drawing of girl with dog

Help kids cope

I’m Maddie’s mom and stepping in to discuss a sensitive topic but one that is very important. This article is for parents and will offer resources and tips on how to help kids cope with the loss of a pet. 1 in 5 kids will experience the death of someone close to them by age 18 and, for many children, their first real experience with this kind of loss occurs when a pet dies.

Children view pets as valued and treasured members of the family and as confidantes and best friends resulting in very real pain when the pet dies. As parents, it is natural to want to protect our kids from grief, but coping with the painful reality of death is a very important life lesson. Learning how to navigate the grieving process will help kids cope with other important losses throughout their life.

How and When to Tell Kids the Pet has Died
• Be Truthful: According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, it is best to be honest when telling the child that a pet has died. Trying to protect children with vague or inaccurate explanations can create anxiety, confusion and mistrust. www.aacap.org

• Be Age-Appropriate: Gauge how much information to share based on the child’s age and maturity level, and be careful not to tell your child more than they want to know. They will have questions, so these can guide the discussion. Answer simply but honestly using words and concepts they’ll understand. Explanations based on the family’s personal belief system or religion may be very helpful. According to the AACAP, children ages 3-5 see death as temporary or potentially reversible. They may need to be reminded that the pet will not wake up, and it might take them some time to truly accept that their pet is not coming back. Between 6 and 8, they begin to develop a more realistic understanding of the nature and consequences of death. Generally, by age 9, children can understand that death is final and permanent.

• Share the information with them privately in a comfortable, familiar place, and offer comfort with a soothing voice or holding their hand or putting an arm around them.

• If the pet has a long-term illness or is very old, consider talking to your child before the death of the pet to help them prepare mentally and emotionally. When the pet is sick or dying, talk to kids about their feelings and, if possible, let them say goodbye.

• What about euthanasia? This can be a sensitive subject, and how much information you share will depend on the child’s age and maturity level. Experts agree that words like “put to sleep” should be avoided as this can be misleading, and the child may assume the pet will wake up again. It might be helpful to tell a young child that “Fido’s body just won’t work anymore because it is so old.”

Dealing with Grief
• Children need to know that grief is normal and that it is totally okay for them to feel very sad and to cry. Allow your child to see you grieve. Let them see that expressing your sadness and talking about it is a healthy thing to do. It is comforting to know that we’re not alone in our grief.

• There are no right and wrong ways to deal with grief. Many emotions may be felt including anger, frustration, sadness, guilt and even regret. Different emotions may be felt on different days as we all navigate through grief, and it is important to teach our kids that it is okay to feel those feelings.

• Give kids time to not only remember their pet but to mourn in their own way. They may want to have a ceremony, draw a picture of their pet, write a poem or a story or pray.

• It may be helpful to tell the child that their pain will eventually go away but that they’ll be able to cherish their memories forever. Putting together a scrapbook of happy memories can be a great family project. Kids might enjoy memorializing the pet by planting a tree in his/her memory.

• The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reminds us that short-term responses to grief are normal in children. They may have mood swings or temper tantrums or even act like the pet is their imaginary friend. Be on the look-out, however, for signs the child might need more support to navigate their grief. These signs may include withdrawing from friends or disinterest in school, loss of appetite or interest in daily activities, unexpected anger or crying weeks after the pet’s death. If you see these signs or other concerning signs, please talk to a professional counselor.

drawing of girl with dog

Dog’s best friend

Hi friends! Maddie and Bella here to chat more about being safe around dogs. Dogs are members of our family, but we have to remember that they think like dogs and talk like dogs (with body language), so many of the things we, humans, do can be scary to them or make them feel frustrated or stressed. Bella and I want you and your dog to be great friends. Your dog will learn to trust you if you’re not doing things that make them feel scared or frustrated.

There are certain situations where most bites to kids are likely to happen, including “How and when kids approach dogs” and “How kids interact with dogs.” So if we can change what the kids are doing, we can prevent bites. Easy peasy, right? These are things my family and I learned from our vet, Dr. Lacy.

Dr. Lacy said that most bites happen in six types of situations, so she called them “ high-risk” situations. The basic theme, for all-six, is that the dog is, basically, minding their own business, and the kid tries to start some type of interaction (either in a way that scares the dog or that the dog doesn’t want to do). When a dog is scared or worried, they want to have more distance between them and whatever is scaring them. To get more distance, they could get up and walk away, or they might give signals they’re uncomfortable and need the person to go away such as growling, snarling, snapping and biting. In the “high-risk” situations, the dog is most likely to choose the growling, snarling, snapping and biting.

