I need help baaaadly! My wife and I have a 9mo. old and my inlaws are our everyday babysitter. They have four dogs. Two of them, I don’t worry about. The other two however are a different story; these dogs are in there teen years energy wise. One is a Louisiana catahoula and the other is a mutt of some sort. They play rough and fast and we are worried because my mother in law does not think they will harm her (on purpose).
The mutt has already accidentally severely scratched my babies back by stepping on her back. Shrugged it off and went on with life. Last week my daughter is in the I like to pull on things stage. 9mo old and was tugging on the mutts leg or beard (not sure which as I’m getting different stories) then he growled once or twice apparently as a warning. Then he snapped at her. Didn’t hurt her but not cool.
So what should we do, pull her out and into a different daycare? Dogs are wonderful but are animals. They will defend themselves just like any other species. So aside from staying right next to my daughter and making sure 24/7 she doesn’t touch them, what can we do to assure she is truly safe?
I’m sorry, Matt, for your family’s distress.
There is a lot tangled up in this situation. First, how to manage different expectations among family members and, second, under what conditions might it be safe to have dogs intermingled with children in a daycare situation? And, of course, the big question that haunts all of us through every stage of parenthood, “How can I assure my child’s safety?” I wish I had a fail safe answer to that third question, but I can tackle the other two.
The main thing is to be clear in your own head when you, or others, are choosing to rely on hope as a method of bite prevention. Another measure I use is, would I say, “I knew it!” if something bad happened?
Baby + Extended Family’s Dogs
Two factors at play here:
- Hardly anyone has constructive conversations with family about what you think they are doing wrong
- It’s kind of a “beggars can’t be choosers” situation if family is watching your child for little or no pay
Other people’s dogs and how they are managed is a touchy conversation – no two ways about it! When you say, “I have concerns about the dogs,” they hear some variation of, “I think you are a bad person” or “I know better than you.” You and I can agree that the dogs should be better managed around your baby, but the trick is to find common ground with your mother-in-law and build from what you both can agree on.
A dog trainer (!) cannot be your only source for learning how to do that, but I can recommend two books that I think will be very helpful.
If all you can see is, “Grandma is crazy and won’t listen to me!,” I don’t think you’ll be able to get the situation to change. Even if Grandma gives lip service to your concerns, you are not there to see that the changes are being made. Grandma has to truly understand and agree and the solution has to be manageable for her. Other readers may have good suggestions for how they handled similar situations or you may benefit from discussion with a competent family counselor.
Your obvious point of agreement is the safety and well-being of the child. Start from there and build common ground.
Baby + Dog at Daycare
Even without it being Grandma watching the kids, any other in-home daycare situation may involve dogs in the home and every family has to evaluate the situation to make sure it fits their acceptable risk profile.
Sometimes it helps to substitute different scenarios and see where you draw your lines.
For example, here are some situations which would surely prompt further questioning before just hoping for the best:
- Daycare provider has guns in the house
- Daycare provider smokes
- Daycare provider has a swimming pool
Pets should certainly be on that list, don’t you think?
Some people may cross off any of those situations right off the bat. Other times, your choices may be limited or there are other wonderful things about the situation that make you willing to discuss how the risks are managed:
- Loaded guns lying around the play areas (NOOO!) vs. “Yes, we have guns and they are kept in this locked, inaccessible safe” (Maybe)
- Daycare provider smokes around the children (NO) vs. “I limit my smoking to outside and never when I have children here” (Maybe)
- Pool is unfenced right by where the children play (NO) vs. “Here is the pool fencing and the locked gate and alarm system” (Maybe)
I used to be a CPA and an internal auditor. The focus of an audit is not so much on catching what was done wrong as it is on evaluating internal controls — what procedures and safeguards are in place to prevent errors and bad things from happening? Because you are absolutely right that you cannot be there 24/7 to keep your child safe.
Your peace of mind needs more than assurances that nothing bad has happened in the past or trusting that someone is nice and means well and will “watch the kids.” It’s nothing personal to expect procedures to be well-thought out and implemented in a daycare situation.
How Does this Apply to Dogs in Daycare?
Guns, smoking, pools – these seem objectively reasonable to ask about and for a daycare provider to have already thought through. (You’d think, right?!)
