Children and Dogs: Important Information for Parents

Download Resource

Living with a dog can be beneficial to children. Dogs can enhance children’s self-esteem, teach them responsibility and help them to learn empathy. However, children and dogs may not always automatically start off with a wonderful relationship. Parents must be willing to teach the dog and the child acceptable limits of behavior in order to make their interactions pleasant and safe.

Selecting A Dog

What age is best? Many people have a warm and fuzzy image of a puppy and a child growing up together. If you have a young child and are thinking of adopting a puppy (less than 1 year old), there are a few things you need to consider.

As a general rule, if your child is under 6 years old, it’s best to adopt a dog that’s over 2 years old. Although puppies can be a lot of fun, and it’s exciting and rewarding to help them grow into wonderful companions, they do require significantly more time to train and supervise than an adult dog.

What breed is best?

Who will care for the dog?

It’s unrealistic to expect a child, regardless of age, to have sole responsibility of caring for a dog. Dogs need basic things like food, water and shelter, but they also need to be played with, exercised and trained on a consistent basis. Teaching a dog the rules of the house and helping him become a good companion is too overwhelming for a young child. While responsible teenagers may be up to the task, they may not be willing to
spend an adequate amount of time with the dog, as their desire to be with their friends usually takes over at this age. If you’re adopting a dog “for the kids,” you must be prepared and willing to be the dog’s primary caretaker.

Starting Off Right

Below are some guidelines to help you start off on the right foot. Remember, children should never be left alone with a dog or puppy without adult supervision.

Holding:

Petting and giving affection:

Children often want to hug dogs around the neck. Your dog may view this as a threatening gesture, rather than an affectionate one, and may react with a growl, snap or bite. You should teach your child to pet your dog from underneath the dog’s chin, rather than hugging him or reaching over his
head. You should also teach your child to avoid staring at, or looking directly into, your dog’s eyes.

Giving Treats:

Children tend to become somewhat fearful and anxious when a dog tries to take a treat from their hand. This causes them to jerk their hand away at the last second. The dog may then jump up or lunge to get the treat, which may result in the child being knocked down. Have your child place the treat in an open palm, rather than holding it in his fingers. You may want to place a hand underneath your child’s hand to help guide him.

Supervising Play:

Children run with quick, jerky movements and have high-pitched voices. These actions are highly stimulating to a dog. Consequently, your dog may respond by chasing or jumping up on your child.

Encourage your child to play quietly around the new dog until both become more comfortable with each other. Your dog also needs to learn which behaviors are appropriate and which are not. Our handout “Dealing with Normal Puppy Behavior: Nipping and Rough Play” outlines procedures for discouraging rough play and encouraging appropriate play. However, most children under the age of 10 are not capable of carrying out these procedures, so it’s helpful to teach your dog a “leave it” command that you can use when play gets too rough. Taking an obedience class together is a good way to teach your dog to respond to commands.

Punishing your dog for inappropriate behavior will not help. If he learns that being around children always results in “bad things” happening to him, he may become defensive in their presence.

Possessions:

If your dog is growling or snapping at your child for any reason, the situation needs IMMEDIATE attention. Punishing your dog is likely to make matters worse. Please refer to our sheet on “When the Behavior Helpline Can’t Help” for information on where to get further assistance and guidance in this matter.