Working to create a respectful and loving relationship between all members of your family, whether they are two-legged or four-legged, is incredibly important.
My young dog flies around the yard, tossing his ball in the air, chasing it when it hits the ground, picking it up and throwing it again. I turn around and see my young son running in the opposite direction, laughing his head off. One arm is in the air, fingers clutching a stuffed animal. The level of happiness in this scene reaches epic heights when the toy slips from his fingers and falls to the ground. The puppy sees it, runs and grabs it.
I gasp as I wait for my son’s cries of protest. But something else is happening. Something fascinating and much quieter.
The 20-month-old stops, walks over to the ball the dog dropped, calls out to him and hands him the ball. The dog drops the stuffed toy and carefully picks up the ball. The boy picks up his toy and they both return to their previous game.
And, he exhales.
This scene is no accident. These two demonstrated well-developed interpersonal skills that were (and are) slowly cultivated and practiced over many months. As a mutual caregiver, the work of creating a respectful and loving relationship between all family members, both two-legged and four-legged, was incredibly important to me, but I had little knowledge and no experience in integrating children and dogs.
THE RATIONALE FOR INTENTIONAL RELATIONSHIP BUILDING.
By consulting experts and reading back issues of WYD (see a partial list on page 11), I learned how to best prepare your dog(s) for a baby, how to ensure safety and mental health, and what considerations to make if you’re crazy enough to add a puppy to your family when you have a young child. With that basic knowledge, I was able to start building those relationships.
Difficult, yes, but very helpful, especially in light of new research.
In a recent study published in the journal Pediatric Research, after taking other factors into account, researchers found that 3- to 5-year-old children in families with dogs were 30% less likely to have behavioral problems than children of the same age in families without companion dogs. They were also 40% less likely to have difficulties in their relationships with peers and 34% more likely to show empathy and interest in others.
These data suggest that owning and interacting with a dog, whether during playtime or family walks, may be an important mechanism for promoting social-emotional development in young children.
PROACTIVELY KEEPING THE PEACE
As many people in the canine world know, for a puppy to have good relationships with children in the future, he must be carefully socialized with them and have positive interactions with them during important stages of his development (see page 10 for more information). But life is dynamic and learning about the world continues, for both dogs and people.
Mosey, my Border Collie, grew up with children and was treated lovingly by them from birth. As I grew older, I made it a point to continue his respectful behavior towards children. Soon enough, he became the dog who would see a walker in the distance and start to become seriously agitated.
However, spending time with children and being around them from time to time is very different from living with them full time from a young age.
From the time my son was able to crawl, whenever there was a dog in sight, he would move in that direction at an astonishing speed, drawn to the dog as if by magnetism. The full-speed crawling came just as his fast toes were becoming very sticky (a difficult phase for all of us), which was a problematic combination for this dog who, by the way, adored children. Mosey’s body language started screaming, “This makes me nervous!”.
I knew immediately that I had to change this interaction or it could become a negative experience for both of us. It was easy enough to manage the situation to keep them both safe, but I also realized that directing this interaction in a positive way would allow them to understand and respect each other.
I asked Celia Caldwell, a clinical social worker with a degree in Missoula, Montana, who has been helping foster children and dogs find and settle into loving homes for decades, what the best way to go about it was. She advises: “You have to be a neutral Swiss and maintain a safe space for both parties to meet on their own terms.
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