I have a dog/kid question to ask you. Next week we are having a “Neighborhood Night Out” Party, pretty much the same as a Block Party. I think it would be a Great Opportunity to socialize my puppy, but is that stepping over boundaries? There would surely be a lot of kids there, would that be asking too much of the puppy? (She’s five months old now.)
Hi Stella! Good for you to be thinking of your puppy’s welfare. Socializing a puppy is pretty much a whole topic in itself but there are some basics before deciding to bring your pup along:
- Will you be able to give your puppy your full attention and support? Are you free to leave if it turns out to be too much?
- Are you willing to bring really good treats? You have the power to define many of your puppy’s first experiences. I see a lot of people just hoping the dog will be OK with some experience or another when they could be actively making it good by mixing in a few treats. Other people and the environment in general seemingly conspire to untrain puppies. Don’t let it happen!
- In short, socialization should be about, “Make it good or make it stop.” You are your puppy’s advocate. There is nothing your puppy “has” to do in the name of socialization or pleasing other people. If an interaction is not going well, stop. Assess the situation and make a better plan for next time.
Socializing Puppies with Children
When taking a puppy out around kids, you’ve got three different things to be on top of:
- What the kids might do to scare the puppy
- What the puppy might do to scare the kids
- What the puppy might learn behavior-wise that you do not want her rehearsing (e.g., jumping up or pulling on the leash)
This is not that different than socializing your puppy in any other situation, with the exception of #2. Even kids that want to greet your puppy can change their minds in an instant or get freaked out when the puppy turns out not to be a stuffed animal after all.
My main goal with my puppy is that he enjoys being with ME “around kids.” We’re a team.
Here are a few suggestions:
- I mostly like to have my puppy notice kids and then eat a treat and move along. No big deal. I don’t take him up to children on purpose to “socialize.” I don’t want it to concern him what children are doing in his vicinity.
- If you are going to allow kids to meet your puppy, coach the kids to “ask the dog” by standing a few feet away and offering inviting body language — patting a leg, kissy sound, crouching down, speaking sweetly. It’s puppy’s choice to approach the child. Children do not get to invade your puppy’s personal space. See previous posts here and here.
- Direct your puppy’s attention to the ground by the child’s feet by placing a few treats there. Keep your comfortable, familiar hand on your dog’s head and clearly direct the interaction — where and how the child may pet, how long, etc. If it’s going well, that’s a good time to stop and go on your way! Too much time will just get your puppy too excited and distracted or increase the probability that something will go wrong.
- If your puppy does not want to approach, accept her answer and advocate for your puppy. Do not try to coax her or have the person offer treats. If you notice a gap in her coping skills, make a plan for how to build those skills for next time.
- I have a rule that kids must bring their parents with them if they want to meet my puppy. No parents across the park on their cell phones.
- Expect that parents will be angry with you if you say, “No,” to their child’s request to pet the puppy or if you redirect children who rush up. See if this post helps.
- Guide the interaction based on what is developmentally appropriate for different age children (see next section).
All Ages Are Not Created Equal!
There is much difference between infants, toddlers, preschoolers and “kids” (generally over age five). Here’s how I divide up what I will allow with my own puppy:
Infants: I have to admit that I have been guilty of stalking other people’s infants. It just seemed infinitely easier than having to have another baby of my own. I like my puppy to be able to see and hear babies and think nothing of them because he’s busy doing something with me or just relaxing and taking in the world. I don’t let him stare or get close enough to investigate the baby, of course. The baby is there; the puppy is here; all is well in the world.
Toddlers: Again, in the name of honesty, I will disclose that I avoid them like the plague if they are on the move and likely to charge at my puppy. Just the other day, I had my puppy sitting by my side watching the goings-on at a busy park path when out of nowhere, a toddler rushed us, “I am going to touch that dog!” I stepped in front of Teddy and blocked her path just as her mom scooped her up and carried her away, “You need to stop and ask! Don’t rush up to dogs!”
Around toddlers, my puppy gets marked for noticing them (“Yep” or click) followed by a treat and probably more click/treats as he walks away with me. Running, screaming toddlers? No big deal, let’s go.
Does this sound weird or over-protective to you? “But he has to get used to toddlers so he’s okay with them later! Isn’t that what socialization is for?” Think about it for a minute. There is nothing I want a toddler to do up close and personal with my puppy. What are the chances a 16 month old baby has a good idea? I think there’s far more risk of sensitizing a puppy to being wary of toddlers if you keep rolling the dice and hoping nothing scary happens. Plus, why should toddlers be allowed to physically explore and experiment with dogs? They can have more opportunity when they are developmentally able to be successful.
Preschoolers: I like my puppy to watch preschoolers from enough distance that he’s comfortable and still able to eat treats and be attentive to me. In real life, mostly you want your dog to let preschoolers do their own thing without care. Usually, puppies need at least a little bit of foundation training so they can be around exciting activity without needing to join in so I look at preschoolers as that sort of impulse control training opportunity.
Do I let preschoolers “meet” my puppy? Maybe. I draw my line at the point where a child can have a reasonable conversation with me. If it’s, “Doggie, Doggie, Doggie!” then it’s “No, No, No!” from me. These are the very kids that need to hear, “No.” And, their parents need to hear that it’s not safe for kids to rush up to dogs. It doesn’t matter if my dog is “okay” with it. The next dog might not be.
Kid-Kids (Over Age Five): Kids are great! If we are talking about kids who will follow directions, that is. And, really, that’s most kids if you give them clear instruction and encouragement. Kids can be a big help in puppy training and it’s a nice chance to teach kids safe, kind ways of interacting with dogs.
Whatever You Do, Be WITH Your Puppy
I have a bit of a collection of photos like this one. If you’re out with a puppy (or adult dog, for that matter!), you’ve got to be at least looking at what the puppy is doing. Yes, this seems like a gentle girl of the right age making friends so that’s good at least. But the puppy is leaving her owner and straining on the leash and that’s going to be trouble when the puppy gets stronger. Remember, too, that “good moments” can change in an instant.
If you’re out with your puppy, be WITH your puppy.