It’s not what you think. Once I tell you you’ll wonder why you didn’t see the problem straight away, and I bet you’ll never take the risk again. In fact, even after my mother pointed it out, I nearly made the same mistake as you’ll see later.
I’ll also show you what happened to a patient of ours last week, but that’s the more predictable outcome of kids walking dogs. This particular consequence catches nearly everyone by surprise.
Firstly, though, why are bad things more likely when kids walk dogs than when adults do the same?
What Kids Do Differently
- Children are proven to be poor at reading dog body language, in my experience including teenagers. That means they often don’t read the early warning signs from either their own dog or other dogs they encounter.
- Younger dog walkers lack experience dealing with dogs and people. They are more likely to take at face value the “don’t worry, he’s friendly” that we hear regularly, and aren’t as good as anticipating dangerous situations.
- Smaller kids lack the physical strength necessary to avoid being pulled over or having the leash pulled from them by an excited or aggressive dog.
What Goes Wrong?
Although there are also three obvious bad things, I’m here to tell you about the one most people miss. It’s the psychological damage done to children and it’s a direct consequence of the other bad things. These are:
- Dog attack
- Car injuries
- Lost dogs
I don’t want to pretend that psychological or physical injury to children is worse than the same thing happening to dogs, but that’s certainly how society sees it.
How It Happens
Think it through with me. The kids take the dog for a walk, and a bad thing happens. The dogs slips a lead and gets run over, or the dog is attacked by another dog. Either way, the injuries are serious and possibly fatal, and it all happened in a frenzy of chaos.
The kids are possibly at least partly at fault, but even if they aren’t they will feel to blame for what happened. They experienced the whole distressing event, and were powerless to stop it. They have no adult able to help them make sense of what happened.
This is an event that may mark them psychologically for life. If they tried to intervene, they also may end up with physical injuries. Either way, what started out as a nice thing to do has ended up a tragedy. They have a toxic combination of traumatic experience, guilt and possibly grief.
Now run this test: Google “kids walking dogs” and have a look at the search results. It’s all about how good it is for kids to get a job walking dogs and the positives of responsibility, with almost no discussion of the true risks except with difficult dogs. There’s no understanding that it’s the other dog, or the car we’re worried about, and that the effects of a moment can last a lifetime.
Bella here represents the more familiar face of the problems we see. She was at the park when a group of kids came with their Dalmatian. By all accounts, the Dalmatian was leash reactive and pulled the leash out of the kids’ hands. Bella was bitten around the head but luckily escaped serious injury. It could have been a lot worse.
The only thing that saved me was a little voice in my head that made me turn the bike around. I was in a hurry and asked my kids to walk the dogs, but instead I ended up shadowing the kids just to see what they would do.
I watched them happily heading to the local park and there on the other side was a big dog off leash. I watched the owner begin to panic as she realised there was another dog coming, and saw enough of the dog’s behaviour to see why she was worried. She must have thought that at that time of day she would have the park to herself. Haven’t we all?
No problem. I cruised over and said, “kids, lets walk this way,” and the crisis was averted. Lesson learnt, even though I shouldn’t have needed reminding.
How Kids Can Walk Dogs
I think the only way is with a responsible adult. I make the best use of the time by teaching them how to walk dogs properly, showing them what dangerous situations look like, and explaining when to avoid other dogs. I also find it’s a great opportunity to talk to kids about their lives in general.
I may be over-reacting but I don’t think so. I love my kids, and I love my dogs, and that’s two good reasons to keep them both away from danger. However, if you can suggest ways that kids can exercise dogs safely, please let me know in the comments section below.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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