I am often witness to people talking about how wonderful their dogs are with children. This often takes the form of “he lets them crawl all over them, and just loves it.” Far too often, this is followed in six months or a year by the tale of the child being “snapped at” (almost always with zero injury to the child) and the dog is on the chopping block. That’s why it’s so incredibly critical to understand what “good with kids” actually means.
In a healthy dog pack, very young puppies are given what is called “puppy license.” They’re allowed to be rude and silly and do things that are never permitted in the older puppies. Your dog isn’t “loving” what your kids are doing, if they’re climbing all over him–they’re behaving in a very rude way. He’s allowing them to behave like under-age puppies.
The catch here is that the puppy license is always, inevitably, revoked. At some point, as young as two months and pretty much always before four months (in my watching a lot of puppies grow up–this depends very much on the adult, with the dominant adults tolerating crap a lot longer than the middle-rankers), the adults stop smiling indulgently as the puppy bites their ears and they start whipping around and whacking the puppy to the ground with their teeth. The middle-rankers see it as their duty to give the puppy absolute heck until the puppy learns immediate appeasement signals and will drop and roll as soon as an adult enters his or her frame of vision.
Right now in my pack we have two adults, an adolescent, and a baby puppy. Clue, as ranking adult, lets the puppy do all kinds of crazy things to her and in fact “dumbs down” her own play to interact with him. She very gently rolls him and bumps him and then reverses, rolling on her own back to let him pretend to dominate her, and she’s got a relaxed open mouth and smile the whole time. Ginny, second-in-command outside and an agitator for ranking adult inside (most of her time inside is spent trying to dominate Clue) has virtually no play interactions with the puppy. She watches him and leaps to punish him if he makes so much as a feint in her direction. She never puts a mark on him, of course, but she does the doggy equivalent of hand-slapping every time he acts like a big dog (for example, if she sees him walk by with head/tail up). Bronte, who is an adolescent/lower-ranking/the scout and alarm dog, basically ignores the puppy. Her job is patrol and the only ones she plays with are Clue and Sparky (an adolescent visitor, my sister’s dog, who comes over a few times a week; Bronte and Sparky are similar in rank and in role, so they play together well).
So, in my group, Clue still grants puppy license. Ginny has revoked it.
If this were applied to kids, Clue would tolerate them rolling on her, Ginny quite definitely would NOT (and this is in fact true) and Bronte would look at whatever dominant person or dog was around for a signal of what to do.
None of these dogs are unsound or unstable or poorly trained or “bad with kids.” They are acting in ways that make sense in a pack and neither choice is worse or better. In the same way, some dogs grant kids a license that is quite broad, but that does not mean that the license stays there forever. It is NEVER a good idea to let kids interact with a dog unsupervised; all it takes is one action (adding a nose poke to the body pressure, or kicking, or whatever) for the adult to decide that this rude little puppy needs some license removed. I would also say that it’s important to teach kids that crawling all over a dog is exactly like crawling all over a human–it’s actually rude, an invasion of personal space and an inappropriate contact, and there are better and more polite ways of interacting with the dog.
My Danes were always extremely tolerant of pressure too, and of course I smiled as they would roll over and let the baby at the time put her head on them. But I knew I was pushing it, and now, years later, I am not sure I’d tolerate it.
I just had something happen that I think illustrates this very well.
I brought Zuzu, who is now eight months, upstairs to my older girls’ room to ask them to watch her while I went downstairs to make coffee. Ginny (again, social climber, disciplinarian, very intolerant of puppies), who sleeps with them, was up there. She saw me put the baby down on one of our low bed/futons. She immediately jumped off her bed, trotted over, jumped up on the futon, crept on her belly to about six inches away from the baby, and carefully rolled over to expose her belly to the baby, and squeezed her eyes shut. I let the baby touch her chest, and then said “good girl, Ginny.” Ginny immediately rolled back over, stood up, jumped off that bed, and ran back to her own bed.
If you’re not careful, you could interpret that as “Oh, Ginny loves the baby!” Ginny is actually constantly worried that a kid will hurt her, because she’s so tiny, and does NOT love the baby. It was a very ritualistic contact that showed something about Ginny’s relationship with ME, not her relationship with the baby. I am big bad leader bitch; I proudly show off my unweaned milk-smelling puppy, everyone in the pack must show obeisance to me and their tolerance of my unweaned puppy.
When she’s weaned, though, fuggetit. Ginny does not tolerate rough kids; she yelps and tries to run and if prevented from doing so she will whack with her teeth.
The lesson here? ALWAYS SUPERVISE, and PREVENT RUDE CONTACT.
Virtually all dogs are absolutely predictable. There’s not a lot of mystery in terms of what makes a dog use a punishing bite on a child. And kids–even dog-savvy kids–do stupid things. If, while I was away, my children decided to try to clip a dog’s nails, got the clippers and backed her into the corner and grabbed her face to try to hold her still, how is the dog supposed to walk away from that? But that’s exactly the kind of thing that kids do–they practice being vets, or groomers, or trainers. Approximately five gabillion times I’ve taken leashes away from them, or clippers away from them, or rectal thermometers away (my four-year-old really, really thought she was going to take the dog’s temperature), or stopped them from playing “show” in the hallway, etc. Since my entire house is filled with dog stuff, it would take the littler ones about two minutes to drag a chair over, open a cabinet, and grab a stripping knife and try to hand-strip the dog.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that you CAN keep kids and dogs separated if they’re unsupervised. I think of the dogs like I’d think of a bath full of water–great with me there, but I never walk away from it. If I’m going more than a few feet away, I just pop the baby or the dog through a baby gate (they’re installed in basically every room) or take the dog with me, or send the toddler upstairs, etc. It’s not difficult or complex and it doesn’t take up my day. I just don’t leave them alone together.