Sunday, April 15, 2012

Children: A Complex and Curious Species

(Kash playing with 11-month old Alexa,
both equally interested in the mysterious covered dish)

The play on the title is not an accident; a great many dogs view children as an entirely different entity than "humans". Even well-socialized dogs understand that children are not at all like their adult version: they have high-pitched voices (that squeak, squeal, and shriek), they move fast - children generally don't walk from place to place as much as adults do ( running is a joyous thing), they are unpredictable in their behaviour, often have limited impulse control, and may even show more fear and uncertainty towards dogs they don't know. Many dogs, who grow up in the presence of children, learn that this stuff is "normal", and as long as parents supervise carefully it can go without a hitch. But for families without children, especially those who live in rural areas, even puppyhood exposure to children can result in dogs who just aren't quite sure what to do in their presence.

I had an interesting experience with Kash today. A wonderful family with two girls, 4 and 10 (I think), came to visit with a pup I am caring for who is looking for her forever home. Now, Kash was exposed to lots of children when he was a puppy. He is generally great on walks when children are present, he gets on well with my niece and nephew, but to be totally honest he doesn't see a ton of children on a daily basis. We don't have kids, we live in a rural setting, and when we are out and about he generally ignores them as I don't often -want- children approaching my dogs on their own, especially without parents present.

So it was an interesting assessment of his level of socialization when these children arrived with their family. He was, overall, great with the older girl. She was calm, laid back, and totally unobtrusive. She actually was surprisingly great with all of the dogs (surprising due to age, not anything specifically about the girl). The interactions with the younger, four-year-old girl were....interesting. The younger girl is a typical, active, child, who does very typical child-like things! Kash really enjoyed her presence immensely if she was sitting and calm, and he would show off tricks, work for her, and solicit attention and touch. However, he was clearly worried when she would run full-tilt directly at him with her arm outstretched (ball in hand), as he would pin back his ears, drop his tail, and back up and bark. Then as soon as she stood still, he would approach again. He chased a ball until he got tired, and did seem to adjust quite well over the 1.5 hour period.  Which just goes to show that it's very rarely an all-or-nothing thing.  He very much likes interacting with her, but at at the same time is not entirely confident in all of her behaviours towards him, as he doesn't understand what some of those behaviours mean.

From this, I have learned that I am going to make an extra effort to take him to places where children tend to be more active - parks, the boardwalk, etc - and actively countercondition him to the quick movements of children, so he learns that running around, running away from him (this wasn't a problem for him at all), running towards him - are not scary things, but normal things that children do!  I'm also going to work on teaching him that children running towards him is a cue for an auto-check in, so that if there is an unsupervised child running at us, I can instruct him on what to do, and know that he'll do it quicky while I intervene with the rampant child.

All in all, it was a great visit, and I do think it was good for him. He had some stressful moments, and in another situation may have approached it differently, but he recovered very quickly and continued to enjoy her presence even if a few moments before she accidentally scared him.  And boy, did he sleep after they left! Between the running for his toy, showing off his tricks, and the small bit of stress he experienced, he napped away the afternoon until suppertime.

For more information on dogs and children, and how to keep everyone safe, please check out the following great programs and resources:
"Be a Tree" Program -
"Dogs and Storks" Program -
"Dogs and Storks" Blog - 

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