Families trust me with their most precious possessions, their children, and so safety is always on my mind. Parents are always thinking about it, too. Sometimes I work with overprotective parents who won’t allow reasonable risk for fear of their child’s safety. Sometimes I work with parents who haven’t considered possible risks I’ve been able to point out to them, so we can collaborate to keep their kids safe. Very often I work with parents who do not agree with me about a particular aspect of child safety, and so do not follow my recommendations. That can be scary. Making a safer world for kids can be hard if you feel like the only one who sees a danger.
Lots of families have a pet before they have a child. The pet is beloved and the parents want the child and the pet to form the larger family, growing over time with more children and more animals, perhaps. I’ve seen many times how keen the parents can be to help a bond form between the new child and old pet. This is great, longer term. Pets are wonderful for children in lots of ways. But in my opinion some pets, in particular dogs, are not great for babies and toddlers.
It’s my advice that you should teach your dog and, from as early an age as possible, your baby that they are not allowed to be very close and to touch each other. Very few parents I’ve worked with agree with me.
The families with dogs and babies will usually talk to me about how gentle their dog is, how intelligent, how interested in the baby. They will enjoy the curiosity the baby displays towards the dog and how cute they look together. These things can all be true. But your dog is still an animal with sharp teeth. And your baby is still unable to understand how to be careful around these sharp teeth.
Whenever I see a baby or a very young toddler crawling after a dog, grabbing its fur and swatting at its face, I cringe. I see the potential for one those awful news stories about babies mauled by loving family pet. It’s so easy to see how it can happen. The baby, who’s fine motor skills are still being formed and who’s language centre is still developing, cannot understand that they need to be careful when interacting with the dog; and even if they did, cannot precisely control their movements. The dog has instincts to respond to attack just like all animals, including us, and cannot be relied upon to suppress those instincts. Can’t you just see it? The baby, crawling, or unsteadily walking perhaps, chases down the dog, wanting a pat. She pinches his skin accidentally, or snags his lips, pokes him in the eye, pulls his hair…. The dog may well be patient, but something happens in an instant – the dog is hurt and instinctively bites back. It could happen so fast. A cute moment could result in a child with wounds from a dog bite in the blink of an eye. You wouldn’t necessarily have time to intervene.
Every time I work with a family who own a dog I encourage them to teach their dog to keep its distance from the baby. Once the baby is on the move, I advocate teaching them, “No”, when they approach the dog. Babies old enough to crawl are usually old enough to learn to respond to a simple phrase like, “No.” Say it firmly, shortly, clearly, and move them away physically. They might get upset initially, but soon they’ll avoid doing something that results in that, “No.” You’re not being nasty, you’re allowing your baby to explore their environment while knowing you can pull them up from a potentially dangerous situation if need be. Yet, more often than not, my advice is not taken up on this issue. Parents I’ve worked with frequently prefer to rely on their confidence in the dog’s temperament and their own ability to monitor its interactions with their child. I’d rather not take the risk. I’d rather they not take the risk.
Those cute moments aren’t stolen if you take the cautious route of keeping the dog and the baby apart. Once your child is around 18 months or so you can teach them how to pat the dog without aggravating it. There will be many years of lovely interaction between them and thousands of sweet moments to enjoy. Given how easily your baby could be hurt by your dog, and how soon they’ll be old enough that this risk is reasonably minimised, isn’t it worthwhile being safe rather than sorry?
I am participating in the National Kidsafe Day Bloggers Competition to support and promote child safety, along with the added bonus of chances to win prizes. All opinions are my own and not those of Kidsafe. To find out more or to enter the competition, please visit www.kidsafeday.com.au