My first official rescue dog Megan, loved children. I say official because Megan was the first dog who I adopted from a rescue centre. Previously I had actually rescued a tiny pup who I found wandering around an industrial estate near my local, at the time, train station. But I’ll tell you more about Toby another time. Megan was a proper mongrel, a good old fashioned Heinz variety mix of breeds. She definitely had some collie in her, but what else, I couldn’t say. With a brindle coat, a rolling gait (despite never being overweight a day in her life) and curly tail, she was perfect.
She was surrendered by a family to the rescue where I worked. We met soon after she was taken to her kennel. My first memory of her was of a scared, shaking dog huddled in the corner hoping nobody would go near her. My heart broke for her and so began our relationship. At first, she was my behaviour case and I was her behavioural support worker. All very professional. And even though I knew I’d fallen for her, I resisted adopting her. I don’t know how you can work in rescue without adopting an animal, but I didn’t want to fall into the trap of adopting every dog I fell in love with. I’d only been there for 6 months so was feeling rather pleased with myself that my willpower had been strong.
Like many of the dogs I worked with during my time there, I took Megan home on foster. She was in more need of that one to one care than any of the lurchers, collies and staffs that I’d fostered before her. During work hours she lived in the portacabin that passed as my office. At the end of the day she’d come home with me, building trust along the way. She’s rarely been in a car so getting her in and out of mine was never speedy. I’d sit in my driveway and wait for her to inch forward towards the open tailgate. Sometimes we would eat dinner there together. At other times she would bundle out with my other dogs, caught up in the excitement of arriving home.
As time went on, we got to know each other. Her trust in me increased little by little as we explored her new world together. She was terrified of the lead and would thrash around on the ground whenever I attached it to her collar. She avoided other people and panicked when asked to walk through doorways or into areas of the shelter she’d never visited before.
But she loved other dogs. Once she was officially mine, she would help me work with other shelter dogs. No dog could resist her wiggles and squeals and in no time at all she’d have them playing and running, all worry and fear forgotten. I found this fascinating as we knew from her intake information supplied by her previous family, that she was rarely walked and so rarely met other dogs. But she was a natural bon viveur when it came to her own kind. Her skills in reading how to play, when to ounce, how to paw and how to flirt (she was an outstanding flirt!) were second to none.
The only other time she forgot herself and swapped anxiety for joy was around children. The shelter I worked at had a children’s play area. Partly designed as a safe place for visiting families to let their offspring run off steam, and partly to allow us to gauge the reaction of our canine guests to children. Without hesitation, she would make a bee line towards any child within lead distance. She was calm and snuggly and loving. Given the chance, she’d gently push her soft face into every pram, offer her body to the stickiest of hands and squeal and pounce on the spot with every lively toddler. Now she had come from a family of six young children, but her behaviour was far and beyond anything learned. She simply loved children.
Over the years that she lived with me, she never failed to acknowledge a passing child in the street and always played carefully with my friends’ children. Megan knew instinctively where to draw the line never tipping over from excitement to arousal. She could be still and snuggly or active and adventurous depending on the child. Never taking food from their hands unless they offered it to her (though I suspect this is something she had been taught) she always was careful with her teeth, especially when playing with toys. She positively lit up at the sight of a child. To the extent that I sometimes felt guilty for not having children for her to call her own. And while I will do almost anything to make my dogs happy, I’m afraid that was a step too far.
I’ve been reminded of Megan’s love of children by my current youngster, little Ettie. Anyone who has read my blog before will know that she is a feisty livewire to say the least. But she has the same innate love of children that I saw with Megan. Sadly, or luckily depending on your point of view, I still don’t have children. Knowing the importance of letting her experience small people who look, act and smell differently to adults, I have taken every opportunity to let her interact safely with children when we are out and about.
On one of her first trips outside, I had her cradled in my arms. I could see that we were going to be passed by a large group of people, including about six or so children. Holding this tiny adorable puppy, I felt like the child catcher such was her irresistible allure. They swarmed around us in the blink of an eye. And what was Ettie’s response. She learned forward to nuzzle them. She wagged her tail and her eyes shone as child after child stroked and fussed her. I could see how much she was enjoying the experience and before long I was allowing several little hands to tickle her back and hold her teeny paws. She loved it! Following that great start, she met children both outside and in our home and always behaved and responded impeccably.
I was relieved. Fear of children, though in my opinion completely understandable, is a tricky issue to deal with. Especially when the dog in question looks cute. I recall issuing a sharp ‘No!’ to a young child in the park as she bent down to pick up my Jack Russell Terrier Archie. To say that was a risky situation is like saying that a tidal wave is wet. He looked cute but was anything but.
I also recall working with a Dalmatian who had the misfortune of being afraid of children. This made his life very difficult as every child who has seen the film 101 Dalmatians made a be line for him. They’d target him, running arms outstretched shouting that it was the spotty dog from the film. All the while I could feel the tension travelling up the lead and sometimes even a low growl when thresholds were pushed. Walking him in public meant constantly scanning for children, avoiding them when possible and body blocking them by moving between dog and child when it was not.
But no so little Ettie. She melts around children. She loves being in their company, sitting on the floor leaning against them, rolling over to have her tummy tickled and generally behaving in a mature, relaxed, calm manner. If only I could persuade her to be like that more of the time. Like many people who had a puppy in the household when lockdown hit, I worried about the possible effects of the removal of opportunities to socialise.
But when it comes to children, my concerns for Ettie were un-founded. My housemate Amie, who has helped so much taking Ettie out and about with her whenever she could, took Ettie with her when she caught up with friends after lockdown. And as you can see from the photo, Ettie had lost none of her child-friendly skills. She was so happy.
Of course, no matter how delighted dogs are with children, whenever possible, their interactions should be supervised. Children have as many skills to learn as do the dogs. (Click here for a quick guide for children interacting with dogs) Many children don’t recognise warning signs, signals that the dog is uncomfortable or that they are at risk. Come to think of it, many adults don’t see those signals either.
So now, as far as Ettie is concerned, all I need to do is arrange for her to have regular playdates – any offers?