Can I Leave My Dog Alone With My Children?


kids with dogI heard the whining from half a block away: My neighbor’s daughter with her new young pooch. I’d seen the dog when the family first got her. She was so small you could have cupped two palms together and easily fit her in them. I estimated the dog was now about six months old. The girl’s parents, whom I had always seen with the girl and the dog, were nowhere in sight. The girl, about eight years old, was alone with the dog by the side of the building. They must have just been out for a walk.

But now the girl wasn’t walking her dog, but … dancing with her. Or trying to, at least. She had both of the dog’s paws in her hands and was bouncing them around while swaying with the dog, practically doing a two-step. The dog was obviously uncomfortable, hence the whining. I didn’t sense that the dog was in major pain – she wasn’t yelping. Just whining. But her big dark eyes were darting around, as if looking for help.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do. My first instinct was to say something. But what? This wasn’t my child. What if an adult heard me and then reported it to her parents and they got upset that I dared tell their child what to do?

But I had to intervene. The dog’s whining was growing louder and more distressed. I decided that I would gently say something like, “Hey, sweetie, this isn’t Dancing With the Dogs. Why don’t you put her paws down?”

But just as I opened my mouth, the girl grew bored with her game. The dog looked immensely relieved as the girl released her paws. I was too.

The incident begs the question: When can children—even sweet, animal-loving, responsible children —be left alone with pets?

I have my own sometimes checkered history with pets. Although I was a responsible, animal-loving child (I cried when my parents brought home lobsters to boil), I too can remember times when I thought I was playing with a pet but that, in retrospect, seems more like I was semi-torturing it. There was a time, when I was about seven years old, that I tried to teach one of my kittens to jump through a hula-hoop. Hey, I was training her for the circus!

Then there is the worst memory of all: The time that, at about nine years old, my friend and I were playing with her new young puppy. Alone in the bedroom with the pup, we decided it would be fun to throw her onto the bed from halfway across the room. Occasionally, the poor thing bounced right into the wall. To this day, I can remember the puppy’s look of confusion and terror.

Thank goodness that we lost interest in that game and never did it again. But to this day, it remains one of my biggest regrets in life: That I unwittingly terrorized a small, helpless animal, even if that isn’t what I thought I was doing.

“Kids can be sadistic,” says Denise Herman, owner of Empire of the Dog, who has been training families and their pets for twelve years. “They don’t mean to be, but they have no impulse control. As much as parents think they have to protect their kid from their dog, they also need to protect their dog from their kid.”

Herman tells how parents often proudly brag to her that their dog is so docile that their child can tug on the dog or crawl all over it, and the dog doesn’t mind.

“It makes my blood run cold,” she says. “One day, the dog might hit the ceiling of its tolerance level. And then it’s all Lassie’s fault.”

Herman has some general guidelines for when parents should consider whether its time to leave their pet and their children alone.

Would you leave your child alone? If the child isn’t old enough to be left alone without an adult, it’s not old enough to left alone with a pet, even in another room.

Past performance. How has your child been with the pet in the past? Are you constantly reminding him not to pull on Lassie’s ears? Repeatedly telling her not to squeeze Fluffy too tight? If so, you can bet your child will do that stuff – or even worse – if alone with a pet.

“Resource issues.” Does your dog have any guardedness towards food, toys, crate, or a favorite Frisbee? Then it’s not a wise idea to leave your kid alone when he might get near the dog’s “possessions.”

Keep an eye on health. Herman says that often in cases where a family dog has suddenly acted out, it turns out to be that the dog wasn’t feeling well or had an undiagnosed health problem. The same goes for kids—if they’re feeling cranky, they could take it out on the pet.

Herman suggests bringing children to training sessions with the family dog. Instead of telling kids to do this and not do that, which, she says, only makes a child do what they want in secret, it’s better to give a child positive and safe alternatives to unwanted behaviors. For instance, instead of dancing with a dog, Herman would teach a kid how to get a dog to touch a hand for a treat.

Herman says there’s no definitive age in which it is fine to leave a pet and child alone, that it’s on a case-by-case basis. She adds: “At the end of the day, pets aren’t nannies.”