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  • Taryn

Children and Dogs: Where it all goes wrong...

There are many excellent websites and pages which one can follow for good advice on managing interactions between children and dogs in the home and I will include links to these at the end of this post - So rather than go into detail about how to manage all sorts of interactions, I want to focus here on one specific area where there is a lot of misunderstanding on the part of parents and which often leads to things going horribly wrong and ending in tragedy:


As humans, we tend to think in terms not only of someone’s actions, but of their intentions as well. So, if someone gave us a gift that we did not like, we would say to ourselves “Oh well, it was a nice thought” or if a family member made us breakfast in bed, but burned the toast, we would likely appreciate the effort and overlook the fact that the food wasn’t all that great. This ability to understand the motivations of others and appreciate their intentions, even when the outcome is not what we had hoped, is due to us having something called “Theory of Mind” – the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and “get” where they are coming from.

The problem is that, this is very much a human capability. Although there have been studies attempting to show theory of mind in the great apes and other mammals, there really is no good evidence that it exists, other than in humans (for more on this subject, a great book to read is Wynne and Udell’s “Animal Cognition”). The reality is that a dog interprets what they see and experience by how it makes them feel and they respond accordingly. A dog is not able to take a step back from a situation and say: “Yes, that is seriously annoying or uncomfortable, but I know they mean well, so it’s okay.”

When it comes to interactions between kids and dogs, parents tend to evaluate their children’s behaviour using theory of mind, forgetting that dogs are incapable of doing so. Parents will therefore see any “sweet”, “gentle” or “kind” behaviour on the part of a child as a good interaction that the dog should tolerate and even enjoy. Parents will often only intervene or stop an interaction if they interpret the child’s behaviour as having negative intentions. For example, if the child gets annoyed and pokes the dog or starts deliberately teasing the dog, the parents will put a stop to it (hopefully). Unfortunately, if the child is trying to be nice to the dog (hugging, kissing, patting gently etc.) the parents will view this positively and allow the interaction to continue, regardless of how the dog is responding. There is an underlying assumption that because the child means well, the dog should enjoy what the child is doing. It is in these circumstances that parents often ignore or fail to notice subtle signs that the dog is in fact uncomfortable and unhappy.

When the dog’s subtle and polite objections escalate over time into active avoidance or aggression, parents are then mystified by their dog’s apparent dislike of their child. I can’t count the number of times I have heard things like: “But she is always so gentle – she never teases him and is never rough with him, but he still doesn’t like her. I just don’t understand it?” The answer is that what we view as sweet, a dog may view as downright annoying or even scary. Most dogs do not enjoy hugs and kisses (and yes, there are exceptions – Cruz is one of them) and most dogs do not enjoy being disturbed while they are resting. Yet, this is so often what children do. While we may view these actions as sweet, dogs do not see it that way.

We also need to remember that to dogs, children look and sound different than adults. Children are awkward in their movements, they fall over more often, they run and bounce and they have high-pitched voices. Children also often come with a whole lot of paraphernalia that gets in the way and bumps into dogs e.g. walkers, prams, noisy plastic push bikes etc. In a dog’s eyes, children are therefore often seen as unpredictable, so when they want to be close to the dog and apply affection, a dog can find this really quite scary.

What we need to understand, is that over time, if a child is regularly doing things to a dog that the dog does not like, the dog will develop a negative emotional response to the child (simple classical conditioning) and become even less tolerant of any interactions. They will either avoid the child more and more or eventually escalate their aggression to dangerous levels. This is how so many tragic incidents happen. Serious defensive bites seldom come out of the blue – there is always a history of subtle and increasingly clear warning signs that the dog is unhappy and uncomfortable around the child, but they were dismissed, because in the parents’ eyes what the child was doing was not nasty and should have, in their view, been okay with the dog.

Dogs cannot apply theory of mind, but we can. We have the intelligence and emotional capability to understand that a dog is a different species and that what we enjoy, they might not enjoy. We have the ability to read their body language and intervene to stop interactions that are unpleasant for them, even if the intentions behind them are good. We must simply make use of the cognitive abilities that we have as adult humans, to protect our dogs and children.

Useful links:

Photo: Rosie as a puppy with our niece. Just to clarify that Rosie chose to climb into her lap - she still would if she had the chance, even though they are both a lot older! While it is a sweet and cherished photo, it only happened, because Rosie wanted to be as close as possible and it was not forced on her. And we do have our niece's consent to share this too! 😉


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