Play Nice

By Sharon Naylor

February 11, 2011 5 min read

When a child hugs a puppy too tightly or chases it around the room as the puppy races away or reaches for the sock the puppy has in its mouth, that child could become one of the 5 million Americans who suffer dog bites each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that of these 5 million chomped by puppies and dogs, 800,000 require medical care.

There are many misconceptions when it comes to dog bites, and parents need to heed the warnings of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which says any breed of dog can bite; it's not just the so-called aggressive dogs, e.g., pit bulls and Rottweilers. Biting is simply a dog's instinct when it feels threatened, and puppies might bite while playing, not knowing their own strength.

"Puppy teeth are like little needles," says professional dog trainer Leah Hatley, co-owner of The Family Dog, which brings customized dog lessons into pet owners' homes to teach the family members how to interact with their new canines. "There will always be mayhem because kids are kids and dogs are dogs, but the key is to teach children of any age that dogs are not toys, and they need to learn some very important do's and don'ts when it comes to interacting with their or anyone else's puppy or dog."

Here are some tips taught by Hatley to parents and children, both before and after the puppy joins their family:

--Teach children the proper way to pet a puppy. "We use a puppet, named Flick, in our lessons," Hatley says. "Kids practice petting Flick from collar to tail," which is designed to keep kids from petting too close to the eyes or toward the face.

--Understand that puppies are teething, so they like to nip or chew on something. "As the parent, you hold the puppy in your lap and also hold a chew toy by the puppy's mouth so he or she can chew on that while the kids learn to gently pet and play with the dog," Hatley says.

--Establish "no touching when..." rules. Teach children that they are forbidden to touch or play with the puppy when the puppy is eating, sleeping, tethered on a leash, or in the crate for some downtime. "The puppy needs to know that the crate is a safe place where he or she won't be disturbed," Hatley says.

--Teach kids never to take anything out of the dog's mouth, even if it's the child's property. Puppies love to chew on anything they can reach, so they'll pick up stuffed animals, socks and toys. Teach children that they are never to grab an item that the dog has in his mouth. Instead, kids are to call a parent, who can offer the dog his own toy or a treat in exchange for the child's item.

--Teach kids not to feed the puppy any human food that hasn't been sanctioned by you, the parent. "This is a serious one," Hatley says. "If kids have been taught not to give the puppy their own food and they do anyway, it's time for serious consequences," such as a timeout or loss of privileges.

--Watch out for the puppy's "I'm done!" signals. The parent should recognize and teach the child the signs of when the puppy is done with playtime and wants alone time. (Also, when the puppy is getting overexcited and hyper, it's time to end the interaction between dog and child.) When the puppy wants playtime to be over, he will:

*Change from a relaxed posture to a frozen, rigid one.

*Clench his jaw or lick his lips (which Hatley calls "pacifying himself") for comfort.

*Start scratching himself. "That's not itchiness," Hatley says. "The puppy might not know what else to do to express his or her discomfort."

*Turn away from the child or "shake off" hugs.

*"Display the 'whale eye,' in which a puppy will look far to the side while being hugged, and all you can see is the white of his eye or a crescent moon shape of the eye," Hatley says. That's a sure sign to stop the interaction.

*Run back and forth.

*Jump on a child.

*Stand on his hind legs.

*Gasp for breath.

With your "puppy play rules" in effect, your children will learn lifelong smarts when it comes to any dogs they encounter. Don't just teach children what they can't do; teach them what they can do, too. Kids want to know what's allowed so that play is fun and they and their dogs establish great relationships. Visit for tips on the do's of child-puppy bonding and play.

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