Some children are born into families where there are dogs, and others will repeatedly beg their parents for a dog to play with. Regardless of whether you already have a child or a dog, or are planning to get one, there are a few things you need to consider.
This is if you want their future relationship to be healthy, safe, and beneficial for both. Children can be impulsive and often not aware of their own strength, and the same – funny enough – applies for dogs.
They will need to be taught how to act around one another, and while it means extra work for you, it is hard to deny being worth it once it is done. Children growing up with dogs are proven to be happier and more empathic, and isn’t that something we all want for our kids?
How to Teach Kids and Dogs to be Compatible
We see it in movies all the time: children with their faithful dogs by their sides, going on adventures and exploring the world together. There seems to be such harmony, and the idea of our children having a loving fur friend accompany them through life is undoubtfully appealing.
Reality doesn’t always look the same, usually due to us having failed as pet parents when integrating either a child in a family with dogs or a dog into a family where there are children.
For dogs and kids to live together, there needs to be preparation, rules, and mutual respect, and it becomes your job as the parent and the dog owner to teach this.
In this article we are going to have a look at a few key things when having dogs and kids share a home, to make it easier to get to the point where the dog will be your child’s best friend, but also where the child can be your dog’s best friend.
Creating a healthy environment for both children and dogs can take some time, but few will object to it has been worth the effort, once you see the two play and run around in the backyard, or snuggled up on the couch after a long day of play.
Teaching Mutual Respect
When everyone in the household, both humans and dogs, figure out how to respect one another – you instantly become a lot more likely to qualify for the category of successful dog- and child relationships.
It is not just the dog that needs to respect your children, but your children also need to respect the dog by not invading their personal space and by making an effort to read the dog’s behavior to try and understand what he means and needs.
A dog respecting you does not come out of fear, and you should never punish and scare a dog into respecting you or your child. You see, what you get then isn’t really respect, but rather a fear of upsetting you.
Fearful dogs are more likely to bite, so work on establishing compliance by giving your dog the love and care they deserve, and by showing them that they can trust you, and that you are there to step in if a child oversteps the boundaries, just like you would if the overstepping party was the dog.
Respect and love go hand in hand, and where there is love, there should always be respect. There are so many things to think about when you become a dog owner. There are more if there are already kids living under the same roof. Have your children understand that the dog is not a toy and not something for them to play with whenever they want.
The dog has the right to choose not to play, or to walk away from the game and rest. When such values are infused into our kids, we are giving them a chance to establish that desirable and robust bond with the dog. A relationship that many of us hoped to get to see.
Showing a Child How to Treat a Dog
Children will often do what they see grown-ups do, which means the most critical step when trying to teach a child how to treat a dog is to do things right yourself properly. Be patient and respectful towards your dog and think twice about how you handle situations when your child is near, to make it easier for them to pick up on how they are expected to act and react.
This may not always be enough, though, as children can be a little rough when they play and explore things, so sit down with your kids and show them how to pet gently, and how to talk to a dog.
They need to understand that they can’t scream and throw themselves at a dog the way they might with another person in the family or household, as this could startle (or annoy the dog), which could then escalate the situation.
There is no lower age limit for when you can start teaching a proper way to treat a dog, and it has been proven effective to show both infants and toddlers how – for example – one should behave when petting a dog.
How Dogs Communicate
In the human world, we use words to describe our feelings and to express to those around us how we would like to be treated, but it isn’t the same for dogs. While they may bark to get something across, most of their communication is done using body language and small physical signs.
This could be the position of the tail, how the ears are positioned, whether the teeth are showing, how they move their head and much more, and this can sometimes be difficult to read when having little to no experience.
Understanding how a dog communicates makes understanding that communication so much easier, and that effort could be what prevents an incident. It is the knowledge you can use when you supervise playtime where both dogs and children are involved, and it is also something you can pass on to your children once they are old enough to comprehend and start learning. Here are a few examples of how dogs interact, communicate, and how they show emotion:
+ Tail. Did you know that a wagging tail isn’t always a sign of a happy dog? Well, it isn’t, and it isn’t quite that simple. If the tail is wagging down between the legs of the dog, then the dog is probably anxious and afraid, and not exactly in the mood to play.
A wagging tail that is raised from a neutral position might be either very excited or exhilarated. If a threat approaches, such as another dog, it is likely for your dog to hold the tail up, and it might even wag, leading the inexperienced to incorrectly think that the dog is happy, when in reality – it might be about to go into defensive mode.
+ Eyes. A dog’s eyes can say a lot about its mood set, and stress and fear tend to make the pupils large and for the eye to seem enlarged. The white of the eyeball does not usually show much when the dog is feeling relaxed but could be more visible in times of negative pressure.
