So, you’re thinking about having or adopting a child…congratulations!
Regardless of the age of the child you are bringing home (infant, toddler, or older child), children can be a big adjustment for any dog. The truth is, any dog can have trouble with this huge life change, and any dog can bite (more on that below). Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prepare and increase your chances of keeping everybody safe.
This article assumes that your dog does not have a concerning history with children. For dogs who are growly with kids or have a bite history, please seek support from a professional behavior consultant before bringing your child home. This article is not a substitute for working with a qualified behavior professional.
The myth of the “bomb-proof” dog
Some people mistakenly assume that their dog will automatically be OK with the child they are bringing home if:
- Their dog is a breed that has a reputation of being “good with children”
- Their dog has done well with other kids it has met in the past
- Their dog is an all-around “nice” dog that has never growled or bitten
- Their child is very sweet, loves dogs, and would never be bitten by a dog
It’s time for some doggy myth busting. The truth is, ANY dog can bite. Let’s examine these myths.
My dog is a breed that’s good with children
Some breeds are advertised as being good with children. At the end of the day, all dogs are individuals. How tolerant a dog is with children can depend on not only its breeding and genetics, but also on its socialization, prior experiences with kids, previous training, health, and stress levels. It’s not wise to assume that your dog is guaranteed to be OK based on its breed.
My dog has done well with kids in the past
That’s a great sign! Past behavior is often a good predictor of future behavior. However, a dog that does well with brief visits with children may feel differently about having a toddler in their home 24/7. And also, dog tolerance levels as far as interactions with kids can change over their lifetime.
Even for dogs who are off to a great start with a new infant in the home, trouble can arise with different developmental stages. Many dogs are OK with infants who don’t move around much, but start feeling the stress when the baby starts crawling, walking, picking up and throwing objects, etc.
Most dogs do not understand the concept that children are younger versions of adults. For your dog, a child is a little alien being that is in an entirely different category from you, her trusted guardians! Many “normal” child activities such as running and screaming can be a lot for some dogs to handle.
It’s important to continue to keep an eye on your dog and their body language in regards to your child as they grow. Just because they did OK with your child as a newborn does not mean that they will be OK with your child when they are a toddler. You will need to continue to make adjustments to keep both your dog and child safe and happy as your child matures.
Also, dogs can also have changes in their tolerance level as they mature. If your dog becomes older and arthritic, for instance, they may be less tolerant of children in their space than they were when they were young and pain-free. If you see any sudden changes in your dog’s behavior (around your child or in general), a vet visit is a good place to start to rule out any underlying health issues.
My dog is nice and would never growl/bite/etc.
All dogs can growl or bite if they are in pain, frightened, or otherwise pushed far enough. You should never simply assume that your dog will tolerate whatever your child does to them. Allowing a child to treat the dog however they like is both unfair to the dog and unsafe for everyone involved.
My child won’t do anything that makes a dog bite
Children go through developmental stages just as dogs do. At certain stages, children are not capable of understanding or following rules that keep them safe around dogs, so it is up to parents to keep everybody safe.
For example, babies less than 8-10 months of age don’t have fine motor control over their hands, and they can easily do things that are painful for dogs by grabbing on their fur and pulling, tugging tails and ears, crawling on top of a dog, or leaning/pushing on the dog in an attempt to move around. It is not fair to our dogs to ask them to put up with this behavior, which is hard for them to understand and can be painful.
Or, a child who is four years old may have a better understanding of rules like “do not climb on top of Rover” or “leave Lassie alone while she is eating,” but they likely have not developed the impulse control to follow this rule with 100% consistency. They do not yet have the thinking capacity to understand what the consequences may be for them and the dog if they should leap on top of Rover or stick their hand in Lassie’s food bowl.
Even middle schoolers can have trouble following rules. If they have friends over and some of them think it’s fun to taunt or tease Fido, some teens have trouble setting boundaries when it comes to their peers. Whether you leave your tween and his friends alone with Fido might depend on his confidence and refusal skills.
All children mature at different rates. It will take time for your child to gradually learn dog safety rules as they grow. Both your child and your dog will need careful supervision and your ongoing support. You can allow your child little bits of freedom at a time with Fido based on their maturity level.
Consider your environment
Babies and children can “get into everything,” so to speak, and it’s common knowledge that you must “child-proof” your home to make sure they don’t injure themselves. You should consider keeping your dog separate from your child as part of your “child-proofing” procedure. Your young child and dog should not be together in the same space unless you are actively supervising both of them. Any time you are not able to actively supervise, your dog and child should be in separate areas.
For babies that are not mobile yet, you may consider separating them by sending your dog to settle on their mat (if you have trained this cue to fluency before your baby comes home). This is assuming that you are still in the same room.
Once your baby is scooting around, things like x-pens and baby gates will be your best friend for dividing spaces. If your baby is scooting or crawling, your dog and baby should be in entirely separate areas if you are not actively supervising them.
