It’s amazing, if you think about it, that dogs get along with children as well as they do. Many seem to understand that kids should be treated differently, with gentleness and tolerance. When interacting with children, these dogs patiently put up with all kinds of strange, unpredictable behavior and sometimes even painful handling. This ability to enjoy the company of kids, despite rough treatment, has made the dog a popular family pet. Most dogs end up bonding strongly with the children in their family, becoming both friend and protector, and the love between a child and a dog is a truly wonderful thing to behold.
Some dogs, however, have trouble interacting with kids—and when a dog doesn’t get along with young family members, the consequences can be devastating. Although dog bite fatalities are extremely rare and most bites don’t result in injury or medical treatment, children are the victims of half of the estimated 4.7 million dog bites in the United States every year. One study estimates that about a third of these bites are delivered by the family dog. Dogs often bite children on the face or neck, and these bites sometimes result in permanent scarring or disfigurement. Irrevocable emotional damage is often done as well. Many parents consider any tooth-to-skin contact with a child a major breach of trust—perhaps even grounds for euthanasia—and some people develop lifelong phobias of dogs after being bitten during childhood.
The experience of living with a family dog shouldn’t be traumatic for children. Likewise, living with children shouldn’t be traumatic for a dog. Fostering good relationships benefits everyone in the family, canine and human alike. With proper guidance and supervision, you can help your dog and your kids develop safe, fulfilling friendships.
Managing Interactions Between Dogs and Kids
What Can Go Wrong?
Even if you’ve got the friendliest dog on the planet, a dangerous situation can develop in mere seconds. Although they mean no harm, children can do a number of things to trigger aggression in dogs:
- Startling or hurting a dog A child can easily stumble onto a sleeping dog, yank a dog’s tail or poke a pencil into a dog’s ear. If a dog is startled or in pain, he may bite. Defensive aggression is a natural response in animals, and domestic pets are no exception. Very young children are most at risk. They can’t understand that their actions might hurt a dog, and they aren’t capable of defending themselves if they’re attacked.
- Getting too close to resources Many dogs don’t like to share their toys or food, and they may become aggressive if a child comes too close while they’re chewing on a bone, playing with a toy or eating a meal. It’s hard for young children to understand that it’s not a good idea to approach or reach toward a dog when he has something he values.
- Playing inappropriately Some children find a dog’s aggressive behavior amusing. When they discover that certain actions can make a dog growl, lift his lip or snap, they repeat those actions. If repeatedly provoked, a dog may eventually feel the need to escalate his “message” by biting.
- Triggering a predatory response Some children don’t find a dog’s aggressive behavior amusing at all. Instead, they’re terrified by it. Frightened or injured children often run away or shriek—behaviors that can trigger predatory behavior or aggression in some dogs.
How Much Should Dogs Tolerate?
Many people assume that all dogs should be willing to tolerate absolutely anything a child does, just like Lassie on TV. They feel that even a grumble or a lifted lip is grounds for euthanasia or re-homing. Some parents even allow their children to chase, hit, poke and otherwise terrorize family pets—and fully expect the animals to put up with such treatment. Miraculously, many dogs do! Despite dogs’ sometimes saintly attitude, this kind of behavior from kids is grossly unfair to a pet. It’s not good for the kids, either. Allowing a child to mistreat an animal does nothing to teach her respect for other living beings. It can also put her at risk of injury if the dog she mistreats decides he’s finally had enough.
Supervise to Prevent Problems
The best way to avoid potentially dangerous situations is to supervise all interactions between your dog and your kids—even if your dog is friendly and gentle. Remember, it takes only a few seconds for things to go awry. Monitor both your children’s and your dog’s behavior when they’re together and watch for signs of trouble. If you supervise diligently, you can step in when necessary and prevent bad experiences.
