Pet Care

Preparing Your Dog for Life with a Toddler

two little girls holding a puppy

Many dogs who haven’t spent time around children find toddlers confusing and intimidating. Some find them downright scary! This isn’t surprising—children move, sound, smell and behave very differently than adults do. If your baby is still on the way, please see our article on Preparing Your Dog for a New Baby to learn about what you can do in advance to help your dog adjust to all the new experiences and changes ahead. If your bundle of joy has just arrived, please see our article on Introducing Your Dog to Your New Baby for important tips on making introductions and early interactions between your dog and the baby as smooth as possible. Read on to learn about what you can do to influence the developing relationship between your dog and your growing child.

Prepare in Advance

A wonderful thing about babies is that they start out not doing much at all and then become more active and mobile as they develop. These slow changes will help your dog get used to your newest family member gradually, setting both of them up for successful interactions. But before you know it, your baby will be a poking, grabbing, crawling machine! When your baby’s still young, start preparing your dog for a toddler’s touch, movements and unpredictable behavior.

Handling

As they explore the world, young children do a lot of grabbing, poking and pulling. You’ll eventually teach your child to treat your dog with gentleness and respect—but he won’t be able to grasp these concepts as a toddler. So before he starts crawling around, it’s important to help your dog get used to rough and even painful handling.

Poke the Pup

To prepare your dog for the way your baby will touch her, teach her that wonderful things happen when her various parts get poked and prodded. Use small, delicious treats, such as chicken, cheese or hot dog, to “pay” your dog for tolerating each and every slightly uncomfortable sensation.

If possible, dedicate a little time every day to practicing the following exercises. As you work with your dog, keep in mind that it’s important for your touch and her treat to happen in the correct order. The idea is to teach your dog that uncomfortable touching always predicts the delivery of goodies. That way, she’ll learn to look forward to it! So touch your dog first, and then give her a treat. These two events shouldn’t happen at the same time.

  • Poke your dog gently in the side or rump, and then immediately give her a treat. Repeat the poking five times in a row, four to eight times a day, until your dog feels a poke and looks up at you for her treat. When this happens, start gradually making the pokes a little more forceful.
  • Gently pull your dog’s ear, and then give her a treat. Repeat until your dog happily looks for her treat right after you pull her ear. Do the same exercise with your dog’s tail. Just as you’ll do when helping your dog get used to poking, do plenty of repetitions and gradually increase the pressure of your ear and tail pulling.
  • Pinch your dog, and then give her a treat. Repeat until your dog looks at you excitedly right after you pinch her. Start with very gentle pinches. Over two or three weeks of daily practice, work up to harder and harder pinches.
  • Gently tug on a handful of your dog’s fur, and then give her a treat. Repeat until your dog looks for her treat right after you tug on her fur. Then start to gradually increase the forcefulness of your tugs.

You can say something like “Oh, what was that?” in a cheerful voice each time you do something mildly annoying to your dog. Later, when your toddler touches her in an uncomfortable way, you can say the same thing to let your dog know that a tasty treat is coming.

If your dog starts to get jumpy when you reach for her, you’ve likely increased the intensity of your pokes and pulls too quickly. Go back to very gentle touching for a while. Only start to slowly increase intensity again when your dog seems relaxed and happy after you touch her. Make sure you also touch her in your usual gentle manner plenty of times throughout the day so she doesn’t decide that all touching is unpleasant.

Movement: Introduce “Baby Moves”

Some dogs have never seen a human crawl, so it can be an intimidating experience—especially because crawling puts a person right at their eye level. So it’s a good idea to help your dog get used to crawling before your baby starts to become mobile. Accomplishing this is easy! Crawl toward your dog. As soon as she lifts her head to look at you, pet her and give her treats. Eventually, she’ll start to anticipate fun and goodies when she sees you crawling in her direction. Everyone in the family should participate in this exercise. When your baby comes and your dog is completely comfortable with this new game, incorporate the baby into the picture, too. Have him sit on your back, supported by your partner, when you crawl. Continue to cuddle your dog and give her treats so that she continues to enjoy this strange, new human behavior! She should take it all in stride when the baby starts crawling on his own.

