Written by Robin Saar. (Used with permission. Please contact CCC for reprint permission.)
"You're looking for a Chihuahua. Yes, I have some puppies available. You have children? I'm sorry I won't sell my dogs to homes where there are small children - NO EXCEPTIONS!"
Is this a phrase you have heard lately or maybe you have even stated it yourself. This seems to be a common phrase among the toy dog breeders. Toys are fragile, and young children don't always have a concept for what 'gentle' means. Consideration of new homes should be based on how well they will raise, socialize and love the puppy. The lifespan of a toy dog is approximately 14-18 years. It is highly probable that children will be part of the famiy, either as our babies, nieces, nephews or grandchildren during that 14 year period. My first Chihuahua came to me during myyears at college in the Animal Health Techology program. I was single and she was my baby. Years went on and my foundation bitch came to me during the first years of my marriage. Now I have a beautiful family with two toddlers and a small clan of show Chihuahuas. My foundation dogs had to learn as adults how to deal with fast moving little humanoids while I had to figure out a way to keep everyone safe and the home harmonious.
The tehniques and tools for providing a safe environment need to be taught by the experienced breeder, trainer of veterinary staff. Having a successful home filled with Chihuahuas and children, I have found a few techniques and tools with make this combination work.
Two major factors in having a harmonious home are Tools and Training/Education.
Baby gates: These are already in a home with toddlers and can be set slightly higher than normal to allow the dogs to scoot under without imposing any threat to a child's safety. It's amazing what these little dogs can fit under, especially, if set at the top of a flight of stairs. I have a femals who can squish under a 4cm gap. A good height is 8 cm for both Chihuahua and baby. If you want to keep the dogs out of a certain room or area, for example a carpeted room, baby gates set fairly low at the point of entry work wonderfully. You can put babies in one room and dogs in another without having to watch their proximinity every second. Another benefit of baby gates is blocking dogs on a surace that is easy to clean. Sometimes while in the midst of nursing, changing diapers and feeding children, the small but significant signs of "I have to pee" from the dogs may get missed. Having an easy to disinfect surface (linoleum, tile, and laminate) is a great bonus.
Portable Pen: Another great tool as it restricts the area of running while allowing the dogs to be in a high traffic area. They are easy to clean, mobile, and can change size and shape to fit in any area of the room. Some pens are not permanently joined and can be manipulated to make a small, enclosed area or stretched out to block off an entire room/opening. Depending on the age of the children you can usually get away with the smallest height (24') but you may also use taller versions. When I have an older (6+weeks) litter of pups, I set a pen up in the kitchen so i can keep an eye on them. They in turn are receiving noise stimulus/desensitization. I also use a pen during feeding time and for quick confinement. You can lay paper on the floor of pens for paper potty training, which is useful if you unable to stick to a schedule. I prefer, however, outdoor training by 12 weeks to decrease chances of stool/child contact.
Playpens: Not only good to put small babies in, safe from terrorizing, running 4 legged creatures but to keep little dogs safe from crawing, falling and grabbing babies. Being that playpens are set off the ground, they are great for housing new litters. It keeps puppies draft free and provides nervous new moms with a bit more discretion - mesh cloth of playpens vs. wire from pens. The only concern when using a playpen is cleaning. It is difficult to keep the playpen sanitary. I use it more during the first week or two of life then only for temporary holding. They can be set up and taken down easily so your house does not always appear canine controlled.
Yard: It should be set up to separate dog and baby. Use fine lattacework, mesh, chain link or chicken wire to divide a portion of the yard to dogs. I never have to worry that my children will step in any fresh stool (faeces) while running around barefoot. Now both parties can have a dash without worry of tripping up the other. Chihuahuas are not a breed that needs a lot of exercise but it is beneficial to have a run area on those days when you just can't get out for a walk.
Kennel (crate) training: This is a must for any dog. I use it when I want quiet time. For me, this includes bedtime, naptime and vehicle travel. It also gives my dogs a place where they can go and hide from all action. I do not allow a young child to bother the dog when in the kennel. They should be able to approach the dog without the dog reacting and possibly growling but it is equally important for the dog to have a place where it won't be bothered. The kennel may also be one of the best tools you can use if the dog is a climber or an escape artist. I have dogs that would go over baby gates and portable pens to be with me. Some close calls on getting stuck squishing through the wire mesh kennels as well. I own a variety of sizes of travel kennels so I can put dogs in a single, double, or place a dam and her litter in for safety.
