially caution parents to pay attention to how they display frustration with their dog. Children should never see parents “disciplining” the dog.
What About When the Dog Loves/Needs Our Interaction?
I get these situations a lot in my classes – where pet owners naturally worry that their dogs will miss being in their laps or their snuggle time or wrestle time.
Absolutely, you need to meet your dog’s needs and your dog needs to know he or she can connect with you. That doesn’t change now that there are babies and toddlers in your life. However, the form this takes can change, as can the timing or location, without changing the substance.
Here are some things to consider:
- In my experience, “needy” dogs don’t need whatever it is they want you to do in that moment as much as they need to build coping skills and expand their options for other things that can help them feel happy and safe. For example, a dog that HAS to be in your lap would really benefit from learning a “Relax on a Mat” behavior or confidence-building tricks or other skills so she is happy to be in your lap when it’s available but able to be OK when it’s not.
- Dogs often like other activities just as well as the one that seems unsafe for a baby to mimic. We just get into habits with our dogs and don’t get around to trying other things. Experiment! For example, I discovered that our dog loves a one-handed scratch down her spine and she will sometimes present herself for it. That’s an easy, casual way to connect with my dog.
- If you call little attention to what you do with your dog, there is a greater probability that your child will take little notice. After all, when you are cooking, do you jump around and say in a happy voice, “I’m turning the burner on! Yay!” There is nothing about your demeanor that says cooking is so very exciting, but it can be very different in the way we often interact with our dogs, isn’t it? Be more sly and your kids may not even notice!
- Really, most activities can be managed to be done out of sight of young children at one time or another during the day so you don’t have to completely give up a prized activity. I’d say, “Isn’t that what parking the kids in front of the TV is for?” but I don’t want to open THAT particular can of parenting worms! (Just kidding, but experienced parents know what I’m talking about.)
I Want It All!
Well, guess what? You can almost get your wish with some forethought and attention.
When I talked about some of this in class, one Dad said (slightly scornfully at first), “What do you mean? Are you saying I have to hide my baby whenever I want to throw the ball for my dog?”
Of course not! What I’m saying is that Daddy’s activity with the dog should not be presented as the most fun thing that could ever happen or, conversely, as the “forbidden fruit” the child can’t have.
If you choose to do something with your dog while your child is present, you connect with your child as much as you connect with your dog. You are with your child while you are with your dog. Make the child’s role clear and reinforcing so your child does not yearn for your role.
I told the ball-throwing Dad:
If you are going to play with your dog around your baby, make it fun for the baby to be YOUR partner. Set the baby up in a safe spot — in a high chair or in a playpen or behind a gate. Engage your child with you: “When Buddy picks up the ball, we say, ‘Yay, Buddy!’ and high-five each other. Are you ready? Do you think he’s going to get it? He did it! GREAT cheering, son – High Five!”
The immediate connection is between the parent and the child, not between the child and the dog. To the child, the fun comes from the parent.
That Dad in class really got it and was smiling as he pictured the fun he’s going to have with both his dog AND his baby.
As always, that is my wish for you: that you live happily ever after with your dog and your baby.