When Baby Teases the Family Dog

Should you be concerned when your child decides to tackle Rover?

Q. Now that she's crawling and almost walking, our 9-month-old has been tormenting our dog. She pulls his ears and tail and tries to crawl on top of him. The dog seems okay with it, but I'm concerned that he'll lose patience. What should I do?

A. This is almost as common as 10-month-olds sticking their fingers into electrical outlets. Both stem from babies' intense curiosity to learn all about their world. And for better or worse, animals offer some of the most compelling scientific phenomena. They have many different textures to explore. They're furry and cuddly and often responsive in a more satisfying way than a toy. They can also make children feel special and loved. The wonderful relationship your baby is developing with your dog will help her learn to care for another being.

Chances are if your dog has been tolerant thus far, he will continue to be. Nonetheless, you certainly don't want to take any chances. It's very important that you be present and closely monitor the interaction between your baby and dog. Limit their face-to-face contact and be on the lookout for any signs that your pet is getting irritated. (One of our dogs will growl and try to mouth us when we do something he doesn't like, such as brush him.)

In addition, teach your baby to be more gentle with the dog. Take her hand and show her how to pet the dog's ears softly. When your daughter tries to climb on the dog, redirect her by offering a climbing alternative, such as a few stacked pillows on the carpet. Fortunately, in just a few months, your child will understand what the word "gentle" means, and she will have greater capacity to control how she treats her doggy.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, January 2005.

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