Peek in my mailbag (page 5)

cartoon of dog writing
I have the cutest puppy in the world, and I like to take her places with me. Bella loves people and always wants to see everyone. I don’t mind if kids pet her—if they ask me first—but I am amazed at how many kids just reach out and touch her. Why don’t parents teach their kids not to touch strange dogs?
~ Katie in Tacoma

Many people think cute equals friendly. I often see parents smiling as their children reach toward unfamiliar dogs. Scary!

You and your friendly dog have an opportunity to educate. When kids come toward you, stop them and say, “My dog really likes kids, but it’s important to ask every dog before you try to pet her. If you stand still and put out your hand for her to sniff, she’ll come over to you and then you can pet her.”

Remind them that not every dog will say yes. Ask them, “If Bella had moved away, do you think that would be a yes or a no?  What if she barked at you? Would it be okay to pet her if she went under the table when you put your hand out? Those are some of the ways that dogs say no.”

Then tell them, “Bella said yes, and she would like you to pet her. We always want to be careful of a dog’s sensitive eyes and ears, so pet her on her neck or side. Mo st dogs like those spots.”

By asking the kids to avoid her eyes and ears, you’ll prevent the scary over-the-head patting that most people do. It’s much safer to reach alongside the dog rather than over her head.

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My name is Becca, and I am ten.  I really want a dog. My mom says dogs are too much work. I’ve promised to walk the dog every day, and I’ll feed him and brush him too. Can you help me convince my mom to let me get a dog?
~ Becca in Springfield , VA

I can tell you really love dogs, Becca. I can make a few suggestions, but the decision to get a dog must always be made by your parents. Dogs require a lot of time and a lot of money.

You can show your mom that you can be responsible by offering to help care for your neighbors’ dogs. You could play fetch with a dog while the owner was supervising. Dogs like to learn tricks, so teach him to shake hands, spin in a circle, and find toys that you hide. You could also practice walking a dog with the owner.

If it is okay with your mom, offer to take care of a dog while his family goes on vacation. The best way would be to have the dog stay at your house. Then you’d all get a real taste of what it would be like to have a dog in the family.

I can’t promise you that you’ll be able to convince your mom, but you can certainly tell her that I know many 10 year olds who are very responsible and caring with their dogs. Good luck!

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Help! I have two daughters (6 & almost 2) and we purchased a 7-week-old boxer two days ago.  My younger daughter was so excited about the dog and wanted to pet him, but as soon as he was put on the floor, she became very scared. Now she wants to be carried everywhere and is constantly looking over her shoulder to see where the dog is.  It seems to be getting worse, not better, and I am in urgent need of some advice. If it doesn't improve,e I am going to have to return the pup. 
~ Lisa in Seattle

Because puppies are impulsive and active, kids have a hard time predicting what a puppy will do next and that can be scary.

For most puppies, sit can be taught in just a minute or two, so do an initial teaching session and then reinforce sits throughout the day, as many as you can.  Soon your puppy will be a sitting machine.

Once the puppy is good at this, put your toddler on the couch and give her a few dog biscuits.  Sit right beside her so that you can prevent the dog from jumping on her. Ask her to say "sit." When the puppy sits, she should toss the treat to the floor for the dog to retrieve. If the puppy doesn't sit right away, you can lure him into a sit with a treat before she tosses the biscuit.

[Note: Dog biscuits are not a great training treat because they are large, crunchy, and bland, but they are pretty easy for most toddlers to toss.  We want your daughter to be able to communicate with the puppy without having to be too close to him, so dog biscuits can give us some of that distance.]

Be sure to give your puppy oodles of exercise.  Boxers are very energetic dogs, so try to have him work with your younger daughter after a play session, not in lieu of one.

Take things slow. I hope you are able to make this work for your family. Living with kids and dogs is challenging, but it's also very rewarding.

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How can I keep my dog out of our garden bed? My husband is at his wits end and is threatening to give our dog away. My children would be devastated.
She is an 8 month old Cocker Spaniel and has a passion for up rooting all of my husband’s plants.  She jumps into the garden bed at night when we are all asleep and goes berserk. Have you any suggestion on plants that may deter her or any other hints I may be able to try?
~ Tina in Austin

Can you bring the dog indoors at night? Gardens are awfully tempting for a dog with lots of time and few other activities. That would be my first choice solution.

