Kids and Dogs

Most of the time it’s just assumed that modern pets in families will know what to do, have good manners and to be perfect angels.

When it goes bad, it’s usually the children that suffer. Dogs are more likely to bite kids in the head or neck (63% of bites compared with only 13.3% of older people) and kids are more likely to need surgery and to stay in hospital (Ting et al, 2016). You’ve only got to look at the picture of my young son (above) to see why.

Usually the dog gets the blame, sometimes with tragic consequences, even though the causes are a lot more complicated. Usually it could have all been prevented with better understanding.

Why Do Dogs Bite Children?

  • If you don’t understand the root of aggression, your attempts to fix it are likely to fail. Badly.
  • There’s a lot of rubbish about your dog trying to dominate you or the children. This is outdated and completely wrong.
  • Most dogs that bite a child are either resource guarding, fear aggressive, or overstimulated and aroused.
  • All of these are usually made worse by punishment.

Resource guarding is simply your dog defending something that they consider important. It can be a food, a toy, or even a place. It’s a serious problem when it happens, and is best prevented. We have more advice on resource guarding in our puppy training guide.

Fear aggression is probably more common, and is a natural response from a dog who feels that it is their last resort to escape something or someone. We’ll teach you how to prevent and recognise fear in dogs before it reaches crisis point.

Importantly, this article is about prevention. If you are already having issues with your dog it would be advisable to seek professional advice sooner rather than later. Good tailored advice is like gold. Ask us for our recommendations.

How Do I Get My Dog To Be Good With Kids?

  • Train your dog to like children.
  • Train kids what NOT to do around dogs.
  • Know how to supervise children with dogs.
  • Teach kids to read dog body language.
  • Teach alternative good ways to play with dogs.
  • Ensure that your dog is included in inside family time

Getting dogs & kids together is as much about what you teach your children as how you train your dog. I’ll discuss each of these points below.

Training Your Dog To Like Children.

Kids are naturally scary. They move quickly and unpredictably. They are loud. They don’t behave like adults and don’t know dog manners.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have children. Your dog will inevitably meet them in his or her daily life.

Imagine a dog’s teeth as a loaded gun, and then think how you would feel facing an anxious person holding that gun. That’s potentially your child if your dog is scared.

Thankfully, dogs have a high degree of bite inhibition, but we aren’t in the business of putting them to the test.

The best way dogs learn to like children is to have good experiences with them as young puppies. Pups up to four months of age are in their sensitive period when fear is easily overcome by positive experiences.

Choosing a puppy? There is evidence that puppies acquired before 7 weeks of age and pet-shop puppies are more likely to be aggressive to family members (Le Brech, 2015; McGreevy & Masters, 2008).

If you have a puppy, make plans for them to be exposed to the noise and chaos of children, while always preventing them actually getting hurt. Use treats and toys to keep them happy while the children are nearby. Try to have at least four short sessions.

Dogs that miss out on this can still like children. Try to associate time with the kids with something positive, like meal times, play, walks or treats. Include dogs in fun activities whenever possible and reward good behaviour when you see it.

I’ll write about introducing your dog to a new baby soon.

Some parents decide to put dogs outside when they have kids. Welcome to barking, digging, jumping, overexcitable behaviour and increased levels of anxiety. Dogs learn nothing good without your constant feedback.

Dogs left outside often have more inappropriate behavioural issues than those that are integrated into the family and taught to behave appropriately. They are social animals and thrive on their families’ contact.

For dogs to like children it’s also absolutely critical that kids know how NOT to behave as well.

What Children Should NOT Do Around Dogs

All of these human behaviours can be tolerated, and some (like being picked up or patted on the head) even enjoyed, but none of them come naturally to dogs. Here’s what dogs consider rude, especially from strangers.

