One quick way to address child/dog interactions with an eye toward safety is to focus on teaching methods.
Most of us learn by association or habituation. If you offer me an ice cream cone, the odds are that I will be impressed. If I trip and break my leg reaching for the ice cream, that would be an unpleasant association. If someone offering me a second ice cream cone suddenly produced a weapon and took my money and car, I would really have negative feelings toward ice cream cones. In fact, I might actively try to avoid ice cream in the future! Even the sight of ice cream cones might cause the hair to rise up on the back of my neck.
Dogs also learn by association. An insecure, very young or unsocialized dog may slightly raise his hackles at every unfamiliar thing. Many dogs bristle up when a rambunctious child, a strange dog, or the UPS man appears at the door. If the owner "corrects" confused Cuddles with reprimands or leash jerks, she associates these unpleasant things with the appearance of the child, strange dog, or UPS person.
The next time the stimulus occurs, Cuddles may react with raised hackles plus barking or growling. The owner often intensifies his "corrections" to harsher jerking and louder voice commands. Now, the dog is truly convinced that the appearance of some things is, indeed, bad news! Many dogs become so agitated that they display at just the sound of the delivery trucks or tricycles.
Unfortunately for all concerned, this excitement / avoidance reaction from the dog usually escalates in direct proportion to the "corrective" measures taken by the owner ... the harsher and more frequent the corrections, the greater the over all excitement level It's as if the dog now views the original stimulus like some prophet of doggie doom from which there is no escape. The association becomes a pattern.
Really aggressive training methods can combine with certain canine personalities to create an even more problematic situation. If Cuddles is completely squelched from any response at all in the face of the original stimulus, she's, in effect, "shut down." She may now even appear to accept the child, the strange dog, the delivery person.
The owner may think the problem behavior is eliminated, but such bottled up dogs frequently explode when the fuse gets short. An onlooker might be quoted, "Suddenly, without warning, that dog attacked!" This is a no-win situation for the owner, the dog and the victim.
Since we all learn by association, behavior scales can be balanced in everyone's favor by a positive approach. Socialize the puppy as young as possible to as many people, places and things as possible. Make these interactions pleasant. If the veterinarian, children, delivery people and your guests all offer a bit of food or a toy to the puppy, approaching "strangers" will be associated with good news! "Dog friendly training methods produce people friendly dogs."
For more detailed training tips on these and other important safety issues, consider an excellent video tape, SIRIUS PUPPY TRAINING with Dr. Ian Dunbar and the book, THE CULTURE CLASH by Jean Donaldson. Order from Direct Book Service at 1-800-776-2665 or the Center for Applied Animal Behavior at 510-658-8588.
© Maggie Blutreich is an American Kennel Club Public Education Coordinator