I would also suggest increasing her exercise during the evening. Digging is a great boredom reliever. Tired dogs are just tired, not bored, so she won’t be digging as much. 

In addition, there’s a great book called, Dog-Friendly Gardens, Garden-Friendly Dogs, by Cheryl S. Smith that’s perfect for your family. It has lots of information about various plants and planting techniques that will help you resolve this problem. 

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We live in Japan . There are basically two kinds of dogs in Japan , pampered (small) house dogs and larger "outdoor" dogs. "Outdoor" dogs are almost invariably kept chained. They are never let in the house because they are "dirty". Even house dogs are often caged part or much of the day.
We have four children. Three boys (ages 3, 8, and 11) and a girl (14). They all would like a pet, but my daughter especially wants one. I would like to get a dog, preferably one that can be in the house.  I always swore that if we ever had a dog, I would not keep it on a chain like the neighborhood dogs.
I have been hunting over websites and some of the stuff is scary. "Never ever leave your child and dog together unattended." "Don't do this, don't do that." "Never get a dog unless you are willing to invest ALL these hours a day into the dog."  "Never let a dog be around a child under 5 years old."  (My youngest is 3.)
Well, I understand some of the logic, but what's the point then? Maybe I've read too many books with dogs and families who loved each other. Is it just a myth?
~ Karen in Japan

Yes, you can have a dog with four kids, even if one is under 5 years old.  It’s harder, but it’s doable . . . and people do it every day. I think if you really want a dog, you’ll be able to make it work with the right dog.
The best family dogs LOVE kids.  Look for a dog that really enjoys people, especially kids.  Since so many larger dogs are kept exclusively outdoors in Japan , I’m guessing that breeding sociability isn’t as much of a priority with the big dogs.  You’ll probably have to look at smaller dogs.  People want cuddly, social lap dogs. Personality is a big factor when you are sharing the couch with a dog.
Some ways to tell if this is the right dog for you . . .
•   Have your kids stand on one side of the room and the adults stand on the other. The adults should be still and quiet. The kids should be kids. You want a dog that eagerly approaches them, a dog that chooses kids over adults.
• The dog should be willing to hang out with you and the kids without treats. Using treats is a wonderful way to develop communication and enhance the relationship, but initially interest in food could be mistaken for a social drive.
• The dog should not be too fragile.  Look for a dog that isn’t overly sensitive to touch or sound.  I usually don’t recommend small dogs for families with kids as young as yours, but I’m guessing that’s where you’re going to find your most social dogs, so please make a family rule that the kids cannot pick up and carry the dog. It’s very scary for a dog to be suddenly flying through the air, and many become snappish because they learn it is the quickest way to be put down. 
• The dog should not guard food or toys.  Growling over food or possessions is a risky behavior in a household with kids. There are just too many variables for you to safely manage if you have a dog that will behave aggressively to protect what he considers his.
  Good luck!  There are many dogs looking for families; I am sure you can find a wonderful one for your family.

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I have two old dogs—12 and 14 years old. They have never shown any aggression toward anyone, but last week the 12 year old growled at my 1-year-old grandson! I was shocked. My dogs have never lived with kids, but they’ve always been fine with the ones we meet on the street. What should I do when my grandson comes over?
~ Robin in Burbank

You hit on two important points, Robin. First, your dogs are older. With age comes some creakiness and discomfort. We’re all a bit less tolerant when we are uncomfortable; dogs are no exception.

Also, your dogs have never lived with children. We all know kids behave very differently than adults, and for most dogs, the unfamiliar can be worrisome. Short interactions with strangers on a walk are much easier than an extended visit with a toddler.

I think your best bet is to manage the situation when your grandson comes over. Put your dogs in a bedroom with a good chew toy. They will appreciate it, and you can focus on spoiling your grandson.

