We have a fantasy from “Lassie” and other movies that kids and dogs go together. Small kids, babies, big kids…they are all depicted as being special companions to dogs.
Kids and dogs can get along well:
- IF the dog has been raised with kids through the first 16 weeks of life or has at least been socialized intensively with kids during that period. If not, dogs are often scared of kids, or at least wary of them. There are hundreds of “funny” or “adorable” photos and videos on the internet of kids interacting with dogs that make my stomach roil–the dog’s body language is filled with distress–the next second could erupt with a bite to the child and consequent punishment, isolation, or euthanasia for the dog. Dogs usually communicate when they are being pushed too far, but unless the parent can direct the child to respect their signals, we can predict that the dog will be forced to react physically i.e. a growl, snap, or bite.
IF the socialized dog and child are carefully monitored while together and the guardians know what stress signs to watch for in the dog. A dog that is just tolerant of children is not the same as a dog who loves children, and should not be forced to spend with them. How do you tell if your dog is happy with kids or not? Eileen Anderson has a fabulous website with excellent photos of canine body language you can view.
Children at dog parks
So, if you consider the above information, think about kids at a dog park:
- You don’t know the dogs at the park.
- You don’t know how much socialization they’ve had with children.
- One dog may be anxious about the way your child runs, jumps, waves his arms, shouts, or plays with his toy. Children’s movements are erratic and unpredictable. Kids smell different, they are small, their voices are high.
- Another dog may be outright afraid of children and express this fear through aggression to which a child might scream and run, further terrifying the dog and triggering prey drive in other dogs.
- Small children can get injured easily if dogs in full play bump into them.
- If a child were to get in the middle of a squabble between dogs, he could be bitten inadvertently.
Even if your child has successfully gone to dog parks many times, it is always a big risk. Children do get bitten by dogs.
Small dogs at dog parks
Below you see two dogs–Annie~50 lbs and Lucy~25 lbs. They have different play styles and although they are figuring things out, there are behaviors present that bear watching.
Small dogs love to play, just like big dogs. However, small dogs risk injury at dog parks with big dogs:
- They can be seen as prey to the larger dog (a 25 pound differential between dogs is seen as the vague cut off point wherein a dog may view a smaller, running dog as prey).
- Have you seen dogs playing with a stuffed toy or rope toy? How they shake their heads and growl, toss their toy, grab it and shake, and toss again? Our wonderful Vera LOVED to do this with toys, but when she charged and grabbed a juvenile raccoon and treated it the same way, I realized she was just practicing her prey sequence with her toys. It gave me a chill. Small dogs can be treated in the same way by larger dogs, who are not being aggressive in the general sense of the word, they are just following a survival sequence in their genetic makeup.
- The high, anxious sounds that a small dog makes when stressed or frightened can trigger prey-drive in larger dogs which, depending on the pursuing dog, could end with the smaller dog being run over, or badly mauled.
- The small dog could be run over, or stepped on inadvertently.
- Leave children at home if you decide to take the risk of going to the dog park. See my blog on “Dog Parks? Why not?”
- Learn canine body language. It will help immensely with your understanding of your dog and how he’s feeling.
- Find a “small dog” dog park for your little dog. Some dog parks have fenced areas marked specifically for small dogs.
- Find other people with small dogs who would like to play together in a safe place. Check with your vet, pet stores, and local trainers for ways to get involved in small-dog play groups. Talk to people on trails. I’ve met many people on trails who were overjoyed to share contact information to get Annie together with their dogs to play.