Long before Oliver (my 19-month-old son) was born, I began planning how to make my dogs happy, comfortable, and safe to have around my toddler. However, as I worked on that, I also came to realize that it was not enough. There are many, many dogs in the world, and I wanted my son to be as safe as possible around ALL of them. While avoiding them might be an option for some people, I’m a dog trainer- many of my friends have dogs, and all of my clients have dogs, People in general expect me to like their dogs and want to say hello (and I do want to- just not necessarily with my baby in tow!).
So, how could I make sure my son was safe around dogs that had not been prepared to deal with a running, yelling, exuberant toddler? This question led me to Madeline Gabriel’s blog: www.dogsandbabieslearning.com. She has a fantastic series of articles about not “magnetizing” your baby to dogs (here). Think about a compass that always points north… a magnetized baby can usually be found hurtling towards any dog they see, while screaming “doggy” and charging in for a pet and/or hug.
I’m not going to rewrite what is a truly fantastic series- but I do encourage ANYONE with kids or expecting a baby to read all of the parts of this series. In these articles, she basically shows the reader how to teach their baby to be safe around dogs, the same way you would teach them not to touch knives. Just as you would never leave a baby alone with a knife, you should never leave them alone with a dog- but in both situations, you canteach your baby to be behave in a pretty reliable and safe manner.
Since Oliver was very small, we have spent a lot of time using the language that Madeline Gabriel encourages in her blog, i.e. “Yes, that’s our dog, Kaylee. Kaylee is a good dog,” or “Dogs like a little more space. Let’s move over here so she feels safe. Look, our dog is staying with us! You helped her feel safe. You are a good friend to dogs!” I’ve also added phrases like “We only touch the dog with our hands!” and “Beskow’s sleeping right now, let’s leave her alone to rest,” and other (often self-evident) phrases. The importance of this dialogue is three-fold: it makes your child engage with you rather than with the dog; it reminds you what is appropriate behavior around the dog and encourages you to always be paying attention; and, as your child grows, they start to understand what you’re saying, it sounds familiar, and they’re used to listening to those phrases.
In our family, the result has been a child that likes the dogs, likes to share his food with them (sigh), but leaves them alone when they’re on the couch, in their beds, or eating their dinner. He often plays next to them on the floor without so much as looking at them. Is he 100% reliable? No! He’s still a toddler, but most of the time, he leaves them alone or interacts appropriately. This morning, when he came over and started driving his car along Kaylee’s back, because we already had the rule “we only use hands on the dog,” he cheerfully relinquished his car, gave her a nice pet on her shoulder, asked for his car back, and went to back to his play on a more appropriate surface.
When we’re out of the house, now that Oliver is walking, I pick him up when we approach dogs, he waves hello, and we go on our merry way. As far as I can tell, he has never considered running up to a dog to say hi- it’s not in his behavioral repertoire.This weekend, however, was our first real test. We went over to a friend’s house to play. They have a toddler, so I was pretty sure their two dogs - a Doberman Pinscher and a small Rat Terrier mix - were safe for my two babies. When we got to the house, the Doberman was crated to avoid an overenthusiastic greeting (hurray for dog owners who know their dog!), and the little dog came running over to give Oliver’s hands a thorough licking. He looked down at the dog, smiled … and then went over to play with the other little boy! WOW! I was FLOORED! He’d never been in a situation with a small, excited dog to play with- and he acted completely unmagnetized. I was incredibly excited. The second test came about 45 minutes later, when they let their Dobie out of his crate. Now, our dogs are medium-sized, but Dobies are big. I was sitting on the floor and his head was well over eye level.
As far as I can remember, Oliver has never been around a dog that big. Dexter the Dobie came out happy to say hi- licked Oliver’s face a couple times and began making the rounds. And … Oliver just kept playing! I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I was about this. If anyone out there doubts the power of Madeline Gabriel’s advice, I challenge you to raise your child this way and see how he or she handles these situations. I could not have been more thrilled. Even if either of those dogs had been a little nervous around little kids, they would not have had to deal with any staring, chasing, or grabbing- Oliver would have given them a safe, appropriate amount of space. My child, I believe, can be declared unmagnetized to dogs!