  • Hugs! Don’t believe what you see on YouTube or Facebook. Any behaviourist or vet can see the stress some of these dogs are under. Once you read our body language guide you will too.
  • Being lifted. Kids often pick dogs up inappropriately, frequently hurting the dog and making the dog feel unsafe. This is a sure way to undermine any positive relationship that you are trying to build
  • Being woken suddenly. Even one of my children has been nipped by not letting a sleeping dog lie. Sleeping areas are best placed out of bounds of children. A dog needs to know that they can go to their safe spot and be able to rest without interference.
  • Being jumped on or ridden. No surprises there.
  • Having personal space invaded. Dogs like a safety zone around them, but then so do we.
  • Removing toys or treats or being approached while eating. This comes back to resource guarding. Either let them enjoy that toy or food in peace or teach them the joy of giving those valuable resources in exchange for something better.
  • Being cornered. Fear only increases when there’s no way out. You’ll now notice how I never examine dogs in a corner.
  • Loud noises and running. Loud noises and sudden movements make some dogs anxious, but the real danger is the rare dog who unleashes predatory aggression when kids run and squeal. It’s best to put dogs away when kids have friends over or at times of excitement.
  • Eye contact. This one is a surprise to many people. We humans do it so much (and train our dogs to as well) but it’s not what dogs do naturally. Watch dogs interacting and you’ll see what I mean. Staring at an aggressive dog will make them worse every time.
  • Feeding from the table. Le Brech et al (2015) found this increases the risk of aggression towards family members.
  • Pain. Whether you like it or not, there will be times when your kids hurt your dog. The only question is how your dog will respond. Most dogs can hold back their aggression, but all dogs have limits. This comes back to teaching children gentle handling of dogs.
  • Being approached by strangers. Every dog walker knows how dogs are ‘kid magnets’. Kids are better educated now but you still see some who come running up with their arms out.
  • Being patted on the head. No, seriously? But everyone pats dogs on the head and they enjoy it! Well they may learn to enjoy it but it certainly doesn’t come naturally. An anxious dog sometimes doesn’t like a hand reaching over their eyes. That hand is in a vulnerable place.

How To Supervise Children With Dogs

Everyone knows you shouldn’t leave children alone with dogs. That’s not enough. I’ve known plenty of kids who’ve been bitten. Most of the time it happened right in front of an adult.

Proper supervision of children needs four extra things.

  1. An awareness of your dog’s reactiveness: that is, if they can react quickly or unpredictably then they shouldn’t be even one step away from you with that child.
  2. Awareness of the children nearby. Later you’ll read how to teach your own kids to behave but you may have no idea how other people’s kids will behave. Until you do, it’s best to keep them apart.
  3. Being able to read your dog’s body language so you can give them time out before something happens. People who say it all happened without warning usually just missed all the warning signs.
  4. Intervening at the right time. In a study comparing dog experts with regular child care givers, the experts often disagreed the child carers over the need for intervention (Arhant et al., 2016).

How To Read Dog Body Language

Dogs don’t want to resort to violence and are usually trying frantically to signal the human to stop. If only they could understand.

Kids need to know when their behaviour is causing stress or fear in dogs. Adults need to read their dog’s body language to intervene appropriately.

Kids also need to know when it’s best to leave a dog alone. Despite fear being one of the main causes of bites, young children are very poor at recognising fear in dogs (Lakestani et al., 2014) although they can be taught! (Lakestani & Donaldson, 2015).

Here are the signs that your dog is unhappy and needs time out:

  • Lip licking
  • Yawning
  • Showing the white of the eye
  • Ears held back
  • Stiff head and body posture
  • Tail stiff and down
  • Avoidance behaviour
  • Shaking down afterwards (stress release)
  • Growling. Punishing dogs for growling may feel natural, but it will be counterproductive. Dogs will get more anxious, and may feel they have no option other than biting.

Good Ways For Kids To Play With Dogs

  • Teach a trick or several, and get the dog to do them. There are lots of books and videos to help.
  • Play fetch. This needs to be under control, asking the dog to sit, wait, fetch. Also remember that this can cause joint problems if overdone.
  • Teach kids to recognise when your dog is getting over stimulated. Unless play stops, it can quickly lead the dog to jump and bite.
  • Teach the kids to ask the dogs permission to be picked up. If the dog backs up they are saying ‘no’.
  • Teach them the correct way to handle the dog including how to pick up. Ensure that they know the rules and don’t pick up the dog unless you are there to supervise
  • Walking on a lead, always with adult supervision. Read here why kids should never walk dogs alone.
  • Digging in the garden or sandpit.

I also advise owners to get kids to give their dog regular meals. My kids ask the dog to “sit”, then “wait”, and once the dog has sat still for 5 seconds, they can say “OK”.

You need to watch that your dog obeys them. If not, repeat. By doing this, kids get a sense of responsibility, and dogs get a sense of children as figures of fun and leadership. Dogs should never expect to get food from a child’s hand unless it’s part of structured training with treats.

