Pet Connection

New Rules

Behavior experts share the best ways for kids and dogs to interact safely

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Kids and dogs encounter each other daily. Sometimes they are members of the same family; sometimes they meet at the home of a friend, family member or neighbor; and sometimes they pass by on the street or at a park or other public place. They don’t naturally know how to communicate with each other, though, and mistakes can have unhappy consequences. Here are some ways to ensure that both enjoy their time together and stay safe.

-- Outdoors. Kids run around and yell and scream. Dogs like to run around and bark, too, but the fast movement and high-pitched tones of kids at play can get them too excited. And dogs with herding or watchdog instincts may chase and nip, especially if they think “their” child is at risk. To make sure things don’t get out of hand, Fear Free-certified trainer and behavior consultant Debbie Martin of Veterinary Behavior Consultations in Austin, Texas, suggests the “red light, green light” game.

“If kids are running around the yard and the dog starts to chase them, we call ‘red light’ for everybody to freeze and be a tree,” she says. That’s an opportunity to get the dog out of the situation if necessary and then give kids permission to resume play.

-- Body language. Kids always want to pet dogs they see on the street. Instead of automatically saying yes, have youngsters ask the dog if she’d like to be petted. Then guide the child through the body language signs that indicate whether the dog is saying yes or no to a meet-and-greet.

A dog who welcomes petting has a relaxed body, open mouth and a tail that’s swishing with a loose wag. One who’s not so sure may signal discomfort by showing the whites of the eyes, tightening the lips, putting his ears back, leaning or looking away, putting the tail down or moving it in a slow, stiff wag. That dog would rather not be approached. Suggest that the child wave to the dog instead.

-- Petting dogs. For dogs who welcome petting, let the dog go to the child instead of the child approaching the dog. Children should stand still, hands at their sides or gently patting their leg in encouragement. There’s no need to offer a hand or fist for the dog to sniff. Owners or parents should give specific instructions: “Stand still, hands at your sides, and let the dog come to you.”

When the dog comes forward, kids can then offer a scratch under the chin or a soft pat on the shoulder. Spell out how dogs like to be touched. Behavior consultant Jennifer Shryock of FamilyPaws in Cary, North Carolina, uses the phrase “One hand enough, two hands too rough.”

Putting two hands on the dog often means roughing up fur, hugging, crowding them or grabbing the face, she says. One-handed petting, on the side of the dog that’s closest to the child, is gentler and prevents the child from leaning over the dog, which can seem threatening or scary to them.

“It’s a good habit for people to get into,” she says. “I so often see kids grab dogs by the face, and this helps prevent that.”

Let them pet the dog twice, then wait to see if the dog “asks” for more with a nudge or a look. If the dog has had enough, he may “shake off” or walk away.

When dogs have a choice in how they interact with kids -- or anyone -- they will feel more comfortable. That makes for happier and safer encounters and play: the foundation of a lifelong friendship.


Crate-train cats?

Yes, you can

Q: Can cats be crate-trained the way dogs can?

A: Cats don’t need to be crate-trained for housetraining purposes, but they can absolutely learn to go into a carrier or crate and stay in it comfortably.

Crate-training has a lot of important applications throughout a cat’s life. Of course, it’s useful for taking the cat to the veterinarian, but also for road trips -- if you’re moving to a new home, for instance -- or if you have to evacuate because of a natural disaster. Having a cat who will quickly and willingly enter a carrier or crate can be a time-saver, stress-saver and lifesaver!

Pheromones, treats and time are all part of the secret to teaching cats to love their carriers. Treat the carrier with sprays or wipes that mimic the calming pheromones cats produce when they feel comfortable or safe. Hide treats in it or lay a trail of treats that leads inside the carrier to encourage a cat to explore it. Place meals inside the carrier. Leave the carrier out in an area the cat enjoys or where the family likes to gather. Any time you see the cat go in the carrier on her own, praise and reward her. All of these are ways to help the cat develop a positive association with the carrier.

Once the cat is comfortable hanging out in the carrier, practice closing it for brief periods, gradually extending the amount of time the cat spends in it. When you transport the cat in it, hold it in both arms so it’s not swinging at your side. At the vet or any new place, set it down gently and let the cat come out on her own instead of pulling her out. Bring treats or a toy to reward her when she exits. -- Mikkel Becker

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Up, under, inside:

Cats need space

-- Starting in kittenhood and continuing throughout life, cats need spaces they can call their own, where they can rest, hide or watch what’s going on in the home. A window perch, a box or the top of a cat tree are all good options. These types of areas help cats to feel safe -- especially if there are other animals in the home or grabby toddlers. In multicat homes, boxes may be viewed as resources and taken over by a particular cat, so it’s a good idea to place them in separate areas so that each cat has an option to go in one.

-- You’ve probably seen pet foods or supplements containing probiotics or prebiotics said to improve the immune system, metabolism or gastrointestinal function. What are they, and can they help? Probiotics are defined as living organisms that, given in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, prebiotics are “nondigestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and activities of specific bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract and exert beneficial effects on the host.” Studies show that prebiotics and probiotics can have beneficial effects on gut health in cats and dogs, including limiting growth of “bad” bacteria and increasing populations of “good” bacteria.

-- Meet the Peterbald. This Russian cat breed has an unusual coat. Depending on the length, the Peterbald’s coat can feel like peach fuzz, plush velvet or the stubble of a man’s facial hair. Some Peterbalds have an ordinary cat coat. The chatty, medium-size cats have a slender but muscular body, large ears and long, whippy tails. Smart, affectionate and playful, they love spending time with their humans, including children. Don’t be surprised when a Peterbald curls up on your face -- the closer the better! -- or sneaks beneath the covers at bedtime. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.

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