Resource Guarding Prevention

Babies and young children have no idea that dogs sometimes get upset when people get close to their food, chew bones or toys. Even if your dog has never behaved aggressively when someone approaches one of her favorite things, it’s a good idea to do some resource guarding prevention anyway.

Before your baby starts to crawl, start teaching your dog that when someone approaches her and a valued resource, wonderful things happen—and she gets to keep her stuff.

  • When your dog is eating her dinner, walk up to her and toss something far more delicious into her bowl, like a small piece of chicken, cheese or hot dog.
  • After a week or two of daily repetition during each meal, do the same thing, but reach into your dog’s bowl and place the tasty treat right on top of her kibble.
  • The following week, start reaching down to feed your dog the delicious morsel from your hand, right next to the bowl.
  • After another week, approach your dog, pat her on her back and then reach down to feed her the treat.
  • Next, approach and then reach down to touch the edge of your dog’s bowl with your empty hand. After withdrawing your hand, reach down again to give her the wonderful treat.
  • The next week, approach, reach into your dog’s bowl with your empty hand and touch her kibble with your fingers. Then feed her the treat.
  • Finally, approach, reach down and take away your dog’s bowl. Then feed her a treat, put an extra treat into her dish and give it back to her so she can finish her meal.
  • Continue to periodically do this exercise, sometimes just approaching to pat your dog while she eats, sometimes putting your hands into her dish and sometimes taking the dish away. Always give her a treat right afterwards.

Eventually, your dog will start to see you coming and happily back away from her bowl so that you can take it away and spruce it up with a fabulous goodie! At this point, ask other adults to practice with your dog as well. After she learns that anyone approaching her while she eats means that she’s going to get a reward, she’ll be much less likely to react aggressively if your unwitting child happens to approach her during a meal.

You can do similar exercises when your dog is chewing bones or playing with her toys. The more good experiences your dog has when people approach her and her favorite things, the better.

Teach Your Dog to Retreat

Many dogs don’t realize that they can move away from a baby when they feel tired or nervous about interacting. If they don’t know that retreating is an option, they sometimes resort to aggressive behavior, like growling, snapping or even biting. This is natural for dogs when communicating with each other—but it’s clearly undesirable if such behavior is directed toward your child.

When a dog growls or snaps at a baby, his parents wisely swoop in to the rescue. Although necessary, the removal of the baby is exactly what the dog wants, so it reinforces her aggressive behavior. To prevent this unfortunate cycle of events, teach your dog that she doesn’t have to defend herself—she can choose to move away instead. (Of course, until your dog has mastered the skills below, step in to remove your child whenever your dog starts to look nervous—before she feels the need to express her discomfort.)

Walking Away Is an Option

If you’ve already taught your dog a “Go away” cue, you can use it to tell her how to escape from uncomfortable situations. (Please see the section called “Out from Underfoot” in Introducing Your Dog to Your New Baby to learn how to teach your dog this useful cue.) If you see your baby crawling toward your dog or if you see your dog start to look anxious while interacting with him, say “Go away” in a calm, cheerful tone. Avoid sounding angry. Your dog hasn’t done anything wrong, and your disapproval will only intensify her anxiety. Then point in the direction you’d like your dog to go. When she moves a few feet away from your baby, toss her a treat. After some repetition, your dog will learn that when she’s uncomfortable, she doesn’t have to rely on aggression to relieve her distress. She can simply go somewhere else. Make sure, however, that moving away from the baby is physically possible for her.

  • Minimize the amount of furniture in rooms, so that your dog doesn’t get cornered behind sofas or underneath tables.
  • Pull furniture a couple of feet away from the walls to create convenient escape routes.
  • Teach your dog that it’s okay to jump over the sides or backs of chairs and sofas so that she won’t feel trapped on them if your baby reaches for her.

Designate Safe Zones and Teach Your Dog to Use Them

Choose Some Safe Zones

Note the layout of your home and designate or create ‘safe zones’ for your dog. These areas should be in the rooms where you spend most of your time. Comfy elevated spots usually make the best safe zones because your dog can easily hop up onto them to get out of your toddler’s reach. One option is to simply put a dog bed, small rug, mat or blanket on your sofa. Or, if you’re handy, build a sturdy shelf or platform for your dog to use instead. Provide good footing by gluing or stapling carpet to its surface.

Teach Your Dog to Go to the Safe Zones

When you’ve decided where your dog’s safe zones will be, help her learn to use them.

