Bringing your dog or puppy to a public setting is a great way to help him socialize, build confidence, and gain better manners and control.The dog or puppy is introduced to all the fun things life has to offer. During a recent training lesson, I took five month-old Cora, a Labrador retriever puppy, to an outdoor shopping area for a meet and greet. Skateboards, food stands, and running kids all competed for her attention, but when a group of four young squealing girls ran straight up to her and put their hands on her all at once, Cora cowered.
I asked the girls to back up so we could start over. I gave each girl a treat to offer the puppy. One at a time, they crouched down sideways so Cora could approach from the side at her own pace. Each girl took a turn at this, offering a treat and keeping her hands down so Cora could decide how much or how little direct contact she wanted. At first, Cora came up cautiously, but after gobbling a couple of treats, she was fully recovered from the surprise and licking each girl’s face in turn.
Young puppies imprint early experiences in ways that affect them throughout their lives. Even adult dogs will memorize events and access that memory later in a similar setting. It is our job as their human guardians to introduce new people, especially children, in a relaxed manner that allows the dog to make a positive association.
1. Control the setting: Kids leaning over the front of the dog or putting a hand on top of the head, something all kids seem to do, will likely make your dog back up or turn away. Ask the child to wait a second while the dog gets a good look or sniff first. Your dog should have the option to either approach or not.
2. Assess your dog’s stress level: If more than one child approaches at once, especially if they’re carrying something or wearing shades and a hat, you may see your normally friendly pooch lick his lips, duck his head, stare with a worried expression, or yawn. These are stress signals than mean, “Slow down; I’m nervous”. These are clear signs from your dog and should be heeded. You may finesse this situation by asking the children to simply toss a treat near your dog’s feet. Or, ask the kids to siton a bench nearby andsimply talk with them about dogs. Tell them about stress signals and ask if they ever see those same signals in their own dogs. Even though the kids aren’t hands-on, this type of interaction is just as valuable. Kids learn something and the dog understands that you won’t put him in a position where he feels defensive enough to act out.
3. Your dog seems comfortable with kids approaching: If his tail is loose and wagging, his body is not stiff, and his mouth is open and slack then by all means let the kids come over, but one at a time. Ask the kids how they like to be greeted so they can understand how their approach might lookfrom the dog’s point of view. Then, have each child turn sideways and offer an open hand, but not touch the dog. The dog has to make the first overture and will almost always want to sniff first.
4. Show kids how and where to pet your dog: The dog needs to see the hand coming in to pet him, so instruct kids not to place their hands over his head or on the lower back. The side of the dog’s neck, under the chin, and on the shoulder are all preferred places. Ask kids to move their hands slowly to show confidence and calmness. While this is happening, don’t hold your dog’s leash tightly. That signals tension coming from you and your dog may think something is wrong. Once the kids walk away, give your dog a treat or simply praise him gently.
If you know your dog doesn’t love kids, it’s perfectly OK to say, “He’s not ready for that” when kids ask if they can pet him. Keep your voice casual and light so the dog doesn’t automatically associate children with stress. Your adults-only dog can still benefit greatly from exposure to children at a distance, but only when on leash. Conditioning your dog with treats while you walk past playgrounds, farmer’s markets or even ice cream stores will go a long way in helping him accept the sights and sounds of children as a normal part of a healthy social life.