Do not tether or crate your dog in a space where a baby may crawl up to them and interact with them while they are trapped on leash or in a confined space: this is a recipe for trouble. A dog should always have the opportunity to move away from a child if they feel uncomfortable.
How long do you need to keep your dog and child separate if you can’t actively supervise? That answer depends on both the dog and the child. Many children are capable of understanding and following basic dog safety rules by the time they are about 8 years old; some children may need more time before they can reliably follow the rules. And, of course, it depends on your dog’s comfort level with your child too. It’s always better to err on the side of caution.
Learn to speak dog
Most dog communication is non-verbal. Many dog bites happen because the dog is frightened or uncomfortable with what the child is doing, especially if the dog feels trapped, and the adults in the home were not able to pick on the dog’s subtle signs of stress or discomfort before the bite occurred. The adults may think that the bite came “out of the blue,” but really, the dog has often been trying to communicate their stress for quite some time.
For this reason, learning to read your dog fluently is an important safety measure for kids and dogs to live together happily. If you are seeing stress signs in your dog, you can immediately intervene by either calling the dog away or calling/moving your child away (and then, depending on the age of your child, you may need to revisit the doggy safety rules in your home). As your child grows older, teaching them about dog body language and how to respond if the dog shows stress signs is also a great idea. There are a variety of children’s books out there designed for this purpose.
To learn more about dog body language, please check out my pay-what-you-can Learn to Speak Dog seminar online as a great place to start. More dog body language resources are listed at the end of this article.
Make sure your training is solid
Having a dog that is well trained with verbal cues, including in the presence of distractions, will make the transition of bringing home a child far easier. Work with a positive professional trainer before your child comes home if you need help establishing these cues.
In my opinion, all dogs should know the following basic foundation skills: sit and/or down, stay and/or wait, come, loose leash walking, greeting humans politely without jumping, and touch/hand targeting. In addition to those foundation cues, consider the following cues and skills:
Go to your bed/station/settle
This is a helpful cue for many reasons. If you have stations in multiple parts of your home, it’s easy to cue your dog to “Go to your bed!” and send them out of the way if they are underfoot. This is also a way to send a dog away from a situation: for instance, if Fluffy is on the sofa, and your toddler wants to climb on the sofa, you can send Fluffy to her bed so your toddler is not climbing on top of her, possibly resulting in a conflict.
Having a relaxed settle is a wonderful default to replace behaviors that you may find undesirable. Dogs that have been reinforced for settling are less likely to be jumping up on you when you get home, tearing around the house knocking toddlers over, etc. Teaching a dog a relaxed settle or stationing behavior is useful in many different contexts, and is a skill that is worth its weight in gold.
This cue directs dogs to disengage from something they were about to eat or pick up. Since babies and toddlers drop LOTS of things, this can be helpful to avoid your dog picking the questionable things your small child throws on the ground.
I recommend using this cue sparingly. I tend to reserve it for things that my dog is thinking about eating or putting in her mouth. If my dog is simply looking at something I don’t want her to interact with (such as the neighbor’s cat), instead of cueing my dog to “leave it” (which gives her limited information about what NOT to do), instead I will ask her to do what I WANT her do (such as come and sit).
This cue directs a dog to spit out something that was in their mouth. It’s very helpful if your dog picks up something the baby has tossed that they shouldn’t be eating, or mistakenly picks up one of your child’s toys thinking that it’s a dog toy. As your child gets older, you can teach them to use the “Drop it” cue with the dog if he has their toy rather than trying to pry it out of his mouth.
Sometimes, we might accidentally bump a dog when carrying a baby, or a toddler may accidentally bump into a dog. Many dogs find this worrisome. One way to make it less scary is to turn it into a game. You can teach your dog that if someone bumps into him, you are going to say “Bump!” and then he gets a treat. This can form a positive association with what would have been a stressful event for your dog. Please note teaching your dog this game still does not make it appropriate for the child to manhandle the dog, but it is a helpful cue for occasional accidents, especially for dogs who are on the more fearful side when it comes to interacting with children.
Walk next to stroller on a loose leash
Hopefully your dog already has the foundation skill of walking on a loose leash when you’re out and about. This can get trickier when you have a stroller or young children in tow. If you can, purchase a stroller and practice your loose leash walking skills with the empty stroller before your child comes home.
If you have a very large, strong, and/or reactive dog, or a dog that otherwise requires your full attention when walking on leash, you may forego this step and choose to always walk your dog separately without your child. This can also be a great choice as it gives your dog some one-on-one time with you.
I’m including some great resources below, but when in doubt or if you’re struggling, please get in touch with a humane, positive-reinforcement based trainer for support. Happy training!
Danette Johnston at Dog’s Day Out has great resources and an online Barks and Babes Class
Learn to Speak Dog seminar from Wiggles and Woofs Dog Training and Pet Care
Dog Body Language book by Lili Chin: appropriate for children; helps you learn to read body language