The dog trainer is the first person someone calls when there is a clash between their dog and a child, be it their child or the child of a friend, family member, or stranger. This topic came to mind last night, while I was at the new dog park in my neighbourhood. Across the railway tracks, separated by a few fences, there is a second dog park, a more popular park with better river access, better parking, and safer roads to get into and out of the lot. I watch this dog park a lot, and the thing that really stood out for me last night was the number of running, pushing, wrestling, shrieking, laughing, and yelling children in the attendance. It legitimately concerned me.
One thing that every parent needs to understand before they take their child to the dog park is that not all dogs live with, like, or even tolerate children. All dogs have limits, and every dog has the potential to bite, that is the primary reason that dogs are not allowed near children's parks, and yet children are allowed and are often present at crowded dog parks. Many dogs at the park may have zero experience with children, many dogs are afraid of children. I am by no means suggesting that children should not be permitted in dog parks, but parents need to be aware of the risks and take appropriate measures to ensure that all users of the dog park, both two and four legged, have a good time.
1) Leave the toys at home. Some months ago now I was enjoying the off leash dog park with a friend in another town. It's usually a pretty quiet park and though it is an off leash area there are usually a few kids enjoying a family walk complete with parents and dog. On this particular occasion however, two young boys had been permitted to bring with them their very expensive, noisy, remote control monster trucks. Any dog owner with a high prey/toy drive dog is going to cringe at the thought of their dog chasing, grabbing, and destroying an expensive toy. Toys are for the children's park, not the dog park. Children's toys can be snatched from their hands, chased, chewed on, or run into the nearest body of water by a playful dog. Noisy toys might scare some dogs, causing them to lash out at the toy or child holding the toy, and some dogs might run away in fear of a strange, noisy toy. Toys that are brought on family walks to the park should be stowed away when entering the off leash area. You can't play fetch with your dog at the children's playground, so children's toys need to be put away at the dog's park.
2) No running, screaming, jumping, or wrestling. Some dogs find this behaviour extremely distressing, especially play fighting in children, which a dog might seek to break up or join in, though too roughly. Unfortunately when dogs break up what they perceive to be fighting among young animals they will often use their teeth to do so. Other dogs, surprised by rapid movements or sudden noises from unfamiliar children could snap at them, inflicting a bite wound.
I understand that the entire point of walking your children at the same time as you walk your dog is to wear your children out too. Fresh air and free play in a natural setting is physically and psychologically wonderful for children! So plan your walks to allow for time for your kids to burn off some steam in an on leash area. Most off leash areas make up just a small part of larger on-leash parks where your children are free to run, scream, jump, wrestle, and play to their heart's content. When you arrive at the boundary for the off leash park, remind your children that the dog park has different manners, there is to be no running or rough housing, and it is the dog's turn to play. Once you have a tired dog, head back into the on-leash areas and unleash your kids. Not only does this keep everyone safe and happy, but it also teaches boundaries, good manners, and helps children learn that certain behaviours are ok in some situations but not others.
3) Keep them occupied in the dog park in safe calm ways. Young children love to be given jobs to do and things to be in charge of. Show them how to read the park maps and signs. Off leash areas are usually marked on maps at the entrances to parks and signs make the designation clear. Let your child remind you that the sign means their dog can go off leash, or that he needs to be put back on his leash. Have them carry the clean poop bags and put them on poop patrol pointing out where your dog went so that you don't lose it in the grass. If you have a real industrious kid and a great sense of community, have a poop pickup job where you and your child can work together to pick up the mess left behind by less responsible park users. You may not want your small child touching poop, but they can certainly locate it for you and hand out the bags.
4) Sticks stay on the ground! This one scares me. Dogs love sticks. Kids love sticks. Unfortunately some dogs are kind of rude about sticks and will snatch them from little hands. If there is a special stick picked up during the on-leash portion of the walk an adult should carry it during the time in the dog park, or put it in a special hiding spot when you enter the dog park and retrieve it for the child to play with again on the way out. Sticks can cause nasty cuts on little hands if they are grabbed unexpectedly and pulled away by a dog, the teeth don't even have to come in contact with skin.
5) Do not approach dogs. The dog park is not the place where dogs should be approached, touched, grabbed, or petted. These dogs are off leash and they are interacting with each other and speaking an entirely different language (fluent dog) while they are at the park. Interference by children or adults in these dog-dog conversations can trigger spats between dogs. A small hand or face caught in the middle of one of these dog disagreements can result in a nasty bite and a trip to emergency. And again, not all dogs are familiar with children, or comfortable with children. Being approached by a strange child can trigger a fearful response that may also result in a bite. No one wants their dog to bite someone, especially a child, so teach your children to never ever approach an off leash dog, and to always ask the owner of a leashed dog if it is ok to say hello.
6) Do not respond to approaching dogs. Understand that your own dog might respond differently at the dog park as well. Perhaps he might become jealous or protective of his family's child and snap at other dogs. It is best to keep little hands in pockets at the park and to teach your child to ignore dogs that might approach your family while at the off leash park. They'll figure out pretty quick that the other dogs are more fun than the boring people. This one can easily be turned into a game for small children. They should respond to an approaching dog by "being a tree" that is by keeping their hands close to their bodies and staying still and quiet, then they can count how many seconds it takes for the dog to lose interest and go away. The faster the dog loses interest, the better a tree they were being!
It's not all bad
As I mentioned above. I don't think that children should be excluded from the dog park. In fact I have had some wonderful experiences with well mannered children at the park. A boy who brought his own ball and asked me if he could please play fetch with my dogs, a girl who wanted to learn all about frisbee while I was out training with the boys, and the toddler who threw the ball, endlessly, for Badger who didn't care that he could only throw it a few feet. All these experiences left me feeling very pleased with how these children were being raised to love and respect the animals in their lives.
But I also remember vividly the girl who barked in Kodi's face, and when I warned her that she could get bitten doing that to a dog she showed me her previous dog bite marks and exclaimed that she didn't care she "gets bit all the time". I cringe at the story I heard of the boy who pulled the ball out of the resource guarding Rottweiler's mouth. And, I remember the day, when I was a kid, maybe 8 or 9 riding bikes with a friend, how the big excited labrador ran over to where we were sitting in the grass, grabbed each of us in turn by the bike helmet, and dragged us over.
Those were all scary moments that could have been avoided with supervision and an understanding that dog parks are for dogs.
Our dogs are not allowed in school yards or near playgrounds to protect your children. The dog park is their playground. Please keep your children "on leash" for everyone's safety so that we can all enjoy the dog park.