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My husband and kids really want a dog, but I’m not sure I do. After the novelty wears off, I know I’ll be the one stuck with all of the dog-related jobs. I like dogs—don’t  get me wrong—but with three kids in elementary school, I am just starting to have a little time to myself. I really don’t want to be tied down with a puppy.
~ Julia in Tallahassee

Offer to dog-sit when a friend goes on vacation. It’s the perfect experiment. Since the dog already has a family and there’s a built-in end date, your kids won’t be begging you to keep the dog. Instead use this opportunity to see what you like and dislike about living with a dog.

Getting a dog is a big commitment, so it’s best if everyone is onboard. Your kids are old enough to help out, but the final responsibility for a pet always rests on the adults.

If you don’t want the day-to-day tasks of having a dog, don’t get one. The guilt trip you are getting now is nothing compared to how rotten you’ll feel if you find yourself stuck caring for a pet that you didn’t want. Parents are busy enough without adding extra duties

But if your concern is more about the intense demands of puppyhood (housetraining, chewing stages, and basic training), contact your local shelter or rescue group to ask about adult dogs. There are many adult dogs that would fit into your home with a minimum of fuss.  Don’t be in a rush. It’s worth taking your time to find just the right dog to add to your family.

There are tremendous benefits in living with kids and dogs, but I’d be the first to say that parents should go into it open-eyed and willing. Every dog deserves to be loved by his entire family, not just part of it.

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My 5 year old likes to sing and dance. Sometimes, when she’s particularly animated, our dog starts running around and jumps on her. Then my daughter leaps on the couch and starts yelling for me while the dog bounces around on the floor. How do I get them to stop?
~ Mary in Orlando

It’s time for the freeze dance at your house!
The freeze dance is a popular preschool activity. The teacher will turn on some music and encourage the children to get all their wiggles, jiggles, and giggles out. When the music stops, all the kids must freeze in position and stay that way until the music resumes.
A modified version of the freeze dance is an effective tool for teaching kids how to be safe around dogs. First practice without your dog; you can pretend to be the dog. Have your daughter dance around the living room and when you get within 3 feet of her, she must freeze in the “be a tree” position (see description below).
When you move away, she can unfreeze. Practice this over and over. Take turns being the dog. When your kids are very good at becoming trees, eliminate the silly antics and have the kids do something simple like rolling a ball across the floor or gently tossing a beanbag to one another and then becoming a tree when the “dog” (you) approaches.
Now you are ready to add your dog. Bring the dog into the room on a leash. He, of course, has no idea that a new game is being played. He’ll be very interested in your children’s game, only to find that when he goes to investigate, everything stops. Hmm. By holding the leash, you can prevent the dog from getting close enough to jump while the kids are getting into their tree poses, which would inadvertently reinforce his jumping behavior.
The wild-and-crazy learning stage of the freeze game is not safe to play with loose dogs (even your own) or unfamiliar dogs. That step was only to make the early learning stage fun for the kids while they rehearsed the tree pose over and over for muscle memory.
When your kids are good at their tree poses, you can start having them practice them around other dogs. They will not act silly, of course. When your kids are around calm, leashed dogs, encourage them to practice their tree pose. Tell your kids that they should “be a tree” any time they want a dog to calm down or move away. For example

Be a Tree pose·      Whenever they get too silly and the dog gets a little wild—as with your daughter’s singing and dancing.
·      When they go to a friend’s house and feel a little worried about the dog.
·      When they see a loose dog in the neighborhood (even one they know).
How to “Be a Tree”
Teaching children to “be a tree” is a great safety technique. Encourage the children to stand with their feet planted hip-width apart (for “strong roots”). Tell them to “fold their branches,” by clasping their hands together in front of their bodies. Then they should “watch their roots grow,” by looking at their feet and counting to the highest number they know.
This technique keeps the children’s minds, hands, and eyes busy doing a specific task that requires no decision making, very little movement, and is not subject to interpretation. While the children are occupied with that task, the dog has time to relax and walk away.