The first three are “approaches” that are high-risk: 1) Approaching the dog in a way that startles the dog, such as when the dog is resting or sleeping or running up quickly and excitedly, especially when the dog has its attention on something else; 2) Approaching the dog when it is eating or when it has a special item. “Guarding” their special stuff is natural dog behavior; 3) Approaching in a way that makes the dog feel trapped or cornered such as when it is tied up or in a crate or in a narrow area like a hallway or even when it is under something like a table.

We all love to touch dogs, right? They’re soft and cuddly, but we have to remember that they may only really “ like” being touched at certain times and in certain ways. The next three “ high-risk” situations involve types of contact kids might try with dogs:

1) Petting when the dog doesn’t wish to be petted. Even gentle touches at these times might cause the dog to ask for space by growling, snarling or even biting. Maybe the dog is tired or maybe the dog is hurting somewhere. Instead of approaching your dog to pet them, it is much better if parents remind the kids to “ invite” the dog to them rather than “ invading” the dog’s space. If you invite the dog to you and the dog ignores you or walks away, then the dog is politely saying “ no thank you”;

2) Hugging and kissing are ways that we, humans, like to show our love. Dr. Lacy says it is a “primate” thing since monkeys, apes and humans all show love with hugging. Dogs are not primates, though, and many dogs can become very scared or uncomfortable when they’re hugged or kissed. My mom says that these behaviors can be especially dangerous because we have our faces right by the dog’s face, so if they decide to bite to make the kids go away, the bite might be to the kid’s face;

3) Kids being “rough” can not only be scary or stressful, it can also “hurt”. Things like grabbing and pulling fur, ears, tails are rude, but many small kids do these things, so it is very important for parents to watch closely at all times. My mom says that parents need to teach their kids to be gentle and respectful of dogs and not allow things like climbing on the dog, slapping the dog or other rude things that make the dog feel scared or frustrated or that even hurt the dog. Some people brag that their dog is very “tolerant” which means the dog allows the kids to be rough and just takes it, but it is not right to expect our dog to tolerate rude things.

My mom wants other parents to understand how important it is to watch and supervise their kids and dogs 100 percent of the time and prevent all high-risk situations. As is mentioned in “The Dogs and Kids” course (link below), “Be an inviter, not an invader!” Bella and I recommend that you do the free course as a family, so everyone can learn to be a trusted and kind friend to the family dog.

InstinctDogTraining.com/online-school/ (“The Dogs and Kids” course)

drawing of girl with dog


Hi friends! If you’re like me, you love to play! I mean, who doesn’t love to play, right? Today we’re going to talk about whether, or not, we should include our pets in our play time, and if so, what are the best ways to play with them.

When we went to our vet clinic for Bella’s puppy vaccines, our vet Dr. Lacy wanted us to understand very clearly that “Animals are not toys!” At first, when she said that, I thought to myself, “Of course pets aren’t toys—what a silly idea,” but just a day later when I was setting up a tea party for my dolls, my sister and myself, I thought… “Hmmm, I wonder if Bella would like to have tea with us?” The image of Bella sitting at our little table with a bib around her neck and wearing a cute little hat popped into my head, but then I remembered that it wasn’t right to force Bella to take part in our tea party. So I pushed that thought out of my head.

So how should we interact with pets, and what things should we avoid? My mom says that it is pretty much common sense since dogs and other pets are “thinking, feeling, living things” just like us, so if there’s something “we” don’t like, then “our pets” won’t like it either. Also, there are a lot of things people do that animals don’t understand, and this can be scary for them. We need to remember that when dogs (or other animals) are scared, they can bite. I know it is tempting to look at our little puppy or cat and think they would look so cute wearing doll clothes. But my mom explained to me that this type of interaction could be very scary to the animal. She suggested that I pretend one of my stuffed dogs is Bella and include it in my tea party and other play. That was a great idea.

Irritations for both you and your pet:

• I don’t like people bothering me when I’m trying to sleep, and I get startled when someone pokes or touches me when I’m sleeping.

• I don’t like when someone touches my food or tries to pull something I have away from me like a cookie or a toy.
• I really don’t like when people get right in my face or if they make loud noises right near me.

• I don’t like when kids tease me.

Animals have likes and dislikes just like us, and we need to respect how they feel. Have you ever had someone force you to do something you didn’t want to do? One time my cousin made me hide in the spooky basement during hide and seek, and that made me feel scared and frustrated that I couldn’t hide where I wanted to hide. I don’t ever want to make Bella feel frustrated or scared. I want her to trust me, so we can be best friends.

So what kind of play is okay to do with dogs? With adult supervision and assistance, fetch and hide and seek are great games for kids to play with dogs such as having the adult take the ball from the dog and letting the child throw the ball for the dog. Including the child on the walks with the dog are great, too, as well as helping to teach the dog tricks. All these activities are things dogs understand and enjoy.

Just remember that your dog thinks like a dog and likes “doggie” things. With lots of rules in place and your parents watching over all your interactions with you and your dog, you can form a trusting relationship with your dog.