+ Ears. It is easier to see things like ear position on some dogs rather than on others. This, of course, is depending on the shape of the ear. But, all dogs do communicate with their listeners in one way or the other.
A frightened dog may lay the ears back flat against the head, while ears that go back a little indicates friendliness. Alert ears, where one or both ears suddenly perk up, could be a sign either of excitement and curiousness or a warning of an incoming threat.
+ Mouth. When your pup has his mouth open and his tongue hanging out, it is highly likely that he is happy and content! If, however, the dog licks its lips repeatedly while otherwise keeping the mouth closed, you could be looking at the signs of a dog that isn’t comfortable, and that might even be scared or aggressive.
+ Head. Head movements in dogs are easy to spot, and some of them may even mean something that could help you when interacting with your fur friend. If the dog is looking away from something, or someone, turning its head the other way – he or she is possibly not 100% comfortable.
A dog that is looking directly at something though could be a good thing, as it could mean interest, but an intense stare with a stiff neck could also be a subtle demonstration of aggressiveness.
+ Body. You can also look at how the dog moves its body overall; is it walking stiffly or unusually slow and with evident caution, or is it bouncing around trying to get you to play= Just like the body language of a person can give away certain feelings, so could the body language of a dog.
Never Punish a Dog for Growling at a Child
You may get concerned if your dog (or someone else’s dog) suddenly growls at your child, and instinct might be to punish it. This is something you most definitely want to avoid, as growling is a way for a dog to warn before they feel forced to bite.
Growling clearly shows that the dog has had enough, but that he (or she) knows how to communicate this acceptably without causing harm. A healthy and well-balanced dog will always growl first before they bite, so think of it like a warning coming from a dog that doesn’t want to bite your kid.
Instead of punishing a dog that growls when a child comes near, try to remove the child from the potentially threatening situation, and give the dog some space. A growl isn’t – as believed by many – a sign of aggression, but more of a warning so that they won’t ever have to become aggressive to show they need space. Also, teach your children to respect a growling dog, kind of how you should always respect another child when they say no.
Once the situation is momentarily resolved, sit down and try to figure out what caused the dog to growl. Was it protective of a toy or food? Did it happen while the dog and the child were playing? Understanding why your dog is growling will help when trying to avoid a similar situation in the future.
Dog Bite Statistics
In the United States, there are approximately 4.5 million dog bites reported every year, with around 70% of those bites taking place in the home with a family dog. This may seem alarming, but this CDC study was carried out in the early 2000s, and the results were compared to those of a similar study performed in 1994.
What researchers found was that while there was no significant change in the number of adults bit in 1994 and adults bit approximately ten years later, the report showed a 47% decline of bitten children in the later study.
The reason for this is possible that people are more aware of how to act around dogs, and it looks like we have been doing a good job passing it on to our children. There does not seem to be any recent studies to show whether the trend has continued, but we can only hope that things are continuously going in the right direction.
This is why it is so important to educate our kids on how to behave with a dog properly. These crucial lessons are something we should all – as parents – take responsibility for.
Why Dogs Bite
Dogs make wonderful family members, and for a family dog to bite a child is rare, considering how many dog-owning families there are in the world.
Yes, statistics show that thousands of children get bit by dogs every year in the United States, but here you must consider that the United States has a population of over 320 million people, as this helps put the statistics into perspective.
Most families own dogs for generations without any incidents, and there are things you can do and precautions you can take to make sure your family joins that category.
The most important thing is understanding why dogs bite, and when. There is no exact science as there are so many factors to calculate, but these are some of the most common reasons for dog bites, and especially for family dogs biting children or other family members:
+ Protectiveness. A dog may bite when protecting food, a toy, or even another dog or person if they feel it is their property. Food aggression and possessiveness should always be addressed, but you will want to make sure your child leaves your dog alone whenever eating or chewing on a toy or bone.
+ Pain and discomfort. If your dog isn’t feeling well, or there is pain involved, the risk of an unexpected bite increases drastically. Dogs feel vulnerable when hurt, and less able to fend for themselves, so it becomes a natural reaction for them to want to act defensively. There is also a risk of the dog associating an approaching child with the pain they are feeling, and you should treat an injured dog with caution.
+ Over-excitement. When dogs play with other canines, there is often light biting involved, and it can be easy for them to forget that children aren’t dogs, especially if the dog and the child are allowed to play roughly together.
This would be an unintentional bite that is not meant to hurt the child, but you should always supervise how your furry family members and your children interact and intervene if needed.
+ Restraint. While some dogs are okay with having children hug them tightly and climb all over them (there are even dogs that seem to enjoy it), many are not, and a tight and loving high from a well-meaning child could, unfortunately, backfire if it makes the dog feel cornered or trapped.
+ Surprise. Children tend to throw themselves at their beloved human relatives, and they may try to do the same to a dog. If the dog is sleeping or doesn’t see the child coming, the surprise aspect may cause the dog to react instinctively and bite.