Learn to Read Your Dog
Some signs of trouble are obvious. If a dog shows his teeth or growls at a child, he’s clearly feeling uncomfortable and aggressive. But it’s unwise to wait until you see these dramatic behaviors. It’s much safer to learn to recognize your dog’s early, subtle warnings.
The first sign that a dog is getting uncomfortable is often a “freeze,” a momentary pause in what he’s doing. The freeze is sometimes accompanied by a hard stare or “hard eye.” When a dog is giving a hard eye, you can often see the whites of his eyes. If these warnings don’t successfully deter a child, a dog may move on to the more noticeable warnings, like showing teeth, snarling and growling. If the child doesn’t understand the dog’s warnings or finds them amusing and continues to annoy the dog, he may move on to the next level of warning, usually a snap. (Many people assume that a snap isn’t a warning at all—that the dog tried unsuccessfully to bite. But dogs have wonderful control of their mouths, and they move a lot faster than we do. If a dog means to bite, he generally will.) If the snap doesn’t work to repel the child, the dog may deliver an actual bite. Some dogs inhibit their bites and don’t injure the targets of their aggression. Others deliver harder bites, like the ones they’d likely deliver to puppies in need of some discipline. Unfortunately, a bite that would just pinch a furry puppy’s rolls of fat may cause serious damage if it lands on the face of a tiny child.
To learn about more about the body language dogs use to communicate when they’re feeling afraid, anxious or aggressive, please see our article on Canine Body Language.
When You Can’t Supervise
When you’re not able to supervise the interaction between your dog and your children, it’s best to confine your dog to a safe area away from the kids. If you teach your dog to be comfortable in a crate, in an exercise pen or behind a baby gate, you can easily put him there when necessary. A crate can also provide a safe place for your dog to sleep, eat or chew on things without worrying about a child bothering him. Make sure that your child can’t access your dog’s confinement area. Some children get bitten when they reach through crate bars to touch or taunt a dog who wants to be left alone. When your child is very young, physically prevent her from wandering into your dog’s confinement area. When she’s old enough to understand the rule, teach her that the area is off limits to her. (Please see our article on Weekend Crate Training if you’d like to teach your dog to enjoy relaxing in a crate.)
Train Your Kids
Training your dog is only half of your job! In addition to teaching your dog how to behave around kids, you need to teach your kids how to behave around dogs.
- Children need to understand that not all dogs love them. Teach your kids to always ask pet parents for permission before approaching any animal. Have mock greetings at home so that your children can practice what they’ll do when they want to pet a dog they don’t know.
- In addition to learning that they should never touch strange animals without permission, kids must understand that they should never reach through fences or car windows to pet dogs who are unattended—even if they know the confined dogs.
- Teach your children how to handle dogs gently. Show your children what polite petting looks like, and have them practice with a stuffed animal. Discourage unpleasant treatment, like poking, pinching, slapping, hugging and pulling on fur, tails or ears.
- Teach your children what to do when they encounter unfriendly dogs. Please see our article on Dog Bite Prevention for specific tips.
Dogs Who Love Kids Too Much
Many dogs think children are the best toys and playmates in the world. If your dog is gentle, this can be a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, some dogs, especially those who have had no obedience training, rules or guidance in their lives, happily mouth or jump up on every child they see. Such rambunctious behavior can be painful or even dangerous for kids.
It’s very important to make sure your dog understands that he is never allowed to put his feet or mouth on a child. This lesson is especially important for big, strong and exuberant dogs. Training is best started when your dog is a young puppy, but dogs of all ages can learn to behave appropriately around children. Please see our articles on Teaching Your Dog Not to Jump Up on People, Mouthing, Nipping and Play Biting in Adult Dogs and Puppy Mouthing for information about reducing unruly behavior. If your dog thinks it’s fun to chase children, please see our article on Dogs Chasing Children to learn how to discourage this behavior.
The Time Out
The” time out” is a great technique for dogs who misbehave around children simply because they love kids too much. If your dog mouths or jumps up on children to get more attention, you’ll find that the removal of that attention is an effective tool for teaching him that these behaviors are inappropriate.
