Many years ago, I started my career as an Early Years teacher. Fast forward 25 years and I have my second dream job as Education Officer for Dogs Trust. You can imagine how excited I was to be asked to develop a resource for the pre-school age group, as part of our ‘Be Dog Smart’ programme.
I was having a great time delivering workshops in primary schools to children aged 7 to 11, exploring how we can behave around dogs to ensure our own safety and the dog’s wellbeing. Meanwhile, the nursery teacher in me was wondering if there was scope for working with pre-school children, especially since NHS hospital admissions data records age 1-4 as the second highest group to be admitted due to a dog bite or strike (England NHS bitten or struck by a dog data 2018-2019).
Interestingly, in younger children research also shows “most dog bites occur at home; often the bite is located on the face, head or neck and is inflicted by a familiar dog. These incidents are most often preceded by a child-initiated interaction with the dog” (Arhant et al 2017).
Of course, pre-school children don’t have the maturity to control their own behaviour in the same way as their older siblings, so any programme would need to involve responsible adults as well. But the research was a powerful reason to develop something for this age group.
When developing our intervention and offering with this audience, we decided to consult the experts: those working in the Early Years field. An online survey, shared on social media, had more than 1,300 responses from Early Years practitioners, a level of interest which took us by surprise! The vast majority of respondents (86%) thought that teaching pre-school children about being safe around dogs was very important, and even more (93%) thought that it was very important to develop empathy towards animals in this age group.
Next, members of the Education Team had follow-up conversations with more than 50 EY settings across the UK. A common thread in these conversations was how EY practitioners value books as a tool when introducing children to new ideas and use songs to help them remember instructions.
As for books, the huge advantage from Dogs Trust’s point of view is that most nurseries have systems for children to take books home to share with their parents and carers. Given the central importance of parental supervision in improving the safety of young children around dogs, we knew that involving parents was vital. And so, the idea was hatched to produce a book for pre-school children, with notes for adults, and some catchy songs.
The ‘Be safe, be kind’ book, has now been trialled in EY settings across the country with positive feedback. It introduces children to four adorable dogs, each with their individual likes and dislikes. Sharing it at nursery or home, children develop empathy skills by seeing similarities between themselves and the dogs. For example, Sam the golden Labrador likes playing with his friends and sleeping with his teddy, while Buddy the collie-cross likes splashing in muddy puddles. Each dog has a simple ‘Be safe, be kind’ rule which links to the thing they dislike. Elsa, a beautiful mixed breed, is scared of fireworks: we should stay quiet around dogs. Millie, who is small, white and fluffy, does not like children: we must always ask before touching somebody’s dog.
The three ‘Be safe, Be kind’ songs at the back of the book use familiar tunes so they’re easy for even the least confident adult singer! They reinforce the ‘Be safe, be kind’ rules, with the flexibility to incorporate simple actions and the names of the children’s own dogs. The credit for one song should go to the pupils at a Forest School Kindergarten in Bristol, where I was trialling an early version of the book. Sitting around a campfire in the woods at the end of my session, ‘Hugs and kisses are for people we love, but not for dogs’ (to the tune of ‘The wheels on the bus’) was composed!
‘Be safe, Be kind’ is intended to be interactive and for children to get the most out of the book it’s essential to revisit it several times, with lots of discussion. For this reason, it is best read with small groups, whilst the songs work well with a large group of pre-schoolers singing noisily together! The notes include questions adults can ask to promote discussion. Can we tell that Millie doesn’t like children by looking at her? How would you like it if somebody woke you up when you were having a nice snooze with your teddy?
Feedback from parents and EY settings during the development phase suggests that ‘Be safe, Be kind is easy to use and can help children (and adults) learn to behave more safely around dogs. One parent of a 4-year-old commented:
“We have a dog called Bella and the other day when Bella was eating, she said, “I won’t stroke her now because you shouldn’t touch a dog while they’re eating.” It’s definitely had an impact on her!”
‘Be safe, Be kind’ is now available to download FREE. Whether you’re an EY practitioner looking for a new book to support activities about staying safe or caring for animals; a grandparent keen to prepare your grandchildren for the arrival of your new pup; a childminder with a dog of your own; or a parent with a pre-school child, ‘Be safe, Be kind’ is for you. Let us know what you and your child(ren) enjoyed most, and of course what both adults and children learnt, via email at [email protected]!
Arhant, C., Beetz, A.M. and Troxler, J., 2017. Caregiver reports of interactions between children up to 6 years and their family dog—implications for dog bite prevention. Frontiers in veterinary science, 4, p.130.
NHS, 2019. https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/find-data-and-publications/supplementary-information/2019-supplementary-information-files/admissions-to-hospital-for-dog-bite-injuries accessed 18.08.2021