  • Standing right next to your dog’s designated safe zone, say a cue, like “Go to your spot.”
  • Show your dog a treat and then toss it onto the spot.
  • When your dog hops up onto the spot to get her treat, praise her as she eats it.
  • Clap your hands to encourage her to come down so that you can repeat the sequence again.

Repeat this sequence about 10 times. The next step is to teach your dog to go to the spot in response to your cue alone, without following a tossed treat.

  • Say your cue, “Go to your spot.”
  • Point to the spot, using the same motion that you did when tossing the treat. If your dog seems confused, try patting the spot as you encourage her to jump up.
  • The moment your dog hops up onto her spot, say “Yes!” Then immediately feed her a treat.
  • Clap your hands to prompt her to come down again.

Spend a few days practicing the four steps above. (Aim for two or three 5- to 10-minute training sessions per day.) When your dog readily jumps up onto her safe zone after you give her the cue, start to stand further away from it. At first, just stand a step away when you say “Go to your spot.” Then, during your next training session, try standing two steps away. Continue to slowly increase your distance from the safe zone, just a step or two at a time. After a week or two of practice, you’ll be able to stand all the way across the room and send your dog to her safe zone.

When you see your child crawling toward your dog, you can start using the “Go to your spot” cue if you see your dog become nervous about being close to him. Periodically reward her with a treat, chew bone or stuffed Kong toy to enjoy.

Teach Your Child to Respect Your Dog

As your child develops, teach him to respect your dog’s body, her safe zones and her belongings. Always supervise interactions so that you can guide your child as he learns to communicate and play with your dog appropriately. Playing an active role in the development of a relationship between your child and your dog will benefit everyone.

  • Show your child what gentle, enjoyable petting looks like. Teach him to stoke and scratch your dog in her favorite spots. Explain that hitting, kicking or pinching dogs, as well as riding, teasing and intentionally scaring them are NOT okay.
  • Teach your child to play structured games with your dog, like fetch, tug-of war and hide-and-seek. To learn more about these and other great activities, please see our articles on Teaching Your Dog to Play Fetch, Teaching Your Dog to Play Tug-of-War, Teaching Your Dog to Play Hide-and-Seek, Enriching Your Dog’s Life and Exercise for Dogs. Training games, trick training and clicker training are also a lot of fun for both kids and dogs. Please see our articles on Clicker Training Your Pet and Impulse Control Training and Games to learn more.
  • Enroll your dog in obedience classes with an instructor who welcomes children so that your child can learn to be with his dog in a gentle, effective way. When your child gives your dog cues, be sure to back him up. For instance, if your child says “Sit” and your dog complies, help your child praise her like crazy and hand him a treat to give her! If he says “Sit” and she hesitates, immediately repeat “Sit.” If you do this consistently, your dog will learn that every time your child requests a behavior, you will too—so she might as well respond to your child and earn a reward more quickly. 

Teach Your Dog to Like Other Children

Your child will eventually want to have friends over to play, so it’s important for your dog to become comfortable with unfamiliar children. If you have friends with kids, ask them to visit as often as possible. Make sure your dog has a wonderful time during these visits. If she already likes kids, ask young visitors to toss her favorite toy or tell her to sit or lie down to earn tasty treats. If you don’t have friends with children, take your dog on frequent outings in well-populated areas. When you encounter friendly children who would like to interact with your dog, take advantage of the situation. Coach them carefully to ensure good experiences. Always give them treats to feed or toss your dog. If your dog is great with your own child but nervous, fearful or aggressive around other children, seek assistance from a qualified professional as soon as possible. Don’t wait until your child matures and your dog’s behavior becomes a problem. Please see our article on Finding Professional Help to locate a behaviorist in your area now.

Troubleshooting

If Your Dog Is A Little Nervous About Your Toddler

Some dogs are nervous about toddlers or even a bit afraid of them and go out of their way to avoid contact. If your dog seems a little worried about your child, use the tools described above to prevent tense situations and focus on teaching her to associate him with things she loves. When it’s time to feed your toddler breakfast or dinner, feed your dog her meal as well. When you take your toddler out in the stroller for walks, bring your dog along. When you’re playing with your toddler, don’t isolate your dog elsewhere in the house. Find ways for her to participate in games, too. (If your dog shows more than just a little nervousness around the baby, please see the section below called “If Your Dog Responds Fearfully or Aggressively to Your Toddler.”)