To use a time out, follow these steps:
- Monitor your dog’s play with your children very closely. The moment your dog puts a paw or his mouth on a child, say a phrase that means he made a mistake. You can say “Too bad!” “Time out!” or anything else you like, as long as you use the phrase consistently.
- Right after saying your phrase, immediately march your dog to the nearest boring room, put him in the room and close the door. You can use any dog-proofed area, as long as it doesn’t have any people, toys, food or chews in it. Bathrooms and laundry rooms work well. If you can’t take all of the fun things out of a room, take your dog to time out on a leash. After putting him in the room, close the door on the leash so that your dog can’t run around and have fun by himself.
- Count to 30. Then let your dog out and give him the chance to misbehave again.
- If he puts a paw or his mouth on a child again, march him right back to time out. You’ll likely need to repeat this sequence many times before your dog figures out which behaviors result in time out. If your dog doesn’t misbehave when you let him out of time out, reward him generously with praise and treats. If your dog does anything appropriate, even if it’s just keeping all four paws on the floor around your child, he needs your positive feedback!
Time-Out Tips and Troubleshooting
- It’s important that the phrase you use to let your dog know he’s done something wrong happens the very instant your dog misbehaves. It’s also crucial for the time out itself to happen immediately after you say your phrase. Even a couple of seconds’ delay can hinder learning. If your timing is bad, your dog may not understand why he earned his time out.
- If your dog tries to evade you when you approach to take him to his time out area, attach a lightweight leash to his collar and let him drag it around when he’s playing with your child. That way you can simply take hold of his leash when he’s earned a time out.
Your dog can’t harass children if he’s in a sit-stay, lying quietly on his bed or obeying a “Leave it” cue (command). A group obedience class is a great place to teach your dog these basics. If he can learn listen to you in a classroom full of other dogs, he can also learn listen to you when children are running around. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a trainer who offers obedience classes in your area. If you’d rather do obedience training at home, please see our articles on Teaching Your Dog to Sit, Teaching Your Dog to Lie Down, Teaching Your Dog to Settle, Teaching Your Dog to “Leave It” and Teaching Your Dog to Stay.
The Statue Game
If your dog becomes excited and unruly when he’s around children, he needs to learn to control his impulses. Playing the Statue Game is a great way to get started.
- First, round up some kids to help with training. Explain how the game will work in advance so they know exactly what to do.
- When you and your helpers are ready to train, go get your dog. Keep him on a leash at first if he’s really excitable or might knock the children down.
- Tell the kids to “Go wild!” When they hear this phrase, they should start running around, waving their arms and jumping up and down.
- Watch your dog carefully as the kids run around. At the moment he starts getting excited, tell the kids to “Freeze!”
- With the kids frozen in their statue poses, ask your dog to sit. When he does, you or the child standing closest to him can give him a treat.
- Then start the game over by telling the kids to “Go wild!” again.
When your dog gets the hang of this game, he’ll probably sit as soon as the kids freeze—whether you give him his “Sit” cue or not. The freezing will become his cue to sit! At this point, you can start using your dog’s new skill in real life. Tell children who interact with him to freeze if he starts getting too rambunctious. If he sits in response, be sure to give him a reward for his polite behavior.
The Dog Statue Game
Once your dog masters the Statue Game, you can try this variation on the Statue Game:
- Get a tug toy, put your dog on a leash and take him to a quiet room (no kids present).
- Say “Get it!” and then present the tug toy to your dog. Play vigorously and let him get really excited. Run around and jump up and down as you tug on the toy.
- After about 10 seconds, suddenly say “Drop it.” Hold the toy close to your body and freeze. (Some people find it easiest to hold the tug toy between their knees.) Wait until your dog lets go of the toy. When he does, praise him calmly and then say “Sit.” (If your dog hasn’t mastered the “Sit” cue, please see our article on Teaching Your Dog to Sit.)