Giving the Dog Space
When is it acceptable for a child to approach or interact with a dog? This is something you need to discuss with your children, to make sure they understand why dogs need alone time, and when they need it.
A dog isn’t a soft toy for kids to play with whenever they feel like it, because even if most dogs love to have fun with their human brothers and sisters – they also need to rest, and they need to feel they can walk away from the game when needed.
Establishing boundaries will help prevent accidents and injuries (either to the dog or the child). An essential thing to do is to give the dog space where nobody is allowed to bother him. The dog’s bed or crate is a good option, so keep an open conversation with your child where you point out how important it is that they never touch the dog while it is resting on the bed. No petting, no nothing.
While this may seem harsh, it teaches dogs that if they need some time to themselves – they can always walk away from a situation and over to its assigned area. A child also needs to be taught that if the dog walks away – it is best to let them go, and never to chase after a dog that is trying to getaway.
Avoid Touching a Dog That is Eating or Sleeping
Respecting the dog’s personal space also protects the child from accidentally being bit, as some dogs can be grumpy while they sleep, or they could be frightened if woken up to someone petting or hugging them.
Imagine how you would feel if you’d be brought out of deep sleep by someone unexpectedly touching you? It is a safety measure you owe both your child and your dog to take, and it is crucial to enforce the rule no matter how cute Fido looks while napping.
Breakfast- and dinner time, or whenever your dog is munching on a treat or a dog chew, are other situations where the child should avoid touching the dog. Not all dogs are food aggressive or guard their food, but even the sweetest dog that has never reacted negatively before might snap if being bothered while eating.
A dog that guards their kibble is a potential issue you probably want to address with positive reinforcement training, but children should always be taught to stay away and let the dog be while it eats.
Using Baby Gates
A great way to deal with having young children and dogs is to introduce baby gates between some of the rooms so that you can easily separate pups and kids when either of them needs a little break.
They can be used to keep the dog out of the kitchen while you have dinner or to keep children out of the room where you feed your pooch. Baby gates are also ideal for when your children’s friends come over to play, and it is suitable for a dog to learn that they can’t always be the center of attention.
A gate should never feel like a punishment to the dog, as this could create stress and anxiety, and cause your pup to start lashing out (barking, scratching, howling and more), so you need to make sure you work with everyone in the family to make the gate a regular addition to your home environment, and perhaps even something positive?
Related Review: Best Dog Gates
Make it a habit to give your dog a yummy treat or a chew toy whenever he needs to stay separate from the rest of the family and avoid feeling sorry for him, as dogs are experts on picking up on their owner’s feelings. This is especially important in the beginning as your pups are getting used to the gate to help them associate it with something good.
Greeting Unknown Dogs
This should come as no surprise to parents, but not all dogs like to be approached by enthusiastic children they’ve never seen before in their lives, and this could have devastating consequences.
One of the first conversations you need to have with your dog-loving child is how to act around dogs they don’t know, and they need to understand why they should never run-up to a dog without first asking its owner for permission to pet.
Practicing self-control around a cute and fluffy dog can be near impossible for a young dog lover (and for us grown-ups too!), but it needs to be done both for safety reasons and out of respect for the other dog and owner.
The correct way to approach someone else’s dog, or a dog you don’t know, is to ask nicely if it is okay to pet the dog, and to respect a ‘no’ if that is the answer you get. Help your child understand that it is okay for the other person to say no and that they shouldn’t question this, as the dog might be aggressive, fearful, or sick. A no is always a no, usually for a good reason, even if it can seem a little harsh.
You also need to consider whether you want your child to pet an unknown dog, because not all dog owners have the judgment to determine if their dog is safe around children. They might say “sure, come pet the dog,” but what if the dog reacts negatively?
For a responsible dog owner, it might seem like an obvious thing to never say “yes” unless you are sure the dog will behave, but we can’t assume everyone else will have that same thought process.
There are many things to consider before bringing a child and a dog together, especially if the owner of the dog is someone unfamiliar to you; do your best to educate your child on how to approach a dog, to accept a ‘no’ and to listen to you – as a parent – if you say it is not a good idea. Allow your child to ask questions but avoid answering with scare tactics.
Introducing Your Dog to Someone Else’s Children
You take on a big responsibility whenever you allow other children to spend time with your dog, because while dogs might not react negatively when children in their own family hug them, climb all over them and pull their ears, it doesn’t mean they will be as acceptive of the same behaviors when it’s someone else’s children.
Kids that aren’t your own might also be unaware of how to behave around a dog, so whenever there are new children inside your home, sit down with them first and layout the basic rules for how to act (no petting when the dog is eating, no wrestling etc. etc.) before allowing them to interact.