Handouts at the High Chair

Timid dogs often have a hard time when babies start to become more active, more vocal and mobile. Luckily, this period coincides with the time when babies start learning about gravity by throwing Cheerios® and other finger foods from the high chair onto the floor. Allowing your dog to help you clean up these tasty experiments may convince her that having a baby in the house is a very good thing!

What NOT to Do

Never force your dog to interact with your toddler. Let her approach him on her own. When she seems nervous, speak softly to her and praise her for bravely investigating.

If You Have an Older, Disabled or Injured Dog

Dogs who are elderly, dogs who have chronic pain and dogs with sensory deficits, such as deafness or blindness, may have trouble adjusting to life with a child because of the unpredictability and chaos that children inevitably bring. If you know your dog may not react well to your child for these reasons, take steps now to prevent problems from arising.

  • Make sure that your dog is thoroughly evaluated by her veterinarian annually so that you’re aware of any medical conditions that might impact her behavior with your child.
  • Like other animals, dogs may become aggressive when touched if they’re hurt, confused or frightened. Always keep this in mind—even if you have a close bond with your dog and she has never shown aggression to you or other adults. Do not make the mistake of thinking that because your dog is good-natured and loves you that she’ll refrain from snapping or biting your child.
  • If she’s elderly or frail, you may need to keep your dog in a safe area when the baby starts crawling around. Although it will take some extra effort on your part, it’s better to vigilantly separate your dog and your child than to put the two of them in a risky situation.
  • A dog who reacts by snapping when touched, either because of chronic pain or advanced age, may not be good candidate for living safely with a young child. If you feel that you cannot successfully keep your dog separated from your child at all times or help control her pain with medication, it may be wise to consider re-homing her with a friend, family member or other adopter who has no children. Please see our article on Re-homing Your Dog to learn more about making this tough but sometimes necessary decision.

If Your Dog Responds Aggressively to Your Toddler

Dogs who show aggression toward a toddler in the home often do so because they have not been well socialized to children and find them foreign and frightening. Some dogs don’t fear toddlers, but they become aggressive when guarding their food, toys or chew bones. Young children can’t understand that they should leave the dog’s things alone. They may also have difficulty recognizing a dog’s warning signs or find growling and barking amusing. A child’s failure to heed such warnings can have disastrous consequences. A small percentage of dogs seem to react to young children as though they’re squeaky toys, and this response can be extremely dangerous, too. All of these situations put children at great risk of receiving a bite.

What to Do

Get help. If your dog shows aggressive behavior around your toddler—or if you think she might—keep her away from him and immediately contact an animal behavior expert. 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 professional you hire is qualified to help you. It’s important that he or she has extensive experience successfully treating aggression in dogs.

Should You Correct Your Dog for Aggressive Behavior?

Obviously, it’s important that your dog learn to inhibit her aggressive behavior toward your child. However, the best way to deal with an aggressive dog is not to verbally or physically punish her. Punishment can backfire because it teaches your dog that bad things happen when your child is present—which is yet another reason to dislike him. If your child becomes a signal for punishment, your dog may fear or resent him even more. In particular, it’s important to avoid punishing your dog for growling, snapping, showing teeth or otherwise giving aggressive warnings when she’s upset. If you are fortunate enough to have a dog who warns you before biting, never scold or otherwise punish her for this behavior. If you inhibit her warning system, it may disappear—and you may not have a way to know when your dog is feeling uncomfortable or aggressive. She may just suddenly bite! As long as your dog growls, you have the opportunity to remove your dog or your child from bad situations.

The most effective and humane way to resolve aggression problems is to focus on changing your dog’s motivations for behaving aggressively. If your dog is aggressive toward your toddler, you can improve her behavior by teaching her to like being around him. Please see our articles on Desensitization and Counterconditioning and Fear of Children to learn about how you can accomplish this. Again, it’s crucial to seek professional guidance. A qualified behaviorist or trainer can come to your home, thoroughly evaluate your situation and walk you through a systematic, safe behavior modification plan.

Additional 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
  • Don't Lick the Dog: Making Friends with Dogs by Wendy Wahman