At the Show on Monday, one of the most interesting questions I was asked about Siberian Huskies (while I was helping Charlee meet and greet the public!) was about how they go with kids. My answers were largely theoretical, since J and I don't have kids of our own, but today I got to put them to the test when two friends brought their three little kids over for a visit.
When J and the dogs lived in Werribee, the location and the small house meant few visitors, so since we moved in here, we've had to work on socialisation in this way. We've gone from exiling the dogs to the pen while visitors were here, to hiding them in the back part of the deck with a big bone each, to starting with bones and then letting them mingle with visitors. And with adults, coming over for dinner, this usually works well - the pups are calmer at the beginning of the day, eat their bones in their crates, and by the time they're done with the bones, they're less excited about the visitors and will greet calmly. We've also learnt that having adults sitting at the dining room table when the dogs appear minimises jumping and other carry on.
Its a bit harder with little ones.
Little A, Little J and Little S all visited earlier this year, and we tried introducing the kids and dogs in the backyard. The dogs were friendly but waaay too excited. Little A got knocked down, and she's a tall child for her age. Despite being confident in general and with her grandpa's golden retriever in particular, she got pretty worried when she was down at a level where dogs were stepping on her in their excitement trying to get to her face for lots of licks. For both the smaller children, who are at eye level with the dogs, (or less!) the dogs are tantalizing, but the also terrifying.
Today we tried something different. Little A and Little J arrived early. Ishka was on a leash in the front garden with me (she's still not allowed down the back fence with her ACL issues), and we met the children out the front. Unfortunately, Ishka did jump up, putting paws on Little A's shoulders and licking her in the face, but this time, Little A did better at maintaining her balance and her composure. We went inside, where Frankie, because he'd been vocal in complaining about being starved already, was in his crate. Ishka got in her crate. We put Little J on the kitchen bench and Little A chose to get up on the bench with her brother. We let Czar and Bolo in, and despite having been desperate for their breakfast, they were way more interested in checking out the visitors than in getting in their crates. The bench was an appropriate height, because the dogs couldn't get more than their chins over the edge of the bench, keeping them at a level where the children felt comfortable stroking ears and noses. Then we put them in their crates and the kids helped me serve breakfast, which was a big hit all round!
After breakfast, we put the dogs out and the children played inside while we had a cup of tea. For Little J, there were two favourite games - waving dog brushes at the dogs out the window, and climbing in the dog crates, which Little S thought was a fantastic idea - and I was so relieved that I'd sprayed disinfectant in the crates yesterday! Then we took the kids to the park, and left the dogs safe in their respective pens.
One of the things I had in mind in planning and executing these interactions was this article by dog behaviouralist Robin Bennett, Why Supervising Dogs and Kids Doesn't Work. She starts off talking about how dog trainers, breeders and vets all advise people to supervise their children in the presence of dogs, but there are still 800,000 Americans, half between 5-9 years of age, being bitten each year. Its not that people aren't listening to this advice, because in fact 95% of dog bites to children happen with parents standing within a metre or two. The issue is that parents are uncertain of when to intervene, when to reassure the dog by acting as pack leader and taking control of the situation, and when to remind the child to listen to the dog and back off. So both mums and I watched the dogs and children carefully, and intervened when we thought it was appropriate. I was particularly tuned in to Robin's list of stress signals from the dogs:
- Lip licking outside the context of eating food
- Half-moon eye – this means you can see the whites of your outer edges of your dog’s eyes.
- Yawning outside the context of waking up
None of the dogs showed any of these signs, but I did see Ishka demonstrate the next one on Robin's list:
- Watch for avoidance behaviours. If your dog moves away from a child, intervene to prevent the child from following the dog. A dog that chooses to move away is making a great choice.
At one point when Little J found the dog brushes, Ishka, who hates being brushed, removed herself from being near the people sitting on the couch and disappeared around the corner of the bench. Little J's mum and I exchanged a giggle about her dislike of being brushed, and made sure neither of the children followed her.
Most importantly, I never saw or heard any of the dogs growl at the children. It is one behaviour that Big J NEVER tolerates in the dogs, and Robin Bennett is absolutely right when she talks about it being an early sign of aggression. I was stunned to read that she has heard clients talk about their dogs saying, “Oh, he growled all the time but we never thought he would bite.” To me, a growl says, this situation is intolerable, and I will bite if you persist in bothering me. As a child myself, I was taught very firmly, that if a dog growls, I was to leave it alone immediately and move away quietly and promptly.
Overall, I was really pleased with how my guys behaved towards the children today. They were definitely more gentle, greeting the children, than they tend to be with adults, despite being very excited and frisky. I know that with the G family, whose children are slightly older and calmer, the dogs calm down and their behaviour continues to improve over a longer visit. WIth Little J, just over 2, and Little S, not yet 2, we felt that it was better to keep the visit short - these dogs are eye level with the children and we want the experience to be positive with both children and dogs.
Within the sled dog racing community, there are several families with children of comparable age. Their families have taught them well, to not approach strange dogs without an adult present, to let dogs eat without being patted, to follow the family rules about their own dogs and to stay clear of trails when dogs are racing. I particularly enjoy the stories from the V family, whose dogs are so good with their little girl, that she can toddle right through the middle of the pack, and the dogs will pause their games and wait for her to pass by. The Idigadog folks are very proud of one of their beautiful boys who killed a snake near their child. Some people say that Huskies were encouraged to sleep with the children in the Siberian and Alaskan indigenous villages. But, no matter how much we trust our dogs, noone I have met through the sled dog racing community would advocate leaving children unsupervised with dogs, or leaving children untrained in recognising key signals in dog behaviour.