This past weekend, my daughter reached a huge social milestone. She was invited to her first play date! Although I was excited to have a little break, and for my daughter to have this playtime with a peer, my first thought was “I wonder if they have a family dog”? Crazy, right? Sometimes it can be hard to turn off my “work” brain. However, based on my expertise in the field of kids and dogs, this question ranks right up there with “do you keep guns in the home”.
According to the APPA (American Pet Products Association) 68% of US families have a dog in the home. When coupled with the statistic from the CDC, estimating that half of all children 12 years of age and under have been bitten by a dog, this information can be a bit scary. Especially considering the fact that many of these dog bites come from a dog with which the child is acquainted. As parents, it is not only our responsibility to make sure our child is safe around our pets, but around those of our friends as well. Unfortunately, this begs the question of; “How do I approach this topic with my friends, without sounding crazy or offensive?” For the safety of your children, I recommend following the steps below:
Step 1: For the first play date, invite yourself along. Be sure to supervise your child at all times, and begin to evaluate the family’s pet. In casual conversation, you can ask questions such as:
- “How old is your dog?” – this question is important because the older a dog, the more their tolerance level for kids could decrease
- “Does the dog have any health issues”- another important questions to dictate the tolerance level of a dog around kids.
- “Has he/she been raised with your child since birth?”- this gives us an idea of whether or not the dog has adapted to children and is used to the behaviors associated with a certain age group. If the dog was just adopted, then we would have no way of knowing its past experiences with kids. A newly adopted dog will expose unknown behaviors for up to 3 months.
- “What breed of dog is that?” – This question is important because different breeds of dogs were bred for different reasons. Knowing this information could help you know the dog’s bite style and the general characteristics of that breed. But always remember that ALL dogs are capable of biting!
Step 2: After or throughout your questioning, begin looking for the following actions/signs in their dog:
- Avoidance/Displacement behaviors (if the dog tries to run away, yawns, etc. For a complete list, click here)
- Predatory Behaviors: staring at the children, stalking the children, whining and pacing, etc. This is the most dangerous situation because sometimes there is no sign from the dog before acting on this drive or sometimes the dog is building and becoming so frustrated that it can be confused with the dog being “excited.”
- Rambunctious behavior: This would lead to more accidental injuries, if the dog were to become overly excited and try to jump on the children or knock them down.
- Shows of Dominance: If the dog begins to attempt to hump or mount the children
- Remember, just because their dog is fine in its interactions with their child does NOT mean they will automatically treat yours the same way!
If you are uncomfortable with any of the responses you get to the questions from step 1, or if the dog is exhibiting any of the behaviors from step 2, I highly suggest that you remove your child from the situation or at least move the play away from the dog. Being a professional dog trainer and a mom, please listen when I tell you that when it comes to the safety of your child and the trauma they experience from a dog bite, you can never be too cautious. Not every dog bite makes the news! The guilt you will feel for not protecting your kid from an event like this is not worth the few precautionary steps you should take to prevent it, even if it feels uncomfortable questioning a friend.
If you are not comfortable with your child playing at a friends house until they are old enough to understand the rules and boundaries of interacting with other dogs, that is ok! We have to protect them now, that is our job. I would suggest just being transparent with the parents and letting them know you are being extra cautious because of their family pet, or simply suggest a play date in a more neutral area. Remember, education is key! Having these conversations with your friends or other parents could have positive effects on their understanding of child-dog relationships as well.