Summary for parents:

• At younger and younger ages, kids are being taught about the concepts of consent, personal boundaries and saying No to unwanted touch. We need to extend these concepts to our pets. For more information, see the “New York Times” article below.
• Adults need to actively supervise ALL interactions between kids and dogs and limit when and how kids behave around and interact with pets. It is never okay for a child to poke, climb on or pull body parts. That is scary and can also hurt. Your family dog should not be expected to tolerate these things. Also, their likes and dislikes can vary from one day to another.
• Studies show that most bites to kids are from the family dog or another dog the child knows well and occur in contexts where the child is trying to initiate an interaction with the dog or approaching it when it is resting. Making direct eye contact with the dog, innocent as that might seem, can make a dog nervous and provoke aggression.
• We want to make sure our kids are learning kind and appropriate interactions with dogs so that when they encounter dogs elsewhere (i.e. playdate at a friend’s house), they’ll behave safely with the dog.

Note to parents: Use this article and the resources to prompt/support a family discussion on what interactions are appropriate and which are inappropriate between kids and dogs (or pets in general). Each of the “Maddie” columns focuses on a different topic, and each issue builds on the skills learned in past issues to some extent. For access to past issues, visit www.fetchmag.com.

If you would like a signed copy of “Bella’s First Checkup” please email Dr. Kohler at [email protected]. You can also buy a copy on Amazon.

QUESTIONS for Maddie can be emailed to [email protected]

drawing of girl with dog

Hi friends! It’s Maddie here with my best friend Bella, my sweet and adorable Golden Retriever puppy. I’ve been busy learning all sorts of things about dogs like how to interact with Bella so she feels safe and happy and learns to trust me. I want to share all of this with you!

Remember last time we chatted when I told you that dogs and people speak and communicate in different ways? And that there are many things people do that dogs might not understand that might make them feel stressed or worried? This is important because dogs that are worried or stressed are more likely to bite. I can’t imagine Bella biting somebody, but Bella’s vet told us that any dog can become scared or worried enough to bite, so it is our job to help them feel safe.

One of the most important things for everyone to learn, including kids, is how to greet a dog. We see dogs everywhere we go—on walks, at the park and even in some stores. I know I would feel really worried if a stranger came right up to me and reached out to grab my hand or hug me, so I can imagine how worried dogs might be when this happens to them.

When people say hi to each other, we face each other, we look each other in the eyes, and we may even lean forward and reach to shake hands or hug. But all of these things can make dogs feel worried. We might even bend down over the top of the dog if the dog is small, and that is scary too for the dog. So, how should we say hi to a dog? And when should we say hi to a dog?

First, I want to tell you about something that just happened yesterday. I was walking with my mom and Bella in a new neighborhood, and we passed a lady getting her mail from her mailbox. The lady commented on how cute Bella was and immediately got close and bent over Bella while reaching and patting her on the head and loudly saying, “Aren’t you the cutest little thing,” right in Bella’s face. Bella tucked her tail low, put her ears back, lowered her head and ducked behind my mother with really big eyes. My mom didn’t even have time to tell the lady how she’d like her to greet Bella. The lady had just rushed right in without asking. I knew that all of those body language changes meant that Bella was scared. The lady laughed, stood up and walked up her driveway.

My mom was a bit frustrated and said to me that the woman didn’t even realize the negative experience she’d created for Bella. This made me feel worried that Bella would be afraid of other people now thinking they might rush up and get in her space and scare her, so I knew we would have to make sure that future greetings were polite and that people asked Bella’s permission before saying hello and petting her. But how do we ask a dog’s permission? I know that sounds strange, but it is really the most important part of greeting a dog.

Here is what a proper and polite greeting looks like:

• Person approaches calmly and quietly.

• Person asks the dog’s owner if they can say hello to the dog.

• If the owner says yes, then the person waits for the dog’s permission by standing quietly nearby, with their body sideways and looking at the dog’s feet instead of right at their face and eyes, and wait for the dog to approach. If the dog stays away and doesn’t approach the person, the dog doesn’t wish to say hello, and we have to respect that and just walk away.

• If the dog does approach the person and the dog’s body language is happy and relaxed, the person can calmly reach to pet and rub/scratch the dog on their side or chest or shoulder instead of reaching over the top of their head. Our vet says we should pet with just one hand and that a good test is to pet for 3 seconds and stop and see if the dog wishes to have more petting. Many dogs will nudge your hand or put themselves closer as a way to ask for more. Be sure to bend over next to the dog and not over the top. Better yet, if the dog is small, crouch down next to it so you seem less threatening. (Remember, a happy dog is loose, wiggly, with squinty eyes, relaxed ears and tail).

