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the impact dogs have on children & how to ensure their safety

one of the greatest mutualistic relationships in biology is between the human and canine species. humans are able to enrich the lives of dogs by providing shelter, food and protection. in return, our canine companions offer physiological and psychosocial benefits to humans both young and old but what may be most compelling are the benefits dogs offer to children

children exhibit immense plasticity and capacity to learn new skills while their brains are still in the development stage. the unconditional acceptance and non-judgemental audience a dog provides is an important aid for children. Whether practicing reading aloud, opening up in a therapy room to describe traumatic events and feelings, or learning new behaviors or skills, a dog's mere presence harbors a feeling of stress relief and releases oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine - feel good hormones in the brain

the volume of peer reviewed scientific journals regarding the impact of a dog's presence and interaction with children is astronomical. in addition to hormone induction, other physiological effects include lower heart rate, cortisol levels and blood pressure. psychosocial and cognitive benefits include a decrease in depression, anxiety, aggression, and attention deficit and an increase in empathy, social integration, school attendance, and stronger bonds with parents and friends. a study by anke prothman, m.d. in 2006 and 2009 indicated that children with pervasive developmental disorders including autism and various psychiatric diagnoses exhibited more social extroversion when around a dog

while there are many positive impacts a dog has on a child's life, it is paramount that canine body language and proper handling of dogs is taught to children. children can be victims to dog bites if they are unaware of stress signals and engage in behaviors that encourage aggression. with proper guidance and education, we can enrich the lives of children and set them up for success through their canine connections

some important info for ensuring safety for dogs and children together:

  • supervision: dogs and young children should never be left alone together

  • body language: children are capable of understanding dog body language and communication. teaching children to look for the body language cues that indicate stress or a desire to be left alone can prevent a bite

  • how to show a dog affection: children learn to express their affection for others by hugging and kissing. they often want to express their affection for dogs in the same way although dogs do not instinctively enjoy hugs and kisses. showing affection in that way is a major cause of dog bites to the face, head or neck. parents should teach their children how to interact with their dog safely - generally dogs enjoy soft petting on their chest and neck.

  • always ask permission: teach children all dogs are individuals and each one is different. therefore, they must always ask before petting someone else’s dog in order to avoid a potentially dangerous situation

  • safe play: one of the most common games children play is “tag.” they might also enjoy wrestling or roughhousing. explain to children that because dogs do not have hands, if one is chasing them, they may try to catch you with their mouth. dogs also often use their mouths when wrestling. this can be unsafe and also teaches a dog to use her mouth at inappropriate times. children should only play safe games such as Fetch and hide-and-seek with dogs

  • food and toys: do not allow children to take food or chew toys away. a dog may communicate irritation by growling or biting

  • freeze: many dogs are driven to chase and catch something fleeing from them. teach a child that if they ever find themself in a situation where a dog is chasing them or they are scared, they should freeze i.e. stop and stand still & avoid eye contact. failure to do so can incite aggressive behavior from a dog. if a child falls or gets knocked down by a dog, they should curl up into a ball, hide their face with their arms, and stay quiet and still until the dog walks away. remaining still and ignoring a dog maximizes the possibility that they will lose interest and walk away

  • limit interaction with unknown children: confine your dog when friends are visiting. even if a dog has a great relationship with one child, do not expect your dog to have the same relationship with your child's friends. this prevents any incidents between a dog and children who might not know how to interact with her

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