Dogs and kids during the corona crisis-playing safe

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We’re all stuck at home for the foreseeable future and if you also have children you are now home schooling too (and if you’re like me you now think teachers should get a huge pay rise when this is over!). If you have kids and dogs it may take some extra management to make sure things work well, routine has really changed for all of us but for our dogs it’s pretty dramatic and they have no idea why this is happening. They will be used to the kids disappearing off for several hours a day (to preschool or school) and they then get hours for that all-important snoozing or some 121 time with you and lovely long walks with friends. If you work full time normally then they are probably used to having a dog walker or going to day-care. All of this has changed. Our dogs are probably loving having their human carers around all day but they are now missing social contact with their dog friends, they are perhaps having less exercise and their peaceful daytime hours are now not so peaceful as the kids are at home ALL day.

Even if your dog adores your kids they are used to them in small doses (the same may go for parents too!), Normally the kids are at school a big chunk of the day and after school they are out at clubs or playing with their friends and at weekends you probably go out lots as a family. Even a 6 week summer holiday is nothing compared with this. As there’s no going out now there’s a whole lot more ‘family time’ at home. If you are lucky then your dog may thrive on this and may not be able to get enough of the kids but for most people, we will need to manage things a bit more carefully. Even if your dogs genuinely like spending time with the kids its worth thinking about interactions and making sure everyone is coping okay.


Our top tips for child/dog management during corona would be:


Make a safe space for your dog

Make sure you have some sport of separate space for your dogs to retreat to and that you can use if the dogs need a break. If you don’t have a stairgate on a separate room, now would be a good time to put one up- you may have never needed one before but we’ve never all been stuck at home together like this before. My dogs generally adore my kids but my life would be so much more difficult if I didn’t have stairgates around the house that I can use when I need to give everyone a bit of space.  If you don’t have a stairgate you could use a crate if your dog loves a crate but make sure you put it in a quiet place and ideally always leave the door open so the dog has the choice to go in and out. Puppy pens that open out as a room divider can be really helpful too to divide space up as you can use them flexibly and move them where you want them in the house.

Be careful if you are doing weird stuff

We’ve been doing PE with Joe Wick’s every morning and it occurred to me that my dogs have NEVER seen me do any sort of exercise at home, let alone lying on the rug planking and jumping around pretending to be a kangaroo. My dogs were baffled, not in a bad way but really confused by it all. The worst I suffered was extreme licking by Sylvi as I followed Joe’s routine but if I had a dog who was less comfortable around their humans and kids doing weird stuff. It could have been an issue. My Dalmatian Lucky is less comfortable around my kids doing weird stuff and isn’t keen on faces near his so he has a separate space away from us as we make fools of ourselves at 9am every day.

Be really careful if your dogs have any concerns around your children if you are doing weird stuff or if it involves children having their faces at the dog’s head level etc. Far better to give the dogs some separate space with their own fun activity to do; Lucky has a Kong with some food in while Sylvi joins in PE with us. Similarly if you are doing science experiments that could be loud or scary for dogs or if your kids have brought instruments home to practise (I could not be more thrilled about the clarinet coming home for lockdown!!), give the dogs some space away and let them escape and make sure you always pair them being separate with having something nice to do (snuffle mat/Kong/Kong wobbler etc).

Similar care needs to be taken with outdoor activities unless your dog is well used to the kids running around the garden and playing, if the dog is likely to steal footballs or other kids toys then use your separate space- we don’t ever want there to be confrontation or kids having to try and prize toys our of dogs mouths etc as this will be when things go wrong.

Don’t forget the rules about safe interactions

We all know how kids should behave around dogs but it’s easy to forget the rules or think they don’t apply when our dogs ‘love’ kids but many kids get bitten by the family dog who does generally like children but who has run out of tolerance or who is stressed and so is trigger stacking and not coping well. Life has really changed for all of us and if your dog is finding the changes stressful then they may be less tolerant of the kids and their threshold for showing aggression may be lower. General guidelines to follow are:

‘1 hand enough, 2 hands too much’ (From this means that the kids stroke or touch the dog only with one hand. This is fabulous for all kids to know and really reduces the risk of dogs being hugged and helps to keep interactions appropriate. It also helps to teach the kids to do a consent test and check every few seconds that the dog still wants to interact.  I ask mine to stop stroking the dogs every so often and to watch and see what the dog does, If the dog leans into them or nudges their hand then they clearly want some more attention but if they lean away or get up and move away then they’ve said no thanks to more affection and should be left alone.

Don’t forget that simple rules that we all know but perhaps don’t always stick to- leave sleeping dogs alone and always give the dogs a means of easy escape. Sometimes we as parents don’t perhaps model the best behaviour as our dogs are genuinely totally fine with us but we forget our children are watching and learning from our behaviour (I too need to remember this every time I kiss a sleeping Sylvi as its not setting a great example!)

Be careful around resources. All of our routines have changed and we are perhaps giving the dogs more enrichment than they used to have- use common sense and let the dogs enjoy Kongs and other activity toys in a safe space where they won’t be disturbed.

Make sure everyone has time to chill; sleep is so important and time to properly relax and sleep without risk of being disturbed is so important (for all if us!). Make sure the dogs have enough time to sleep in the day, they aren’t used to all this constant activity and a houseful of people 24/7 so make sure they can still get their quota of daytime snoozing!


Involve the kids in appropriate way

As the kids are off school, it’s a great time to involve them in caring for the dogs and helping to entertain them. I often recommend scent work as a good safe child/dog activity as children can set up scent games- hiding treats or scented toys around the house or garden and the dog can then find the hidden items but this activity is generally low risk as the children can actually be in a separate room to set it up and it doesn’t involve children’s hands being near dogs mouths or them being in close physical contact. Games like tug etc obviously are less safe and are not recommended with younger children- far better to do scent work or have a dog retrieve a toy and drop it on command etc. Kids can also be involved in training if dogs and kids are happy to do so and trick training can be a fun thing to do together if it’s carefully managed. I also put my kids to good use and get them to fill up the dog’s activity toys (Kong wobblers, Toppls, snufflemats etc) in exchange for screen time.


Know what to do if you see signs of stress

Make sure you are all aware of signs of stress- look for all those small signs like a yawn, whale eye, head turn away, bodily tension etc. Look for the shake off too, if your dog walks away after an interaction and immediately does a shake off then they may have found what just happened a bit stressful. This is a really weird time for all of us and your dog’s thresholds may be lower as they are adapting to change and generally stressed. If you have a reactive dog you may find that they are actually less stressed at the moment as they may be having less walks or walks may be shorter and they may be exposed to less dogs. Your dog may be thriving with having so much company at home and may be the happiest they’ve ever been but it’s still a good idea to really watch dog/child interactions over the next few weeks as this is a big period of adaption for all of us and we can’t get too complacent.

If you have any concerns at all contact a qualified behaviourist, although we can’t currently see clients face-to-face, most of us offer phone or video consults and can help with any behavioural issues that may come up.

Here are some really good resources for safe dog/child interactions (and even if we think we know it all and our dog adores our children it’s a really good idea to remind yourself!

© Laura McAuliffe,  Dog Communication 2020.