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I would like to take my cocker spaniel when I take my baby for a walk in the stroller, but she pulls too much. She’s not very big, but I don’t think I can manage her and the stroller. Is there a safe way to bring her along?
~ Lynn in Charleston

I am glad you are looking for ways to include your dog in your outings. Dogs need exercise and mental stimulation. If we don’t provide them an outlet, the dogs will get creative and find their own sources of amusement, perhaps running through the house with your dirty laundry or countersurfing for tasty treats.
Try one of the new front clip body harnesses for your dog. These simple, three-strap harnesses put physics in your favor. Instead of attaching a leash to your dog’s collar or on her back, you will hook it on the front of her chest.  This simple change eliminates much of your dog’s ability to pull.
When properly fitted, the harness should be snug around your dog’s ribs and the front strap will be horizontal across her chest. The three most common brand names are Easy-Walk, Sense-ation, and Freedom harnesses. Ask about these new harnesses at your local pet store, and start including your cocker on your walks.

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My 9-year-old son would like to take our dog for a walk around our neighborhood alone. Is he old enough? Our dog is an 11-year-old lab mix.
~ Kim in Ann Arbor

Many parents wonder when a child is old enough to interact with or walk a dog without supervision. Unfortunately there is no “one size fits all” rule. You will have to evaluate both your child and your dog to decide when the time is right. (an excellent nonprofit organization dedicated to dog-bite prevention) suggests these guidelines:
·      When the child can read the dog’s body language
·      When the child and dog have a mutually respectful relationship
·      When the dog will happily and willingly follow directions from the child
·      If the dog has never shown any sign of aggression toward people or other dogs and does not chase cars, cats, or other animals
·      When the child knows how to interpret situations and take appropriate action.
Most kids under 12 will not meet these criteria.
Depending on your neighborhood and your dog, it might be safe for your son to walk the dog alone.  Older dogs, especially those over 10, tend to be more placid on their walks. If your dog is pretty laid-back and your son handles the dog well, do a few practice walks in which you follow the two of them before letting them go out on their own.

My two-year-old likes to give our dog treats, but I worry the dog will nip his fingers. Sometimes my son seems nervous too, and he pulls his hand back instead of giving the treat. Then the dog gets grabby. How can my son give the dog a treat while keeping all of his fingers?
~ Carla in Pittsburgh
Manual dexterity is a challenge for most preschoolers; they have trouble holding a dog treat and then releasing it. There are many ways to make treat delivery a bit easier and less scary for young kids.
  • Drop the treats on the floor.
    Give your son a bowl to hold while the dog eats a treat out of it.
    Put the treat on the back of his hand. Young kids often have trouble holding their hand open. Their fingers curl up and form a bowl. It may be better to teach your son to put out his fist and for you to place a treat on top of his hand.
    Have him sit on the counter (with you right there, of course) and toss treats to the dog. This works well for bouncy dogs that might bump or frighten your child.

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My daughter and her friend (both 10) were playing with our dog, Zorro, the other day. The girls were both petting and hugging him when, without warning, he bit my daughter on the nose!  Nothing like this has ever happened before. How can I trust Zorro around kids again?
~ Debbie in Chicago

It sounds to me like your dog was a little overwhelmed.  A common problem in kid-and-dog interactions is that the dog is telling the kids he’s uncomfortable, but since the kids don’t “speak dog,” they miss the warning signs. Very few dogs like to be hugged, and being hugged by two affectionate girls may have been too much for your dog.
Carefully supervise when Zorro is around kids, even when it’s just your own kids.  Look for signs of stress, such as yawning, turning away, licking his lips, or panting. When you see any of those signs, separate the kids and dog for a while. Later watch to see if Zorro seeks them out again. The best family dogs really enjoy kids, but all dogs will have moments when they are uncomfortable. With a little space and downtime, many dogs will be eager to rejoin the activity.
Never punish a dog for giving warning signals, such as snarls, growls, or even snaps.  Warnings are valuable information! Parents must immediately intervene and take steps to prevent similar scenarios from occurring (such as allowing a dog to feel smothered by well-intentioned hugs). 
If you see many stress signals or early-warning signs, I strongly suggest you have a dog trainer provide some personalized advice. Check out the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers to find a trainer in your area.

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Send your question

If you have a question about kids and dogs, feel free to write to me. I can't answer all the questions I receive, but I answer many.

I won't deny that living with kids and dogs is a lot of work! But when things are going well, a dog can be your child's best friend. That experience is a wonderful gift for any child and well worth the effort involved.