After finding out I was expecting a baby a couple of years ago, I put in so much preparation and training to help my dog adapt to the new changes, little did I know having a toddler and a dog would present many new challenges to overcome. However, it is definitely worth it!
Toddlers are full of curiosity: they like to examine things up close; they like to touch and feel things, explore textures and materials. They are also very unpredictable. Because of all this, having a toddler in the house can be very stressful for a dog.
I know from experience that having a dog and a toddler is hard work! I have a nearly two year old, Evie, who adores our dog! Here are five of my top tips and advice for anyone who is in a similar situation.
1 Only ever role model behaviours you want your toddler to display.
Toddlers are sponges. They mimic everything we do. Therefore if you shout at your dog, your toddler will too. If you feed your dog scraps, your toddler will too. If you hug your dog tightly or stroke them when they are relaxing, so will your toddler. All of these things can cause the dog stress and worry.
Instead, model positive behaviours. With my daughter, when Max is in his bed, relaxing, eating, or chewing on a toy – everyone in the house leaves him alone. Whenever he does something good, he is rewarded with praise and a treat. He is spoken to softly, so he is far less likely to feel scared. All of these things are now things my toddler, Evie, is starting to do. It helps her build empathy from a very young age, and it helps him feel more trusting and safe.
2 Educate your child from an early age.
Toddlers are full of energy. They want to play with the dog, they want to chase them. Even though there may be times when your dog is happy to safely and appropriately interact with them, there are also bound to be times when your dog has had enough and wants them to leave him/her alone. If you are thinking that the dog is not likely to be enjoying a particular experience, we need to intervene, especially when your dog is showing signs of stress: lip licking, yawning, turning or moving away from the child or growling (for more information about these signals, please visit https://www.dogstrustdogschool.org.uk/behaviour). Educate the child “Max doesn’t want to play anymore, he’s feeling tired.” “Max doesn’t like to be chased, it scares him.” The child is not likely to understand at first, but patience and perseverance is key. It builds the foundations for respect, trust and kindness. Here are some simple rules you can teach your toddler from an early age!
- Not being noisy/over excitable
- Not hugging, kissing, and lifting the dog
- Not teasing (usually concerning toys)
- Not laying with the dog or disturbing them when they are resting and/or sleeping.
- Not disturbing when eating
3 Let your dog have space when they need it.
Don’t be afraid to sometimes feel you need to separate the child and dog when the dog is feeling stressed and the child doesn’t understand. It is far better that the child is safe and the dog feels safe and relaxed, with their toys and treats in a separate room or behind a stairgate, rather than building up lots of negative experiences with the child. Ensure this separation is not seen as a punishment for the dog, they must have lots of things to do and not feel excluded, treats and toys and a nice comfy safe space are key. Being separated for long periods of time might be stressful or frustrating for the dog, so remember to check in on them regularly and make sure they have tasty long-lasting and safe chews and toys to enjoy while they’re alone.
4 Create safe, positive experiences for the dog.
We all want our children and dogs to have positive relationships. In order to do this, we need to create positive experiences, so the dog associates the children with rewards and nice things.
- When giving your dog a treat, ask the little one to help by dropping it on the floor for them.
- Play safe and appropriate games together, with clear rules for the child and dog. My toddler loves it when I am training Max to paw, disco spin, roll over, because she likes to do the actions too and they both have fun! We also enjoy hiding his treats around the house for him to find! Even though Evie often shows him where they all are! Play these games for short periods of time, and then stop before either the child or dog get over excited, so it’s always fun for them!
- Any interaction with the child should be fun, and the dog should enjoy it! As always, any child must always be supervised with any dog, even if you completely trust the dog. They should never be left on their own, instead we should be actively supervising and involved in any activity between the child and dog to keep both of them safe.
5 Get the toddler working!
Toddlers love having jobs, they love to help! So why not get them helping you with small safe tasks in looking after your dog. This will help them start to model that good behaviour, but also allows the dog to create those positive associations with the child.
This is what Evie loves to do:
- Collect Max’s bowl for me when it is dinner time and help measure out his food.
- Fill Max’s water bowl with clean fresh water (and splash a little bit as well!)
- Collect his kongs for me to fill with treats.
- Gets out his lead, collar and harness when it is time for walkies.
- Let me know when Max wants to go outside.
In no way am I saying that these are simple, easy things to do. But I have made sure that hard work and effort will ensure both the child’s and dog’s safety, I am starting to already see that Evie is developing skills of empathy, respect and responsibility with our dog!