What to Do Before You Pet the Dog, or Basic Guidelines for Children and Dogs in Urban Areas

“Look mom–a puppy and a wolf!” screamed the child by the swings!

Poor Reba. Reba was our lovely and sweet German Shepherd with the grizzled face, but every child seemed to want to pet the puppy, that being Muddy who was just a whisker younger than Reba, first. Petting the dogs was fine and well, but Muddy had an overactive tongue that left small children crumb-free and with very clean ears. We generally recommended that petting start with Reba, who was a bit more gentle and less exuberant. She made it easy for children to come to her at their own pace.

As Joel and I live in an urban area (and let’s face it–pretty much any place is more urban than Bridger), Eleanor and Beatrice had to become familiar with leashes in fairly short order. They may love hiking at Turkey Creek, but they also love being able to show off in front of other dogs. More than once, I swear that I’ve heard them chant, “We’re going on a walk, and you’re not” as we roam the neighborhood. As luck would have it, a park features on our daily dog-walk circuit, and as it has swings and a jungle gym and one of the “good” merry-go-rounds as my friend Sarah’s son Ben points out, there are all manner of children there on a regular basis. And we like this. Just like dogs, a tired child is generally a better behaved child. But as we have two large dogs in an urban area, part of our job as responsible pet owners is to model good dog-people behavior. By doing so, we help young children to like and feel comfortable with dogs, we help parents to know that we are good neighbors, and best of all, Eleanor and Beatrice get free love. What could be better than that?

Let’s back up a bit. Don’t all dogs enjoy a good pet and the chance to snorfle goldfish crackers off unsuspecting toddlers? Yes, but there are lots of reasons to exercise caution. Some dogs–and some people–are not good with children. The owner will generally know this and will dissuade people from petting their dog. Alternatively, the dog owner might be working with or training the dog, and she might not want the dog to be distracted just yet. A parent might be afraid of dogs, or he or she might not want to clean off a lot of dog hair and drool when they weren’t planning on it. By showing respect for a child, the parent, and the dog, you can make it much easier for this to be a good experience for both the child and the dog.

After all this, here are the guidelines we put in place before letting a child pet either of our dogs:

  1. Ask the person holding the dog’s leash if it is okay for you to pet the dog.
  2. Ask your responsible person (mum, dad, sibling, nanny) if it is okay for you to pet the dog. (And pet owners, it’s best if said responsible person is included in this interaction. Don’t just take the child’s word that it’s okay for them to pet your dog. By including that responsible person, you’re signaling to them that you recognize their authority, that you aren’t creepy, and that your dog is pretty friendly.)

Provided that all parties agree, then by all means, pet the dog. At this point, you can talk children through letting a dog sniff their hands, how to pet a dog, what your dog likes to eat, how it is funny when a dog licks you, and how to play with a dog. Just don’t be surprised if my dogs rifle pockets looking for treats or if Eleanor flips over for a belly rub.

Happy walking!

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