If someone else’s child is inside your home, that child automatically becomes your responsibility, and you will be lowering the risk of a severe incident by preparing everyone involved, and by never letting the children play with the dog unsupervised.
Overcoming a Fear of Dogs
Perhaps you have always dreamt of having that perfect family with children and a dog, but you stand there with an obvious problem on your hands – your child is afraid of dogs. Some young kids are fearful due to past traumatic experiences, such as a dog bite, but some kids are worried seemingly for no reason.
How do you deal with this? It could help to talk to your child to try and see if they know why dogs appear so frightening, but as this isn’t always the case, you might have to jump straight to the action.
See if you can find any friends or family members whose dogs are extraordinarily calm and reliable (an older dog might be a good option), and have your child meet this dog without there being any pressure.
Pushing children to do something they aren’t entirely comfortable with could potentially traumatize them further, so set up a few meetings with that particular dog, preferably without your kid knowing why they are being brought together, as this could relieve the pressure to interact with the dog and allow the child to do things at their terms.
One potential issue is that dogs can often sense fear, and they may try harder to make contact with someone afraid, simply because they can feel that something isn’t quite right. Stay on top of this by gently keeping the dog away from the child. This is until the child feels ready to approach.
For the dog to be kind and friendly is essential, but it is crucial for it also to be calm. Getting rid of a fear of dogs can be a timely process, and sometimes it never entirely goes away! However, most children learn not to be afraid of their own dog, so once you have your new fur friend at home, give everyone time and a chance to adjust.
Choosing the Right Dog
Whether you are planning to buy or adopt your new dog, there are a lot of things to consider before you can make an educated choice. The first thing you need to decide as a family is if you genuinely have time for a dog, and once that has been established – it is time to pick the pup that will fit right in with the rest of the people living in the household.
Size is important, in this case, as you will need to space to keep the fur pup of your dreams. A Newfoundland might not be ideal for a family living cramped in a small apartment, unless, of course, you don’t feel a need for having personal space ever again. If space is an issue, perhaps a smaller dog would be a better fit.
Another thing some forget to think about is the budget! A bigger dog eats more food than a small dog, so are you sure you have the funds to feed the pooch of your dreams? Imagine how much food a Great Dane eats, and then compare it to the needs of a Chihuahua, and you will see how much faster a big dog will eat through a bag of kibble.
All dogs need exercise, but certain dog breeds like the Siberian Huskey and the Belgian Malinois may need much more physical- and mental stimulation than other calmer breeds. This should also affect your decision, as it could have a direct impact on how successful your dog owner experience becomes.
Most dogs can adapt to less or more active lifestyles, but a lack of stimulation could also lead to destructive behaviors like barking, digging, chewing, and even aggression. Be honest with yourself about how much you plan to exercise your new fur friend, and base your choice on these insights.
Best Dog Breeds for Families with Kids
When you are considering what dog to get, there are a variety of factors to consider. Factors such as the activity level of the family wanting to get a dog. There are a few dog breeds that are known for being good around children and when living in lively environments (which a household with a child tends to be). Below are a few examples of child-friendly dog breeds that could be a good fit for your family:
+ Bernese Mountain Dog
+ Labrador Retriever
+ Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
+ Golden Retriever
You should always do thorough research on a breed before deciding to get such a dog, as it will help you make a choice that suits not only you but the whole family. The internet is probably your best starting point for research, or you could opt for getting a dog breed book or visit a responsible breeder with questions and possible concerns.
Never Leave Dogs and Children Unsupervised
What you need to remember is that dogs can’t talk, and they can’t tell your children when they’ve had enough. This, in combination with a child often not understanding when they should stop, could lead to a dog bite or someone getting hurt. No matter how patient your furry friend is, and no matter how great he is with your kids – you should never leave a child and a dog unsupervised.
We occasionally hear reports of children being bit by family dogs that have never shown signs of aggression before, and this is often a result of children failing to read the dog’s signals, and of there not being a responsible adult present to step in before things got out of hand.
Your dog may be having a bad day with being less patient as a result, or they could be in pain. You wouldn’t leave your two-year-old child unsupervised during a playdate, and it is best to apply the same caution when allowing dogs and children to interact.
Every child should be given a chance to grow up with a dog, and every dog should have the opportunity to be that once-in-a-lifetime best friend a child will remember forever. Living with a pet can teach a child responsibility; to care for someone other than themselves, and it can improve their ability to feel empathy towards other living beings – both animals and people.
By bringing a dog into a family with children, you take on twice the responsibility. It will be up to you to make sure the introduction goes well, and to ensure a safe relationship between dog and child, by setting limits and educating your child regarding proper conduct when interacting with an animal.
If you can do this, you are giving your child one of the greatest gifts any parent could give, and it will be worth all your extra efforts once you see your two babies playing together in the backyard.