Building a Relationship - A Feeling of Safety and Trust
How you allow your child to interact with your pet will make or break their relationship. Older toddlers and children can be taught to treat the dog as they would a new baby in the home. Chihuhuas, having a weight range of up to 6 lbs, are very much like a newborn baby. They are fragile, need attention, and are very intriguing to a young child. Use words like 'gentle', 'nice', and 'easy' to describe how to touch. If the dog jumps up in their lap, they need to call an adult to help him get off or allow the dog to jump down. Never allow your child to corner a dog. The dogs should have a safe place to escape - either high like the top cushions on the couch away from crawling babies or low like a kennel from running toddlers. They should ideally look to you as the adult for safety. My dogs learn to run to me when being hunted by a child as they know I'd never allow anything to hurt them.
While these small pets are like our babies, they must be taught to respect all humans. All interactions should be supervised until the adult has a good knowledge of how they interact. Have the child feed the dog but not bother the dog while eating. Proper petting techniques are a good way of establishing dominance. The dog should be petted under the chin, neck and shoulders. Put your hand over the child's until the child and dog have confidence in each other. Have the child say 'good dog' and call the dog by name.
Never allow your child to use his hand as bait during play. Do not allow the child to bend at the waist and stare down at the dog. This is a very aggressive stance. Another good confidence builder is to have the child reward the dog when the dog makes eye contact with the child - not staring "I'm going to kill you" eye contact but just a meeting of minds. The child should sit on the floor, say the dog's name, and use a word like "yes" or "good" when the dog looks at him and then reward with food. The dog may be too nervous to take the food but it will soon learn to trust and it will take it from the child. This teaches that look at the child (or adult as we should do this too) means safety and good things - like treats. Some relaxation signs the dog will show are taking the food, eyes steady - not darting or staring, tail up and relaxed - not stiff and straight up or tucked under his belly, ears perked or in a relaxed position - floppy by head not pinned back.
Puppies need quiet, slow movements with the child doing a lot of name recognition. Young puppies do not know how to move away from feet. Have the child stay sitting on the floor whenever interacting.
Adult dogs must be assessed independently as it really depends on their upbringing and somewhat their age. You may never be able to trust the dog around the child without strict supervision and obedience training. Otherwise, introduce as you would a puppy and judge the situation accordingly.
A child should never be left unattended with a puppy or new dog.
If you haven't had many dogs in your life you may want to take a puppy class, obedience class, or speak with your veterinarian or animal health technologist for information on dog behaviour. You could also purchase a behaviour/training book to refresh your mind about a dog's point of view. Most parents are aware of their child's word comprehension and physical abilities but there are many books on child development and behaviour which may offer insight to some situations. Having a pet not only boosts a child's confidence but teaches them compassion for others - man or beast.
There are a few zoonotic (a disease that can be transmitted from animals to people) concers with dogs and children. Internal parasites in dogs can cause larval migrans in humans. Larval migrans are when the larva (young stage of worm life) travel throughout the body than staying in the small intestine as they would in a dog. Toxacara canis (canine round worm) travel through the body and end up behind the eye. This causes organ damage and incurable blindness. Ancylostoma Caninum (southern Hookworm) cause cutaneous (skin) larva migrans. Flea and mite bites can cuase severe dermatitis. Contact your local veterinarian about setting up a good deworming and insecticide program.
I strongly believe that breeders should judge new owners based on the adults in the home and not whether there are children in the home. If there are any safety issues or lack of good socialization with children or pets, it is completely on the shoulders of the adult or parenting body. New owners need to work with breeders, trainers, behaviourists, and veterinary staff to help homes get properly set up for their new pet.
Proper utilization of boundaries, training tools and patience will allow for a good home environment between children and toy dogs. Breeders should take the time to offer advice on how to set up a home for a new puppy rather than disregarding what could be potentially a good home.
Deworming should only be done if the puppy or adult dog has worms. Remember: you are putting poison in their tiny bodies.
Outdoor Training should only be done when weather permits - not when it is cold. Chihuahuas paralyze quickly - in a matter of seonds.