I grew up with Bullmastiffs. So when the opportunity arose to adopt a 4-month-old female, my husband and I jumped at the chance.
At the time, my children were ages 5 and 7, and I knew it was a great time to get a pet. However, growing up with dogs did not prepare me for the responsibility of pet ownership – especially with kids. Training a dog to follow the house rules is not easy, but when your house is shared with Brutus AND the kids, you need to be even more diligent.
I thought that I was well versed in “doggie do’s and don’ts,” but I wasn’t prepared for our dog’s reaction to my son’s fearful friend or containing the dog during sleepover parties. Even if Brutus reacts well to your child’s unabashed peccadilloes, he may not have the same tolerance for visitors whom he has not grown to trust. By consistently following some common sense rules and learning to understand your dog’s instinctive reactions, your dog can function safely and peacefully in a home filled with children.
Is a Dog the Right Pet for Your Family?
If you are not at all familiar with what dog ownership entails, research is a necessity. Puppies are a lot of work and require constant attention. Therefore it is not a good idea to get a new puppy while raising babies or preschoolers, for they too require incessant supervision. For older children, a dog is not only a great companion, but he can also serve as a catalyst for teaching your children responsibility.
Bardi McLennan, an author and breeder, points out in her book, Dogs and Kids: Parenting TIps (Hungry Minds, Inc.), “Studies show that children who have a bond with a companion animal show more maturity than those who don’t.” If you put in the work from the start, everyone’s experience will be a positive one.
What type of breed are you interested in? Some dogs do better with children than others, so merely purchasing a breed because it looks cute in a movie or through the pet store window is not sufficient. Do extensive research on the breed you are interested in and talk to dog owners.
McLennan says, “Generally speaking, large dogs are better with small kids than small dogs. They tend to be less active and can take the activity level of this age group without being stressed out by it.” Big dogs also tolerate a lot of physical contact. Our Bullmastiff allows my children to climb and tug at her without a glance.
She seems literally immune to their sudden and physical displays of affection. McLennan also warns that tiny dogs are not for tiny tots. This is because they can be easily injured by an unsteady toddler and are less tolerant of being tugged at. Collies, Labradors and Golden Retrievers make great family pets.
The Bullmastiff is wonderful with children, but they are also extremely protective of the family kids. In general a spayed or neutered dog is better around kids because they tend to be calmer and less aggressive. Again, researching a potential breed (temperament, tolerance with children, trainability, etc.) is paramount to finding the right fit.
When Puppy Came First
If you are expecting a baby and Brutus is already a permanent resident, you will need to prepare your dog for the baby’s arrival. In some ways, this preparation is similar to how you would prepare a toddler or young child for an infant’s arrival. Your dog can easily become jealous or feel attention-starved just as a child might feel, so it is important to think of your dog’s feelings in order to help him acclimate to the new family dynamic.
McLennan states, “An older child can be taught not to pull the dog’s hair, ears or tail, but you cannot explain these potential hazards to a 6-month-old baby or a 10-year-old dog. You are the only one who can envision a possible accident, so you follow two rules: supervise or separate.”
McLennan also insists that you must wean your dog of your attention before you bring your new baby home. In other words, start to make changes in your daily routine months before the baby’s due date. If Brutus has always received your undivided attention, find time throughout the day to deliberately separate yourself from him.
There will be times (i.e. while nursing or changing the baby) when he will need to be gated away from you and your baby for safety reasons. If he becomes used to small separations now, he will not perceive this as punishment and associate it with the baby. Introduce your dog to the baby’s new room. Allow him to sniff its contents. Also gate him away from the room on occasion.
Once the baby has arrived, bring home a piece of her clothing for Brutus to sniff so that he gets used to her scent. If Mom is Brutus’ primary caregiver, Mom should enter the home without the baby (let Dad hold her instead) and lavish Brutus with affection. This will put him at ease. Bend down to hold the baby by Brutus’ nose so he can sniff her. Stay calm and speak gently to him. Holding the baby up high and away from your dog is seen as a protective stance in “dog language.”
This will make him nervous and may very likely prompt him to jump up. McLennan instructs, “It is a big mistake to keep the dog completely away from the baby.” It is a necessity that they get to know each other from the start. A positive greeting puts you on the right track.
Older Kids and Their Best Friend
Teach your older children how to approach the dog. An underhand greeting beneath the dog’s nose is best. Explain that staring and sudden and violent arm flailing is perceived as aggression by the dog and might cause him to act aggressively in return. The dog can also misinterpret friendly screams and wrestling during play.
Whenever your children have guests, teach these friends the same techniques. Ask a new visitor (especially a child) if he is fearful of dogs. A fearful stranger will very likely cause inconsistent, atypical behavior in your dog. In this case close supervision or separation is necessary regardless of the child’s age. I separate our Bullmastiff from the kids when they have several friends over. I let them say “hello” (for socialization purposes), and then I keep the dog in another area of the house. It is better to be safe than sorry, and owning a large, intimidating breed creates its own set of rules. Your children and their guests also need to be told that teasing is an absolute no-no. All dogs, no matter how darling and docile, have the potential to bite under the right circumstances.
Entrust your older children with much of the physical care of the dog. A child as young as 6 is capable of feeding and grooming a pet. An older child can help with training. My 8-year-old son taught our Bullmastiff “down.” This took much patience, but he was extremely pleased with his success. Your kids will serve as great playmates for your dog, too. My dog gets most of her exercise when my children are around.
A dog can make your home complete. His friendship and unconditional love will ultimately help your children to grow socially and emotionally. With the right training and precautions taken, he will truly become one of the family.
Myrna Beth Haskell is a mother and freelance writer.
Tips for Responsible Dog Owners
- Formal training is always a positive. If a private dog trainer is not in the budget, search for a “Puppy Kindergarten” group training class.
- Socialize your dog from the start – introduce him to many different types of people (especially children) as soon as possible.
- Supervise your dog in the presence of strangers and large groups of people.
- More than one family member should feed your dog so he gets used to lots of people touching his food.
- Be cautious with fearful visitors. They will make your dog nervous.
- Discipline your dog with love, rewards and consistency – NOT corporal punishment!
- Let your children know that they play an important role in the rearing of your dog.
- Listen to your instincts and the instincts of your dog.