You’ve done your homework. You have learned about dog body language. You use success stations and proactive separation. You have been diligently facilitating a safe coexistence between your dog and baby. But now you have a toddler. An active, independent, ever-curious, running, climbing, grabbing, throwing, evolving human being. And you worry about how often that dog is separated from the family. Now granted, proactive supervision and success stations are critical to your success (and face it, your sanity), however, active supervision and inclusion are also critical to that success as well as to the emotional and mental well-being of your dog. So how do you make it work? What does inclusion really look like? The reality is that inclusion will look a little different in each family, but today’s blog will hopefully act as a useful guide and provide you with some ideas along the way.
It adjusts with age – Your child is growing and adjusting rapidly, and while certain activities won’t work right now, they may be great ways to include your dog and child in a few months.
This is an invitation – When it comes to close proximity to children, you only ever invite the dog. It should never be a forced interaction or a requirement that the dog be present. The dog should always have the ability to walk away or not approach at all. For that matter, as this is a 2-way dynamic, don’t invite the dog over if your toddler is uncomfortable with that proximity. Respect your child’s need for space as well.
Quiet time – Every child has some quiet periods throughout the day (even my 3-year-old who moves faster than the speed of light and seems to be a hybrid of a spider monkey, a cheetah, and a whirling dervish). Identify the quiet periods in your toddler’s day. Reading time? Dolls? Trains? These (and other) lower-key activities are great times to invite the family dog to join in and get some cuddles with mom or dad while your toddler is quietly playing or you are reading together. Remember to have mom or dad sit between dog and toddler, and be actively engaged with the child. Oh, and that whole invitation thing? See above.
Food games – There are some great ones, but always have safety at the forefront. If you have a dog that gets overly excited and intense around food (or is a resource guarder), then food games are likely not a good idea. Keep toddlers safely elevated so they stay out of reach from the dog and the dog is out of reach for them. A great option here is a step stool with a support bar and a parent next to them. While the variations here are almost infinite, an easy and fun game is to have your dog offer simple cues (sit, down, spin, etc), and then you toss a piece of kibble or a treat away. When the dog returns, ask for another cue and repeat the process. If your toddler is old enough, he or she can throw the treat on the ground for you. In our house, a favorite game for my toddler is learning to use a clicker to train, so he gets a clicker, a treat bag, and his job is to click once, then follow it with a treat. The furry critters get to sit or lie down on towels/mats as their job in this game is to station in a fixed location. Of course mom or dad is always involved in the game, and we all have a good time.
Toddlers love to help – Include toddlers in the responsibility of pet care. Practice pouring by putting kibble in the dog’s bowl, build on fine motor skills while stuffing Kongs or making puzzle toys. Want some ideas on puzzle toys? Have your toddler fill an empty egg carton with small treats, then tape it shut. Or have your toddler fill the cups on a muffin tin with kibble or treats, then they can cover all of the muffin cups with tennis balls that your dog will have to remove to access the food. Looking for a fun game for your dog? Have your toddler scatter treats or half of your dog’s dinner throughout your backyard so your dog can hunt and search to find the food.
Walks – Before I get into walks, I want to lead with the fact that walking a dog and a child together doesn’t work well for every family or every dog, and that is perfectly fine. Some dogs are reactive and will bark/lunge on walks, some are too intense or too amped, others might become frustrated by the 0.1 mile walk that takes 1.5 hours as your toddler inspects every stick, leaf, and sidewalk crack. And sometimes you just want to be present with your child and not worry about that dog. Or maybe you need a break from your child and you want to walk the dog for some dog-parent bonding time. That’s ok, too. If you do want to walk your dog while you have your toddler, consider…will my child be in a stroller? A carrier? Walking? How will I safely navigate passing other dogs? Does my dog walk comfortably next to a stroller? What if my toddler is hungry and tired and can’t hold it together? Can I safely navigate that? Lest all these questions have scared you away from ever walking with your dog and child, I will say while we have certainly had our share of challenges on walks, I have absolutely adored every walk I have done with my own toddler and dog (and we are nearing more than 1,000 of those). Consider the questions, consider your answers, and make the decision that works best for your family and your dog.
Treasure Hunting – for older toddlers and young children, this game is fabulous. But don’t ask me, watch this.
These are naturally just a few considerations and ideas, and inclusion will likely look different in your own home. Remember always to actively supervise dogs and children, and learn what to look for to encourage safe interactions and to promote healthy relationships. Remember, too, that you are a steward to the next generation of dog owners and dog lovers. Help them to grow into responsible pet owners who understand their dog’s emotional, mental, and physical needs.
If you are struggling to maintain safe interactions between the dogs and children in your home, please reach out to a skilled professional who can guide you appropriately.