Guest blog by ASPCA Volunteer Manager Julie Sonenberg, a mom of one daughter and two dogs in New York City.
Teaching children to approach and interact with dogs appropriately is critical to helping them gain and maintain a positive view of animals. My daughter is 18-months-old and has two furry brothers who are both pugs. Her first word was “Dexter,” which is one of our dogs’ names. She calls every animal she sees—including squirrels, birds and cats—“doggie.” In New York City, there are so many dogs around that when she’s in her stroller we hear a cacophony of, “Doggie! Doggie! Doggie!”
I am concerned when I think about my daughter walking of her own volition, with the ability to approach all of these dogs on an up-close and personal basis. We are fortunate to have two loving and patient dogs, but I realize that not every dog loves being patted by toddlers.
Even before asking a pet parent the crucial question, "Is your dog friendly? Can my daughter pet him?" it's a good idea to observe both the dog’s and the pet parent’s body language. If the pet parent appears to pull the dog in the opposite direction from your child, it's best not to approach. In those instances, we say, “What a nice doggie! He looks busy. Let’s wave to the doggie!"
If the pet parent seems to be amused by my daughter, I’ll first ask them if it’s ok for my daughter to pet their dog. If the pet parent hesitates or seems unsure, I might suggest we wave to the dog instead.
If the pet parent says “yes,” we commence petting. I pet the dog along with my daughter to show by example where to pet the dog. I positively reinforce gentle petting and guide her away from patting or poking the dog on the face. Meanwhile, it's very important to watch the dog's body language—you want to see soft eyes, attention-seeking behavior and no stiffness. Don't overstay your welcome; encourage your child to let the dog go about their walk before he or she gets agitated.
When children are old enough, they can begin to ask pet parents themselves if it's okay for them to pet their dog. It's important that they know to ask before reaching for the dog. Ideally, children should not run up to the owner to ask—this might startle the dog.
For more safety tips for kids and pets, please visit the ASPCA’s Pet Care section .