Owning a dog provides children with lessons of responsibility and empathy, as well as providing them with a friend and playmate! The problem is that many ways in which children behave around dogs can unintentionally put them at risk for provoking dog aggression. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 61% of dog attacks occur at home or in a familiar place. Experts agree that even the most gentle dogs may bite when they are cornered, startled, or feel threatened in some way. It is important to be proactive in starting your child and dog’s relationship off on the right foot by creating positive interactions.
Important points for when your dog and child(ren) meet
- These meetings should be adult supervised
- A dog should be gently restrained and be allowed to approach the child as long as it is calm (give the dog treats for behaving calmly!)
- Children should be sitting down calmly and not yell or grab at the pet.
- Children can calmly give the dog treats or play fetch with the dog (not tug-of-war though!), depending on how comfortable they are. How the child feeds the dog a treat (e.g., tossing a treat, handing the dog a treat with an open palm, etc.) will depend on the individual dog, keeping the safety of the child and dog in mind.
- If the dog seems to be getting too excited or anxious, have it focus its attention on something else (e.g. a toy) or lead the dog calmly and quietly away from the child(ren) without punishing it.
- Do not force the dog to interact with your child(ren). This can make the dog anxious. It is best to have the dog interact with the child(ren) on its own terms.
- Dogs should have a “quiet spot” where they can choose to leave interactions and be left alone. It is important to teach children that when a dog is in their crate, it is off limits and they need to leave the dog alone. A crate can act as a “safe area” for dogs. For more information, see our crate training page.
NOTE: There are products available that mimic natural dog pheromones, creating a sense of familiarity in the environment, and can be used to help reassure and comfort dogs during stressful situations. This product may be helpful during dog-child introductions.
Helpful tips for a positive dog-child relationship
Here are some additional helpful tips for helping to create a successful relationship between your child(ren) and new dog
1) Teach your child(ren) to be calm, gentle, and kind around dogs.
- Many children get excited when they see a dog! However, it’s important to teach your children the proper way to approach dogs and behave around them.
- It’s important that an adult is always present when a child is interacting with a dog; children (under the age of 10) should never be left alone with a dog, regardless of how familiar the dog is.
- Without adult supervision, the child might behave in a way that puts them at risk of dog aggression (e.g., pull fur, tails or ears, step on the dog’s feet, hug, squeeze, or kiss the dog).
- It would be helpful to get pets used to handling all over their bodies. This can help prepare pets to tolerate accidental rough handling from a child and also make veterinary appointments go more smoothly.
- Gradually get the dog used to you touching all over their body (e.g., their paws, face, ears, back, and tail).
- For example, if a dog doesn’t like having its paws touched, the owner can start by gently petting the dog’s legs, stopping at any sign of anxiety, while giving the dog treats. Over multiple times of doing this, the owner can move closer and closer to the feet. Once the dog does not seem anxious at having its feet touched, the owner can try to actually hold the dog’s paw, while, again, using treats to distract and reward the dog for being calm.
2) Teach your child(ren) to leave the dog alone when they are eating, sleeping, or quietly playing/chewing on a toy.
- Waking a dog up suddenly can startle it, and may cause the dog to behave defensively, without it paying attention to who it is targeting.
- Some dogs may display resource guarding when approached when the dog is near or has something it values (e.g., food bowl, chew toy, item that is new). This behaviour can include barking, growling, lunging, snapping, and/or biting.
- In order to avoid a potentially negative scenario, children should be taught to leave dogs that are in these situations alone.
- Beginning obedience and handling exercises as soon as you get a dog or puppy can help prevent resource guarding.
- For example, teaching a puppy to drop objects while playing fetch can train the puppy to give up objects.
3) Teach your child(ren) that every pet is different and not all pets will behave like their family pet.
- Children are often bitten by dogs because they try to interact with an unfamiliar animal like they would their family pet.
- In order to keep both dogs and children safe, it is recommended that children be taught the importance of asking an owner if it’s ok to pet their dog. Once given the O.K. by an owner, children should allow the dog to come to them and sniff the back of their hand, and then gently pet the animal on its sides in the direction of its fur. This is also important when bringing a new pet into the home.
- When meeting the new family dog, it is important to keep children calm and have them follow these steps in order to start off on the right foot and avoid overwhelming the dog.
- Sometimes explaining to children that being calm around a dog will help them to become friends with the new pet can be helpful, since most children want their pet to like them.
Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W., & Ackerman, L. (2003). Canine aggression. In Rodenhuis, J. and Youd, Z. (Eds.), Handbook of behaviour problems of the dog and cat (2nd ed.) (p. 385-426). London, England: Saunders.
Jalongo, M.R. (2008). Beyond a pets theme: teaching young children to interact safely with dogs. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36, 39-45.
Bergman, L. (2006). Ensuring a behaviourally healthy pet-child relationship. Veterinary Medicine, 670-687.
Bergman, L. and Gaskins, L. (2008). Expanding families: preparing for and introducing dogs and cats to infants, children, and new pets. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 38, 1043-1063.