Toddlers and dogs

A question from Sophie about dogs: “Do you have any recommendations on how to discipline a 14 month old who is continuously abusive to the dogs in his home? We are having serious issues with our son literally attacking and hitting our small dogs. He laughs and giggles if we say no in a firm voice. We aren’t sure if he is old enough for time out? We are scared eventually the dogs will fight back or he will really harm the dogs (the dogs only weigh 9ish pounds). Thank you!”

Another dog question! That makes me wonder what ever happened to Beth and her doggy wishes. Hopefully her parents won’t see this post and change their minds!

You’ve really got two issues here: how to teach your child to behave with the dog, and how to keep your child safe. At 14 months, I’m not sure you can rely on discipline strategies with your son to make sure that he doesn’t get hurt. Even a 9 pound dog can give a child a nasty bite, especially on the face. So even once you’ve implemented the teaching part of the plan, you’ve still got to ensure that your son doesn’t get attacked by keeping him and the dogs under close supervision.

Teaching a toddler how to behave with a dog isn’t very different from teaching a toddler other skills. Use a combination of these tools:

  • Modeling—be good with the dogs yourself, and show with your actions how you treat animals with respect.

  • Positive reinforcement—give your son good feedback when he does the right thing. Your positive comments should be immediate and very specific. Since your son in so young, you probably won’t find it helpful to make a more elaborate positive reinforcement strategy like a sticker chart. Just positive comments and affection to reinforce good behavior should help.

  • Punishment—you shouldn’t tolerate cruelty, which includes hitting people or animals. Review the action plan for stopping aggressive behaviors in this post, and follow those directions whenever he strikes one of the dogs. Do it immediately, with no warnings or count-downs.

Even with all of these teaching steps in place, you’ll need to be careful. A dog who feels threatened will bite, and even your little dogs could really hurt your son. Until he’s old enough for you to depend on his judgment and behavior, he should not spend unsupervised time with your dogs.

Further reading

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One Comment on “Toddlers and dogs”

  1. Deb Volpe Says:

    I raised my children with five dogs in the house. When my first child was about the same age as yours and began “mistreating” the dogs, I tried many – if not all – of the above approaches. Then I remembered how so many people suggest handling bullies: give the attention to the victim, not the perpetrator! So when my daughter would pull a tail etc, I would hug the dog and make a big show of saying “Oh! Poor Snoopy! I’m sorry Sophie pulled your tail! Poor boy! That must have hurt!” And on and on. I completely ignored my daughter while I lavished the dog with attention. It worked like a charm. My daughter stopped mistreating him and developed a very keen sense of empathy at the same time. Good luck!

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