How Do Dogs Know to Be Gentle With Babies and Toddlers?
"If dogs can sense people, why can't they sense that babies are harmless?
So many toddlers get attacked—some by the family dog at home."
Posted by Lady_E on 1/15/12
One of Many Possible Answers
This answer is just based on my limited personal experiences and what I've read about dog behavior and "psychology", so please don't think I'm 100% right.
First, I think babies and toddlers are two different things. I also think that dogs have feelings, not unlike human feelings. Let me talk about babies first.
What About Your Family?
Do you have a dog and a child?
Babies and Dogs
I think most "normal" (non-rescue, non-abused) gently introduced dogs can and do sense that babies are harmless. They may be jealous, so introduce them gently, preferably on neither the dog nor the baby's home territory.
That does not mean that the dog will leave the baby alone. For example the dog may nudge the baby to get it to roll over, or mouth the baby's arm to do the same, or pull down the covers if the baby is overheated. It may lick the baby's face, pacifier, and other toys, either to get food off of it or to check the child's health, such as its temperature.
Most dogs will regularly sniff at a baby's mouth and rear end and lick the baby's face--I think they're just checking the baby's health. These are things a mother dog does with her own pups, and they should be considered just as harmless with human babies: almost no diseases can pass from a dog to a human, and those that do are ones that only occur if the dog is improperly cared for.
Now, circumstances can affect the dog's behavior, also: if someone screams or shouts and gets hysterical or angry and runs at the dog and baby while the dog is mouthing the baby's arm to move it to a more comfortable position. Then things might not go so well, and the mouthing might turn into a bite or, in any case, be considered "an attack" on the baby by the dog, when in fact the "attack" was prompted by improper intervention on the part of the hysterical/angry parent. The dog may even have felt that it was protecting itself and the baby from danger (the hysterical, angry parent) by attempting to drag the baby to safety (and the baby is probably crying by now, so that adds to the dog's stress level and response).
If You Have a Dog and a Child...
Does your dog get along with your child/baby/toddler?
Toddlers and Dogs
Toddlers, on the other hand, are not harmless to the dog. They're highly mobile yet unsteady and unpredictable, they make lots of noise, scream (probably screaming a lot in very high spectrums that the dog can hear but we humans can't). Toddlers also mess with the dog's toys.
Worse, the toddler may not have the "puppy innocence" clause that dogs attach to babies just as they do their own puppies: that "get out of jail free" card might have expired for some dog-child combinations and not for others. Babies under the "innocence clause" can get away with pokes in the eye, pulling ears and tails, grabbing fur, and so on, all of which the adult dog tolerates well and lets pass because the innocence clause is in effect. When this clause expires depends a lot on the type of dog and its temperament.
Other factors like the parents and family spending all of the time and attention with the toddler and no or very little attention (play time, snuggle time, dog parks, walks) to the dog will make the dog as jealous as it would a human child. If a toddler does something particularly offensive or hurtful to the dog, it may inadvertently release itself from the "puppy innocence" clause and end up in a brawl with the dog, who would surely "win".
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I could be totally wrong, but the main thing I think is obvious about such incidences is that you should never trust your child and your dog alone together until they have become fast friends and the child is tall and strong enough to defend itself and knows not to harass the dog or mess with the dog's toys or food/water dish.
Close supervision or separation at all times should be the solution to this problem that every responsible parent and dog owner should take. Also, make sure that the dog has a "get away"--someplace it can go but the baby/toddler/child can't--to relieve stress and calm its nerves and simply nap in peace.
River, Sleepy in the Morning but Still Friendly
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.