Like many parents, I'm racking my brains trying to think of fun things to occupy my children and their visiting friends during the summer holidays. As a dog owner, I'm also busy preparing my pet for the children who will come round to play.
Almost twice as many under 10s are treated in hospitals for dog bites or strikes than those aged 10 to 19, according to Hospital Episode Statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre. Because of the heights of children and dogs, children are more often bitten on the head and face area and therefore suffer more serious, life-threatening injuries than adults who are bitten. It really is important to be prepared to keep everyone safe.
During the summer holidays, many children will visit the homes of friends or family with a resident dog, whether it's for a play date, BBQ or an afternoon at grandma's. While a dog can be great fun for kids and they often form strong bonds, even becoming the best of pals, it's vital that owners put actions in place to make sure play stays safe.
My lovely dog Nubo is used to my two boys, aged four and 18 months, but while I know he feels at ease around my two and they around him, with careful management in place; visiting children in the home can be unsettling for dogs, and the dog unsettling for many children, too.
When friends visit, I make sure I can actively supervise both them and Nubo when they are all in the same space. This means watching what's going on and being able to intervene immediately if I notice either the children or my dog starting to get a bit overwhelmed.
My son and his friends are very young and their excitability twinned with the speed at which they are able to move around can be a little uncomfortable for dogs. Erratic movements and loud noises - which of course is just totally normal play for kids - can be confusing for dogs and make them stressed.
If my children's friends are happy to say hello to Nubo, I show them how to do so gently by getting them asking Nubo if he would like to come to them for a fuss. Children mimic adult behaviour, so I'm always careful to be calm around him. Getting children involved in stuffing Kongs or choosing a toy for your dog to play with is another positive way of encouraging safe interaction.
It's totally fine to separate
It should go without saying that dogs and children should never be left alone together, even for a few moments. While I know Nubo well and have put lots of time into training him to behave how I'd like him to around children, dogs are as individual as the children in the family and can get over-excited and have good and bad days too, so I'm never afraid to separate him from activities when necessary. In fact, it's a part of my daily routine with children (including my own) around.
Stair gates are one of my favourite inventions, as they allow me to pop Nubo into a separate area of the house when he needs to be, without him feeling totally shut away. Dogs are a social species so they will often choose to stay with their family even if they feel a bit overwhelmed, which makes crates (also known as indoor kennels), a fantastic option in this situation as you can safely pop them in there with a tasty chew so they don't feel excluded, but are in a 'safe space'.
One of my son's friends is very nervous of big dogs - which Nubo is - so I make sure Nubo stays out of the way when he comes round to play. It's not fair on children to have an exuberant dog bouncing all around them, even if the child isn't particularly worried by dogs.
Canine body language
Along with the management tips above, it's always worth reading up on dog body language.
People often think dogs react to something that's upset them with a bite without any warning, but that's because their stress signs are very subtle to begin with. A good separation routine will help avoid your dog from reaching this situation.
Watch out for your dog telling you he is worried and separate him if he shows any of the following signs: avoidance, moving away, hiding, tucking away his tails, lip licking, yawning, raising a paw, growling, showing teeth, snapping.
I've put together an advice guide to help keep your dog and visiting children safe. Have a wonderful summer!
If you are worried about your dog's behaviour, contact a qualified behaviourist via the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.