Even if you don't own a pet (though, likely, you're not reading this blog, if you don't), it is important to teach your children about how to respect animals. One of the most important lessons is how to approach a dog they are unfamiliar with. This teaching can and should begin as soon as your child is mobile, and can be talked about even before then. Ultimately, it is a dog owner's responsibility to control a dog in public, but children must be taught how to behave for their own safety and out of respect for the animal. Here are ten important steps to teach your kids about approaching dogs they don't know:
1. Walk, don't run. Running up to a dog can cause it to become fearful or aggressive. A timid dog will cower and feel uncomfortable, guaranteeing the child won't get a chance to pet her. Even worse, a dog with fear aggression may bite.
2. Don't try to approach a dog that is over-excited, even if it is friendly excitement. The dog may knock you over, and is likely already over-stimulated. No need to add to the chaos by exciting the dog further. Because you're a kid...you're exciting!
3. Allow personal space. Do not get close enough to a dog to touch it before you declare your intentions.
4. Ask. While maintaining a safe distance, ask the dog owner if you may pet the dog. Instead of asking "is your dog friendly?" ask "may I please pet your dog?" This lets the owner know exactly what you're after, and allows him to say "no" without branding his dog as unfriendly.
5. Approach slowly, and make sure the dog is facing you. You want the dog to understand that you will do him no harm. Remember, he doesn't know you, either. Never approach a dog from behind, as you may startle them into a fearful reaction. Most dogs will be aware of your presence, but some may be distracted by other things or may be hard of hearing. Be sure the dog sees you.
6. Put your hand out away from your body, palm up. Dogs see palms as an offer of friendship (and sometimes treats). Palm down can be interpreted as aggressive to some dogs, especially if the hand is above the dog's head.
7. Come in under the dog's chin, and allow her to sniff you. Patting a dog on the head is often our first instinct, but it is a sign of dominance that the dog may not appreciate until he gets to know you better. It's always best to approach from below where the dog can see you.
8. Give a little chin scratch. Once the dog has sniffed you and seems comfortable, give him a little scratch under the chin. This says "I'm friendly, and I respect you."
9. Pet away. If the dog is comfortable with you petting his chin, move to the ears and back and top of the head and rump and belly...you get the idea. Enjoy a friendly dog, but use self control. Never wrestle or grab a dog around the neck for a hug. If the dog seems a bit uncomfortable, don't proceed to this step. Some owners don't know how to say "no," so learn to pick up on a dog's signals.
10. Never put your face in a dog's face. Though some dogs, especially puppies, are hard to resist, you never want to risk being bitten in the face. Doggie kisses can be loads of fun, but, even if they are offered, consider where the dog's mouth may have been. Did he just enjoy a poo snack? Kissing your own dog is one thing, but kissing a dog you don't know is a different story (I have a hard time following this rule, myself).
In addition, we always have to respect a dog owner if she doesn't offer permission to pet. It's rare, but it does happen, and it doesn't always mean the dog is unfriendly or the owner is mean. As a professional pet sitter, it is my policy to not allow anyone to pet my clients' dogs. Even if I know the animal well and am certain it would do well in the situation, I stick to my policy. Children and dogs are both unpredictable, and I'm not willing to take the risk with a dog that isn't mine. While I'm walking the dog, it is my responsibility. I simply say "I'm sorry, this dog isn't mine, and I'm not sure how he'll react, so I can't let you pet him today."
When I'm walking my own dog, it's a different story. I say "sure you can pet her! She'll probably jump on you and kiss you, but if you're okay with that, go for it."
Dogs and kids are a classic combo of fun and happiness. Every situation is different, but by following these steps, you can set your child up for successful friendships and experiences.