- When your dog sits, praise him quietly and count to three in your head. Then restart the game by saying “Get it!” and presenting the tug toy again. (If your dog gets up before you restart the tug game, say “Nope!” the instant his rear leaves the floor. Then ask him to sit again. Don’t restart the game unless your dog is staying in a sitting position.)
With repetition, your dog will learn that the fastest way to restart the tug game is to release the toy and sit as soon as you ask him to. Developing the ability to quickly switch from a state of playful excitement to a sit will go a long way in helping your dog learn to reign in his impulses.
When your dog’s a pro at this game, you can start to gradually increase the time you ask him to stay in the sit before you offer him the tug toy again. When he can wait patiently for about 10 seconds, you can try incorporating kids into the game. During your first training session with kids, have them quietly walk around the room while you play the game with your dog. The next day, ask the kids to act a little more excited. (They can run instead of walking—but stay silent.) Eventually, they can run around the room, wave their arms and make noise as they play. If your dog has trouble releasing the toy or sitting with the kids running around the room, ask them to take it down a notch. Practice at that level until your dog can control himself and respond to your cues. With practice, your dog will learn that he can behave politely, even in the company of running, screaming children.
Practice Makes Perfect
The more your dog practices controlling his impulses, the better he’ll get at it! So be sure to practice and reward polite behavior in different situations and locations. For more training exercises and games that help dogs develop impulse control, please see our article on Impulse Control Training and Games for Dogs.
Dogs Who Don’t Love Kids Enough
Up until they’re about four months old, dogs are open to new experiences. (Please see our article on Socializing Your Puppy for more information about this important time in your dog’s life.) If a dog had good experiences with children as a puppy, he’ll be much more likely to continue to enjoy children as he gets older.
If your dog didn’t have opportunities to meet and play with children before he was four months old, he may not realize that kids are people, too! Think about it. Children are different from adults in many ways. They’re smaller, they move erratically, they have higher voices, and they do unpredictable things. Sometimes kids even inadvertently hurt dogs. All of these differences can be frightening to a dog who has never been around small children.
Some dogs choose to run and hide when they’re frightened. Others learn they can lunge, growl, snap or bark to make children go away. If your dog seems nervous but has never shown any aggression toward children, please see our articles on Fear of Children and Desensitization and Counterconditioning to learn about helping him feel more comfortable around young people.
Finding Professional Help
Aggression toward children is an extremely concerning and potentially dangerous behavior problem. If your dog growls, snarls, snaps at, lunges toward or tries to bite children, you must take precautions to ensure that he is never in a position to bite a child. Put him in another part of your house when children are visiting, preferably with two doors between him and the children. Muzzle him for walks if there’s any chance that you’ll encounter children along your route. (Please see our article on Teaching Your Dog to Wear a Muzzle for training tips.)
It is well worth it to contact an experienced professional behaviorist or trainer who can help you manage or modify this serious behavior problem. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) in your area. Make sure that the expert you hire is qualified to help you. He or she should have extensive experience successfully treating aggression in dogs.
Additional Tips and Resources
- If you are planning on adding a dog to your family and you have small children, choose a friendly, confident dog or puppy with no tendency to guard food or toys, who doesn’t mind being touched everywhere and who loves children as much as he does adults. Please see our article on Choosing a Shelter Dog for more information on appropriate dogs for families with children.
- If you already have a dog and plan to bring a child into his life, please see our articles on Preparing Your Dog for a New Baby, Preparing Your Dog for Life with a Toddler and Introducing Your Dog to Your New Baby.
- If you’d like to read more about helping dogs and kids live happily and safely together, check out the following great resources:
- Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families by Colleen Pelar
- Living with Kids and Dogs…Without Losing Your Mind by Colleen Pelar
- Raising Puppies & Kids Together: A Guide for Parents by Pia Silvani and Lynn Eckhardt