My mom also says it is very important to be quiet and calm so no talking loudly right in the dog’s face or jumping about. It is also best to keep the interaction brief, and don’t hug or kiss the dog. It is so important for parents to teach their kids how to properly greet a dog. Remember, if we scare the dog, the dog could bite. Practicing with a stuffed dog works really well.

Finally, is it okay to ask to pet every dog we see? The answer is no. We wouldn’t want random people approaching and hugging us, right?

If you don’t know the dog, it is best to walk on by. Just because they are cute and fuzzy and soft doesn’t mean we get to touch and feel them. Some dogs are very afraid of strangers and/or kids, so it is always best to assume unfamiliar dogs need some space. If we know the person and dog or if the person is clearly encouraging interaction (e.g., maybe they’re teaching their new puppy that seeing and meeting other people is safe and okay), then we can follow the rules above so that it is a good experience for that dog or puppy as well as for us.

Next time, we’ll talk about more ways we can help our dogs to feel really safe and comfortable and the best ways to play with and spend time with our dog.

Note to parents: Use this story and the other resources to teach dog safety to your child and how to continue to foster trusting relationships between dogs and kids.

If you’d like to read more about Maddie and Bella, Bella’s First Checkup is available on Amazon, or you can contact Dr. Kohler for a signed copy by emailing her at [email protected].

QUESTIONS for Maddie can be emailed to [email protected]

drawing of girl with dog

Hi there! My name is Maddie, and I’m just your average fourth grader. Well… maybe not quite average but, rather, a perfectionist and a worrywart with an overactive imagination and a flare for being dramatic. At least that’s how my mother would describe me!

One of my best friends in the whole wide world is our 5-month-old Golden Retriever puppy Bella. We named her Bella because Bella means “beautiful” in Italian, and she really is beautiful. She has become an important part of our family, even though she isn’t human.
At each of Bella’s puppy checkup visits at the veterinary clinic, Dr. Lacy teaches us how to help Bella grow up to be a happy adult that is comfortable in our human world. Dr. Lacy said that even though we think of our pets as part of our families, it is so important to remember that they are, in fact, animals. So they think like animals, and they talk like animals. We think like humans, and we talk like humans, so we have to help our pets understand us, and we have to learn how to understand them whether they’re a dog, a cat or some other critter.

Mom told me to imagine what it would be like to, all of a sudden, find myself in a foreign country where no one spoke English, all by myself unable to understand what anyone was saying. Would it be scary? Frustrating? With my overactive imagination, you can just guess what I thought of this idea! Yep, I immersed myself in this daydream and pictured myself trying to let the people around me know I was hungry or lost (and scared) or that I had to use the restroom. Ugh! It wouldn’t be easy. That’s for sure, and this opened my eyes to how Bella must feel as part of our human family.

Bella barks when she’s excited, like when we play ball, and whines when she needs something such as getting us to open the door so she can go out to potty. Dr. Lacy taught us, though, that most of what Bella says is with her body language—her face, ears, tail, mouth and body.

The first things we learned were how to tell when Bella was happy and how to tell when she was worried or scared because worried or scared dogs are more likely to bite. “Happy dogs” are loose—with relaxed ears; level, sweeping tail; squinty eyes; open mouth. “Worried dogs” are more tense—closed mouth; ears back; wrinkles around eyes or forehead; tail might be wagging but will usually be low and stiff with only the tip of it moving; and they may also yawn or lick their lips or look at you out the sides of their eyes (half-moon eye); or slouch/hunch their body, try to hide or move away. I thought wagging tails meant the dog was happy, so I was so surprised to learn this isn’t always true.

Dr. Lacy taught us that there are many things that humans do that dogs can find stressful or scary, such as hugging/kissing the dog (which can make them feel trapped), staring at the dog and patting them on top of their head and that, kids, most of all, can seem scary to many dogs because we move quickly, make screechy noises, are unpredictable at times and might do scary things such as pulling hair or body parts, climbing on the dog or going up to the dog when it is resting or has a special treat, food or toy item.

Just yesterday, my little sister, Katie, who’s 5, was jumping around just a few feet away from Bella, and my mom noticed that Bella yawned, put her ears back, turned her head away and closed her mouth. Mom said was Bella saying she was worried. She asked Katie to play further away, and then Bella relaxed and closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. Maybe Bella wasn’t sure what might happen next? Would Katie jump on her? It makes sense that she’d be worried.

This really is a very big topic, so in the next issue we will explore more about how dogs talk and all the things that humans, and especially kids, do that can make dogs worried. All of this will help us to know how to interact so that the dog is happy and comfortable.

Note to parents: Use this story and the other resources to prompt/support a family discussion about dog body language and how to foster trusting relationships between dogs and kids:

If you’d like to read more about Maddie and Bella, “Bella’s First Checkup” is available on Amazon or you can contact Dr. Kohler for a signed copy by emailing her at [email protected].