The Importance Of Socializing Your Assistance Or Therapy Dog To Kids
Are you training your own assistance or therapy dog and you plan to be taking your dog to places that have kids? If so you're in the right place, in this article, you're going learn 5 reasons why it's important for your future assistance or therapy dog to be socialized to children.
Kids are one of those stimuli for your do that can have a wide range of effects on your dog from everything from excitement all the way to fear. How can your dog have such polar reactions to being around kids? Simply put, kids are the wild card of interactions your dog can have. One second they can be playing quietly and the next they can be having a total meltdown before you can say dropped ice cream.
Your goal is to teach your dog to handle these swings in emotions and energy in stride and to also control their own energy state while a child can be experiencing a very different one.
As with other socialization, you'll want to do your best to control the environment while your dog experiences kids for the first few times. Since you'll be around kids, this can be easier said than done and you may find having an extra adult around to manage the kids helpful while you focus on your puppy.
Reason #1 - Kids are loud
Let's be real, a word that is not commonly associated with kids is quiet. For many adults, this tends to be our reality, we've had years to learn to be quiet and not be loud.
I'm not here to say one is better than the other but if quiet is all your dog knows, imagine their surprise when they're introduced to kids for the first time. Being in an environment that is loud can be overwhelming, especially if the stimuli are standing right in your face screaming.
I've seen some of the most stable dogs get thrown for a loop when this happens to them. For most dogs, it's a major surprise that humans will interact with them in such a way. When your dog gets into a situation that they're unfamiliar with, all bets are off on how they'll react. Some dogs don't mind but others can turn into a pile of mush that just wants to slip away from focus.
Reason #2 - Kids are unpredictable
Every time I think I know what a kid is going to do around one of my dogs, they prove me wrong. This is a big reason why I love to have all of my dogs have dedicated time around kids because they are always going to go left when I think they're going to go right.
Due to the unpredictability of kids, I've come to believe that households that have children in them and are raising an assistance dog, tend to be more stable to random interactions.
For the vast majority of adult-only households, day to day life is regimented and consistent. Dogs won't experience a complete meltdown over spilled milk or sudden banging and slamming noises. This is everyday life for a dog who lives in a house with children, forcing them to adapt to the situation and not think twice about it.
An example of the randomness kids bring to the table just happened to Newport and me last week while we were around a couple of kids and a toddler. Every time the toddler approached Newport, she would emit a piercing scream of joy and excitement right into Newport's face. What happened next surprised me though, she was holding a small bamboo shoot, that the other kids were playing fetch with. Instead of throwing it away from the dog, she threw it right at Newport! Luckily it was light and it just kind of bounced off his shoulder.
That was an unexpected thing that I didn't plan for. It also taught Newport a valuable lesson, things can just happen and we have to be okay when they happen.
I worked with Newport to maintain a level of calmness and confidence to be unphased with these incidents occur and to be along for the ride.
Reason #3 - Kids are the same size as your dog
Being around humans that are the same size as them, can be a game-changer for your dog, especially when that human is a toddler.
Our dogs spend the majority of their time looking up at us, which has a certain level of respect built into it. When your dog interacts with a small child or toddler, this dynamic is radically shifted.
For Newport, the only time he experiences people at eye level is when I'm on the ground with him. And that doesn't happen except for very specific times when we're either training, spending time with him on the floor, or cradling.
Having another person right at eye level creates a very different dynamic for our dog. Some dogs are okay with it, while others get a little spooked or feel it's an opportunity for them to be dominant with the children.
It's important to supervise interactions in a controlled environment with your dog and teach them what it is appropriate to do and what is not appropriate when around children who are at their eye level.
Reason #4 - Learning to forgive
You don't know what kids will do, there will be a time just like with the bamboo shoot, where a child causes discomfort for your dog and your dog needs to learn to forgive them immediately.
If a child or anyone for that matter does something that aggravates or even causes discomfort to our dog, they need to learn not to respond to the stimuli. Some dogs are naturally inclined to do this while others need to practice this behavior.
You want to make sure that your dog doesn't react aggressively or nips at the child. You want the dog to be okay with this, as well as just to forgive and say, "You know what, things happen and I'm going to let that slide."
This turns into a bigger conversation around the safety of not only your dog but of children and adults. You want to make sure that if something happens and you're not able to control the situation your dog doesn't react.
You don't want your dog to nip or even bark for that matter at the child. If anything, the most that you'd want to see is that your dog gets up and moves away.
Teaching your dog to forgive is really, really important, and is something that you can work on with your dog by making these experiences positive. Some examples would be to desensitize your dog to having their flanks pulled and squeezed, having their paws squeezed, or even their hamstrings.
The idea is that when a child or anyone for that matter does something like that, your dog is okay with it because they are used to it. They're not getting startled in a way that they're going to reach back and snap at a child, right?
This is important because brass tacks here if your dog bites someone, they're certainly not going to be able to go out into public because that's a safety concern. You also run the risk of having your dog being put down, as well as putting you into a liability situation where you potentially have to pay for medical bills.
Taking the time at home and in controlled environments to teach your dog to forgive, and not react aggressively towards a person or a child when they cause discomfort.
Reason #5 - Controlling their energy
The ability of your dog to control their emotions, energy, and reactional state is key for any assistance or therapy dog regardless of the situation. This is not an overnight skill, this is something your dog will develop over time and experience.
When there is a child around, they can swing from calm to very excited in moments, creating a unique roller coaster of emotions for your dog to experience and handle. What often happens is your dog will jump along for the ride and get just as excited as the child who's in front of them, leading to a feedback loop of continual excitement until it comes crashing down.
What often happens is the child will get overwhelmed and the excitement switches to fear. This is because the situation was very different when the dog was calm and laying down. Now that fun furry thing is jumping around and appears to be much larger and scarier then originally expected.
Another common interaction is when a child will start to run and the dog wants to run after them, which can also become very intense for the child.
If you see this occurring, redirect your dog to something else, staying focused with them, and teaching them to be calm and in control of their energy in the moment.
Socializing your future assistance or therapy dog to kids can take a lot of energy but the payoff is huge. You never know when you'll cross paths with children, by taking the time to work with your dog to appropriately handle the situation the better off the two of you will be.
For me personally, one of the best feelings is allowing a child to have a positive experience with a dog which can possibly spark a passion for working with dogs in the future.
Once they are comfortable with being around children, you can transition to having your dog be worked by kids which opens to the door to another great experience and socialization in your dogs training journey.