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A Kid's Guide to Meeting a New Dog

Choreographing how best to facilitate child-dog interactions.

Key points

  • Children's interest in animals should be fostered by the adults around them.
  • A structured meet and greet helps optimize child-dog interactions.
  • Meeting new dogs allows children to practice social and emotional skills and build confidence.
Source: Adam Lauze Photography (used with permission)
Meeting a new dog
Source: Adam Lauze Photography (used with permission)

As spring is now upon us and Covid restrictions are lifting in some regions we find ourselves increasingly out and about. Invariably, these outings have us crossing paths with people walking their dogs and the aim of this entry is to choreograph an optimal interaction between a child and an unfamiliar dog. In doing so, my hope is to provide a model to consider when a child first meets a new dog.

“Oh don’t worry, she’s friendly!”

I work with dogs yet I remain leery of the owner who says “Oh, don’t worry, she’s friendly.” I’ve seen too many interactions go sideways either because of how the human approaches the dog or because of the undersocialized skills of the dog him or herself. As the director of a large on-campus stress-reduction program that brings 60 therapy dogs to campus, I’m surrounded by well-behaved and well-socialized dogs who, through their emotional savvy and therapeutic ways, melt the hearts of stressed-out students. As the B.A.R.K. program at the University of British Columbia is open to the community, we often have children visit our weekly drop-in sessions. Overcome with excitement at the prospect of being in a room of 20 dogs, we can see children rush up to dogs and while there’s no danger posed by any of the well-screened and assessed B.A.R.K. dogs, such an approach can put a child at risk with dogs they meet in public. B.A.R.K.’s Program Director, Freya Green, offers the following acronym to guide children in meeting a new dog.

Source: Adam Lauze Photography (used with permission)
Optimizing child-dog interactions
Source: Adam Lauze Photography (used with permission)

Choreographing the Meet & Greet

Behaviour – does the dog look friendly?

Ask the owner for permission

Relax and take a deep breathe

Keep all food and drinks away

Scratch the chin, chest, ears, and possibly the belly if invited

  1. Children (and adults alike) must start with the owner and ask “Is your dog friendly?” Wait for the response and if the dog is friendly follow with “Can I pet him/her?” (note: for young children, adults can model this behavior)
  2. Before any interaction, the child should take a deep breath to calibrate their energy. After all, we don’t want the dog to match the excitement level of the child. Having the child be mindful of the energy they bring to the interaction is a way to help ensure a safe interaction. All snacks must be put away as they can redirect the dog’s focus and possibly cause the child injury (e.g., a child with a lollipop knocked over by an overly excited dog who jumps up).
  3. The child should remain stationary and lower an open palm facing the dog. This allows the dog to enter into the interaction at his/her own pace and to initiate contact via a non-threatening sniff of the hand. The dog may choose not to interact at which point the owner would step in and explain the dog isn’t in the mood to make new friends today and that the child can try again when they next cross paths.
  4. Should the dog express interest in meeting the child, the owner can then place the dog in a sit position.
  5. Next, the child should start with an under-the-chin scratch. The owner can then help the child determine if further interaction is welcome by asking “Do you think he’s enjoying that?” and if so, the child can continue.
  6. After a successful chin scratch, the child can move to an underhand chest scratch. Typically children (and adults alike) begin with an over-the-head pet. This can be too much too soon for dogs. My recommendation is that interactions start as non-threatening as possible, allowing the dog to communicate acceptance and the child to read the dog’s behavioral cues suggesting further interaction is welcome.
  7. After a few minutes of chest scratching, the child can then move to an overhead pet starting at the top of the dog’s forehead and moving to the back of the neck.
  8. Following this, the child can scratch behind one of the dog’s ears and then double up this move and scratch behind both ears simultaneously. This move alone can transport dogs to another realm!
  9. Still working with the ears and using their thumbs to guide the interaction, the child can then run their thumbs along the under-flap of the dog’s ears—from the base of the ear toward the tip, with each dog’s ear between the thumb and the fingers.
  10. Many dogs will have collapsed into an upside-down “let me show you my belly” move by this point and, should that happen, this is an invitation for the child to then offer a belly rub.
  11. All the while, the child is reading the dog’s behavioral cues, the parent is monitoring the interaction, and the dog’s owner is overseeing the dog’s behavior vis-à-vis the introduction.
  12. Instructing the child to express appreciation with “Thanks for letting me pet your dog!” brings the interaction to closure.

Building children’s interaction skills around canines is one way through which children’s social and emotional skills can be fostered. Consider all the skills enacted when following the steps outlined above. We see the polite asking of a question to a stranger, self-regulation through breathing before beginning the interaction, perceptive-taking in reading the dog’s behavioral cues, sequencing in following each of the steps, and confidence-building as the child enacts each step in the choreographed sequence optimizing their interaction with a new dog.