If you have kids and pets at the same time, then you know that children -- especially toddlers - are naturally drawn to animals, particularly dogs, and that calm, balanced dogs have a natural affinity for children.
Most of you reading this probably know that my life-long love for animals also goes back to my childhood, and I was even nicknamed "Dog Boy" because of it. My sons are the same way, especially Calvin, who is growing into a fine Pack Leader.
Here's my question to you: Why do you think that most kids and dogs get along so well?
The reason is simple: Young children, like dogs, tend to be instinctual. They are very direct in their communication, and they do it through energy, intention, and body language. Dogs can understand and relate to this, because that's how they communicate, too.
Some studies indicate that dogs can read human facial expressions as well, and if there's one thing young children are not good at, it's hiding their thoughts or emotions -- if a kid thinks it or feels it, it shows up on their face.
Perhaps this is why dogs don't necessarily react nervously or aggressively when that giggly toddler comes running up to them screaming in delight -- they can instinctively understand that the gesture is the same as another dog initiating play, rather than a threat.
However... there are plenty of stories in the news about children being bitten, maimed, or worse by dogs, whether it was the beloved family pet or a strange dog on the loose, and it is very important from early on to teach our children basic dog safety.
Even an adult can be bitten by taking the wrong approach with a dog (it's happened to me a time or two!), and it's much easier for kids to accidentally take the wrong approach. While I do teach that we should relate to our dogs instinctually, that's something for much older kids and grown-ups. With young kids, we have to teach them to approach dogs intellectually first, then let them re-discover their instincts later.
We have to begin by teaching our children to respect a dog's space, and never approach in a way that might startle or frighten the dog. They should never run at a dog with excited energy, and never chase a dog that is trying to avoid them.
When petting a dog, they should do it gently, and always under the chin or on the chest, never by reaching over the dog's back. And, most importantly, they should never, ever approach a strange dog, especially if it's alone; otherwise, they should ask the dog's caretaker first if it's all right.
These rules apply to the pets in your own home as well, and you should never leave your dogs and young children together unsupervised. Infants especially like to grab things -- remember, to humans, touch is a very important way of learning about the world -- and even the friendliest dog can react badly to suddenly having its tail or ears yanked.
If you teach your very young children to approach animals with respect and care, it will not only help keep them safe, but educate them on how to treat animals for life, so they can have many rewarding experiences with them as they get older. Pets are also the perfect way to teach older children empathy and responsibility -- two of the most important skills they can have as adults.
And, as adults, we can learn from our young children all over again how to approach the world with that sense of instinctual joy and curiosity that draws them to animals in the first place, but to do it in a way that is safe and rewarding for everyone involved, human and dog alike.
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