Dogs and Children – What are calming signals?

How do we know when enough is enough?

Question 5: What should I be aware of when letting my puppy play with young children?

Pixie’s mum, Sarah got in touch with me yesterday to tell me about a little ‘incident’ with some children. This has led us to reflect on the challenge of allowing young children to spend time around young dogs in particular, but actually any dog.  What do we need to think about and be aware of when doing this?

Here’s Sarah’s description of what happened: “We had a little incident with our neighbour’s young girls (aged 5 & 3) who adore Pixie.  They pop round often and love to play with her.  Their mum is a dog lover and always talks about the way to approach dogs.

“They popped round to say hello.  As it happened we were about to go out and so I said they could just say a quick hello (in the hall).  The girls are a bit competitive for Pixie’s attention and crowded and cuddled her.  Both mum and I asked the girls to be gentle, but Pixie let them know she wasn’t happy by gently nipping one of them on the nose.   The little girl was a bit shocked and there were a few tears.  Mum was sorry the girls had caused Pixie to behave that way and of course I felt bad for both the little girl and poor Pixie for not stepping in sooner.

“My message would be, that it is our responsibility and duty to protect our dogs from being put in a situation where they have no choice but to nip, it can happen so quickly.   I’m sure the girls will continue to come and play, as Pixie loves to see them as much as they do her.  I will teach them not just how to play with Pixie so everyone enjoys it, but I’ll also teach them the smaller signs a dog gives that they aren’t happy and need to have a break.

“This happened even when both my neighbour and I have been careful to watch how the girls play with Pixie.  I can easily see how accidents happen.”

This is a great example of how easily things can go wrong.  As Sarah says, it wasn’t the dogs fault, nor the child’s.  We need to be mindful of what dogs can and cannot tolerate.  I have written about this on the information page Dogs and Children but I will just summarise again here.

Calming Signals

Watch for these three really easy to see calming signals in your dog.  All of them indicate you should intervene and separate the child and dog:

      • Yawning outside the context of waking up
      • Half-moon eye – this means you can see the whites on the outer edges of your dog’s eyes.
      • Lip licking outside the context of eating food

In this photo of Aura with my niece, none of these signals are there.  Even so, I wouldn’t say that she is loving Bella cuddling up to her.  Here’s another picture of the pair of them:

This is much better.  I would describe this as a great example of a dog interacting with a child on their terms. In other words, Aura has had the chance to come over to Bella.  Bella is sitting down, so no chasing or grabbing.  Aura can get up and move away, at any time.  She is therefore loving the attention.  Good job Bella!

My simple rule, to say to children is this:

“Don’t grab, don’t chase, don’t get in their face.”

After all, you wouldn’t like someone to do it to you, would you?  Top tip: I sometimes demonstrate to children what it is like for the dog, by crowding into them and being noisy – they may cry!  It’s a great way to make them understand though.

Please note: I am not a qualified dog behaviourist or trainer.  I have owned border collies for many years and raised a number of puppies, so I am an experienced dog owner, that is all.  Information provided here represents my opinion, based on my experience.


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