Their hands are often sticky, they tend to wobble when they walk, and they scream, cry, and burst out laughing all within a span of five minutes. Toddlers are known for being mercurial, curious, and energetic, and perhaps nobody picks up on their unpredictable nature more than the masters of subtlety – dogs. Dogs who read each change in movement, even the smallest ones, even the shift of a breathing pattern.
If you have a friend or family member coming by with their young kid, or you’ll be traveling for the summer and sharing a space with your pup and a child, being prepared is the name of the game in order to make the visit the best it can be. Because tantrums are coming, and it might be the kiddo’s or it might be the dog’s, but if you’re not setting your dog up to succeed, the tantrum very well might be yours! Though each dog is an individual, as is each child, here are a few ways to get you started so you can keep everybody safe and happy with dogs and toddlers:
How Well Do You Know Your Dog?
Before your dog meets a toddler, take an honest assessment of your pup. How socialized is he or she, including around other kids? How does your dog respond to loud sounds? Are there any sensitive parts of the body that he or she doesn’t like to be touched? What behaviors does your pooch use to get your attention? Does your dog resource guard? By getting clear on who your dog is, you will feel more confident, know what commands to practice before the visit, and get you ready. Being able to give your dog something to do as needed, like “go to your bed,” will help you better manage the situation and keep you calm.
Commit to active supervision whenever the dog and the kiddo are in the same room! This requires all of your senses, all of your attention, without the distraction of your cell phone or a side conversation. You know your dog best so be there to catch: does he or she look comfortable? Are they lip licking or yawning or shaking off their body, all signs of stress and anxiety? By being fully aware, you can ensure that both the toddler and the dog are getting what they need. Perhaps you can find a way to involve the kid and create positive associations, such as by playing adult-lead Hide and Seek with the child and your pooch, or by asking the toddler to toss a handful of kibbles into another room for your dog to find.
Set Up Alone Stations
It is important to set up chill-out spaces for your dog that the toddler won’t have access to, such as a crate or gated area. Make it clear to the child that these are safe places just for your dog to be alone in and that they shouldn’t be approached when they’re there. You’re welcome to make these as separate or as inclusive as you see fit – a crate in the living room where the child watches TV, or behind a closed door – but think of these as a timeout stations that give your pup moments to relax and take a break from the stimulation.
Dogs like to do stuff! Come prepared with treat-filled Kongs, lick mats, food puzzles and toys. Let the child know that these things belong to the dog and are not to be touched especially when your dog is using them. Offering these items while your pup is separated in their own area may be a good idea. By keeping a dog mentally enriched and physically active, you’ll enjoy a more balanced pet so take walks too, let your dog sniff the world, and consider bringing the kid along with you on a stroll if another adult is there to watch them while you keep an eye on your dog.
Talk to the Child About Canine Body Language
It’s all about raising dog aware generations. That’s how we do our part to keep dog bites at bay and help develop respectful relationships between people and animals. Narrate for the child the different positions of your dog’s eyes, ears, tail, and muzzle and what the body language is conveying. Remember that kids model what we do so if you’re hugging your dog and kissing them on the mouth, the child will likely try and imitate you. Is that going to be pleasant for your dog? Teach soft touch with one hand (instead of a hug) and the importance of consent even when it comes to pets. By inviting a dog over (instead of going towards the dog), we allow a pup to say yes or no, something every living being has the right to do.
Last but not least, manage your own expectations and remember that bonds happen over time.
Relationships build as moments are shared together, as two creatures understand one another, and dogs are no exception. Coexisting with a toddler is a great goal for your dog, it’s enough, and there’s no need to force a bond. If everything goes well and everyone stays safe, that’s fantastic this time around! You did a great job! If something went awry, regroup, redirect the energy, and rebuild a positive encounter. Maybe next time the toddler and your dog will become better friends, maybe not. That is okay.
At the end of the day, it’s up to us to help our pets live up to their potential and be the best version of themselves that they can be, and then accept them for who they are. Isn’t that what we wish for, too? Isn’t that what our dogs give us in return, that unconditional love? Can’t think of a better lesson to show a child, how love lets someone be who they are. The ultimate act of kindness, the freedom to be. Kids deserve it. Dogs deserve it. And so do you.