But, what about dogs or other pets? People may assume it’s okay because they believe their dog is “good with kids.” What does that really mean? Usually, the statement is backed up by giving a number of examples of inappropriate things kids have done in the past with the evidence that the dog has not (yet) bitten. Not good enough!
What can you learn by meeting the dog yourself? I don’t know if you can learn anything other than what would be clear “no ways” in my book (remember, you are writing your own book!):
- Dog is regularly kept on a chain or otherwise isolated from family life. The term used is “resident dog” to refer to dogs that are not really what we could consider pets more than dogs that happen to live on the property. Fatal attacks and maulings are often attributed to resident dogs. Here is a nice summary of the difference.
- Dog is showing fearful body language or avoidance around you or any children present (See Body Language post here and research more!)
- Owner displays rough handling of the dog and/or yells at the dog
- Dog displays any growling or biting/nipping/chasing
- Dog is new to the family
- A strong, powerful dog requires a clear-eyed assessment
So, while you might uncover some reasons not to leave your child in that situation, there is nothing you can see in a single evaluation that would assure the dog would not react in the future. Good dogs have bad days. Good dogs get ear infections or don’t feel well one day or maybe we should all be paying more mind to the old adage about the straw that broke the camel’s back. Plus, you have to always keep in mind that your child’s experience with this “good dog” may cause your child to acquire behaviors that put him or her at risk of a bite from someone else’s dog that will not be as tolerant.
For me, I wouldn’t want to hear anything about the good nature of the dog. What I want to hear are the internal controls in place to prevent an incident. For example,
- Just like you’d assign something to serve as the lifeguard around a pool, an adult should be “assigned” to the dog whenever the dog is around the children. This person should be well-versed in how to guide interactions where appropriate, how to redirect younger children and how to reinforce calm responses from the dog. Practical? Probably not. Beside, if you had an “extra” person in a daycare situation, wouldn’t you rather that person was working with the kids than babysitting the dog?
- So that means there needs to be some sort of effective physical separation between the dog and the kids during times when the adults are giving their full attention to the children. This means that there is no way a child could inadvertently access the dog when an adult’s attention was diverted. Supervision is overrated as the only safety measure. As parents, we all know that there are times we are distracted or caught up with another child’s urgent situation to 100% control what young children are doing 24/7. So, the access to the dog needs to be child-proof.
- Consider, too, your own child’s level of magnetization to dogs. Is your child likely to try to pet a dog that comes close? Will he or she go in search of the doggie? Want to hug the dog? Retaliate if the dog takes her food or toy? You can build better “internal controls” by helping your child build safe, respectful behavior around all animals.
Regardless of whether it’s family or paid caregivers, your ultimate responsibility as the parent does not change. Evaluate your caregiver situations for safety and make your best guess as to the probability of something bad happening given your review of internal controls and your knowledge of your own child’s likely behavior. (Which, by the way, is a crapshoot when it comes to toddlers so do not assume the best and be left saying, “I told him to leave the dog alone!,” as if instructions to a two-year-old absolve adults of responsibility.)
In my own time with toddlers, I traded babysitting one half day a week with a friend. Thinking back, we both had dogs. Why did I think that was okay vs. the seeming strictness of the advice above? I’m pondering that now. The child-adult ratio surely plays a part. One parent present with two children engaged in the same activity seems reasonable. The low number of children meant it wasn’t likely to put a strain on the dogs’ patience (meaning, it wasn’t much different than normal). I think, too, that her two dogs were mostly kept on the patio for the few hours she watched the kids and my son was not interested in dogs.
But look at this picture below. It’s of my friend’s son and my dog. He wasn’t feeling well so he’s lying on my couch with our dog for company. Super cute but how do you know when this is a nice experience for both of them vs. a desire for the fantasy that asks too much? Do you want someone else making that call?
What Do You Think?
Sometimes I wonder if I’m way over the top on dog/baby/toddler safety but I don’t see anyway around it if we do not want to simply hope for the best. With bite statistics indicating that 50% of our children will be bitten by a dog before turning twelve years old and dogs losing their homes and even their lives in return, surely the status quo isn’t working. What do you think is a ideal daycare set-up for dogs and children?