Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Get “Magnetized” to Dogs


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What Does it Mean to Be “Magnetized?”

I use the term, “magnetized,” to refer to how babies end up where they CANNOT stay away from dogs.  I’m sure you’ve seen it — the kids who make a beeline for dogs in the park or who are always messing with their own dog or wanting to pet other people’s dogs.

I discussed some of this in a previous post about babies that “love” dogs. The main issue is the lack of self-control inherent in a magnetized young child.  If a toddler or preschooler could turn it on and off, maybe, but reliable on/off switches are not what toddlerhood is all about.

Is it Really That Big of a Deal?

Yes.  I think this is a huge deal.  Not everyone agrees with me so you’ll have to think it through yourself and decide how much risk you are willing to have your child assume.  A majority of bites happen in response to a child approaching a dog.  Young children have zero judgment.  If you encourage your baby/toddler to go up to some dogs, he or she will likely want to go up to all dogs – whether or not you’re there to supervise.

It’s tempting to think, “Well, I’m a good parent and I’ll be able to teach the difference to my child.  Besides, I’m going to raise my child to be gentle and respectful with animals so she’s not likely to get bitten.” Maybe you’re right.  Lots of times nothing bad happens.  But lots of people drive drunk, too, and never kill anyone.  Doesn’t make it a good choice.

And that’s what this is – a choice.  As a parent, you get to choose for your baby the habits and behaviors you are going to instill long before your baby can make her own choices.  That’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.

In my experience, encouraging a baby to notice, reach for and touch your dog (or any dog) opens the door to all the other variations a child will come up with through the toddler/preschool years.  Kids aren’t really known for doing the right things at this stage of development.  If you establish the dog within the circle of your baby’s interactions, the dog will be included in the whole range of physical expressions, not just the “nice” ones, but also the tantrums, experimentation, showing off for friends, etc.

Consider this:

“I have a normally very sweet, laid back 13 month old son named Joseph (changed name) who just discovered that smacking is fun two days ago.  Ah, the joys of toddlerhood!  He will pick up a toy (such as a truck) and smack our dogs on the head with it or just pound on them with his hands.  He will try to smack at his dad or me too, but not as often.  I am extremely lucky to have very tolerant dogs so far!  This is what I have learned:  telling Joseph “no!” just stops him for a second, and then he continues to try to hit the dogs.  I have also tried blocking him when I see he is headed towards a dog and distracting him with a book or a toy.  The distraction seems to work, but then he will crawl towards the dogs to smack them later.”

This is a classic scenario of a magnetized child.  It all seemed “fine” when the baby feeling like being gentle.  It’s hard to factor in the unintended consequence for later…when the baby is NOT feeling like being gentle.  Joseph is not a “bad baby” — this is entirely normal.  However, if he were not already “magnetized” to the dogs, he’s more likely to restrict his smacking to Mom and Dad and leave the dogs out of it.

Besides, even if your child doesn’t get as much into the smacking stage and your dog is endlessly tolerant, you still cannot escape The Curse of a Good Dog and the fact that encouraging this magnetized behavior puts your child at a greater risk of a bite when the good dog has a bad day or your child is too forward with someone else’s dog who DOES object. 

“Magnetizing” Starts in Infancy

I completely understand how it starts.  You’re holding your baby, playing goo-goo games and the dog walks by.  Wham!  Your baby drops you like a hot potato to look at the dog:

The baby is usually excited and may even be saying, “Duh, duh, duh, duh!” which makes you think  you have not only a budding Dr. Doolittle but a GENIUS BABY — she’s trying to say, “Dog,” already!  (Of course, that’s all she can say but we’ll put that piece of reality aside for now.)  I’m joking, but I do understand how hard it is to resist an excited, happy baby.  It will feel very natural to encourage this interest:

The next step would be to carry the baby close to the dog and encourage some gentle touching and getting to know the dog.

DON’T DO IT!

This is how babies get magnetized.  You think you’re building a relationship and teaching your baby how to be gentle with the dog, but, really, you’re making the early brain connection in your infant that, “Dogs are for touching.”

Really think about that.

Consider other things infants are entranced by.  Exhibit A – The Ceiling Fan:

Babies often show the same excited behavior with the ceiling fan as they do with the dog.  (Even the “duh, duh, duh” part!)  However, no matter how much you want to foster your baby’s interest and curiosity, does it ever occur to you to bring your baby closer and try to tell her, “Careful, honey, now keep your hands down…”

Why not? Are you thinking, “Well, duh, I’d never do that because the fan could hurt my baby and I know my baby won’t understand what I’m saying or be able to follow my instructions.  That would be crazy!!  I’d definitely get a ‘Bad Parent Award’ for that.”

Tell me why it’s different with a dog. I ask people that all the time because I’d like to be wrong.  I don’t like being the wet blanket at every event where very young kids and dogs are mixing, and I do have lots of other dog training interests I’d like to pursue.  I stick with my Dogs and Babies work because of all the families I meet after an incident who say, “If only I knew this, I would have done things differently…”

I think parents and dog trainers alike have a natural blind spot when it comes to dogs and young children.  We all want the storybook tale of best friends forever.  This makes us assume that dogs understand good intentions (“He was only trying to love the dog!”) and that toddlers will always be compliant.  Once you’re an experienced parent, you know that toddlers and “compliant” do not go together.  It’s hard to imagine that when you’re a new parent and you have a baby that seems so sweet and easy.  That’s why I focus so much on not starting a “relationship” with a baby towards a dog — because it’s a can of worms that’s a lot harder to put back once you open it than it is to just leave on the shelf a little longer.

Don’t be in a rush!  Let your baby just coexist peacefully with your dog.  So much of the “magnetizing” happens not just because babies are interested in dogs, but because parents feed that interest disproportionately more than they do other interests a baby clearly isn’t ready to pursue.

For example, why is THIS OK…

But not THIS

Yes, children need to learn how to be careful with knives and dogs alike, but does it really make sense to introduce the idea before they are developmentally prepared to be successful?  People expect to keep knives out of the reach of children but, at the same point, they do not expect to still cut their child’s meat when he’s twenty-one years old.  It should go the same way with dogs.

More to come about how to keep from magnetizing your baby, how to de-magnetize a toddler and why babies are really OK with loving dogs without touching them.  Unless, of course, someone can convince me that I’m off base. Let’s discuss!

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