If approached by an unknown dog:

Children should act like a tree:

  • Arms to the side
  • Eyes to the ground not the dog
  • Curl up in a ball if the dog attacks
  • Never run

When meeting a new dog, kids should:

  • Get consent from the owner
  • Approach slowly and quietly
  • Not make eye contact
  • Hold out the back of a clenched hand for inspection
  • Pat on the shoulders, not the head

Educate Children That Pets Have Feelings Too.

I know it seems strange to include this, but I find that young kids find it hard to realise when they cause pain to animals. Some are going to be better than others, but all will benefit from regular reminders of correct behaviour.

Kids need to be trained how to handle dogs gently and respectfully.

More Problems Between Kids & Dogs

Now we’ve covered the main question, here are two other related problems. Hopefully you’ll notice a pattern developing. Some of the answers are exactly the same, with a few extra points…

How Do I Stop My Dog Biting?

  • Train your dog to like children
  • Train kids what NOT to do around dogs
  • Teach kids to read dog body language
  • Know how to supervise children with dogs
  • Manage the environment
  • Know your dog’s character
  • Manage pain or illness
  • Desex males early

How Do I Introduce A New Dog To My Kids?

  • Be patient and use positive rewards for good behaviour
  • Train your dog to like children
  • Train kids what NOT to do around dogs
  • Teach kids to read dog body language
  • Know how to supervise children with dogs
  • Manage the environment
  • Know your dog’s character
  • Desex males early
  • Read about the diseases children can catch from dogs.

Here are the extra points I haven’t yet explained.

Manage The Environment

This is just common sense. Set house rules that family and guests have to follow all the time. These will be ways to avoid problems by thinking ahead. Which ones you do will depend on your dog.

Examples include:

  • Thinking ahead when young kids are eating to prevent begging or stealing and kids deliberately feeding. Give dogs an environmental enrichment toy like a stuffed Kong or a Bob-a-lot full of tasty treats while the kids are eating. Use the dog’s safe area (including a crate). This will avoid the frustrated barking that happens when you put them outside, and teaches them not to beg and steal food
  • Using stair gates or child gates to limit access of dogs to risky areas like bedrooms.
  • Making safe and positive places for your dog (like dog beds, crates or feeding zones) No-Go Areas.
  • Creating a refuge area for a dog to be able to rest undisturbed when they need to. Never use this for punishment.
  • Even locked dog runs can be OK to save aggressive dogs from euthanasia, as long as they get exercise.

Know Your Dog & Manage Their Health

How many times have I seen a dog bite and the victim be told “He’s never done that before”? No one ever says, “He’s done that before”. I sincerely doubt all bites are by first timers.

These people probably just love their dog so much they are in denial about what they may do. Don’t be that person.

When an owner advises me to muzzle their dog I think “responsible owner”. It’s OK to have an aggressive dog as long as you keep others safe. There are lots of abused dogs who never had a chance to be normal.

All they need is management by a responsible person.

If you have a new puppy, fear & aggression should be easily prevented by good training starting with puppy preschool. Older dogs who may not have grown up with children need very slow and careful introductions. Some dogs will never be able to mix with children.

Learn to watch your dog’s body language to enable you to identify those early signs of stress. Dogs often make the ultimate inappropriate decision and bite because they have been forced into this choice by uneducated inactivity.

Know your dog’s weaknesses and when they get anxious. This could be in crowds, during thunderstorms or at parties. These are the times to keep children well away.

Similarly, manage your dog’s health. Old dogs often have chronic pain. These dogs get scared of being hurt, and may lash out at an approaching child to protect themselves.

Vets can help identify and treat pain (and other diseases) as long as you keep attending regular checkups.

Desexing (neutering) male dogs is essential with young families. There is a proven increased risk of undesexed males biting family members. Read more in Should I desex my male dog.

Exercise and Dog Training make happier, more relaxed dogs who understand what is expected of them. It has been proven that dogs who attend training have a closer relationship with their owners.

All dogs should be exercised outside of the home at least once a day. Read the different opinions of three of our vets about why walks are so important to dogs.

As you now hopefully realise, avoiding problems with family dogs isn’t easy. If all this is necessary why do we do it at all?

Why Have Kids & Dogs Together?

Here’s why I think it’s worth the effort. It enhances your kids’ education and health.

  • Kids learn responsibility.
  • Kids learn empathy and compassion for other beings.
  • Well-trained dogs are friends who always give and never judge.
  • Allergies are less common in homes with pets.
  • Dogs encourage family exercise and activities.

None of this happens by chance. Parents need to be there, and for some families it won’t be the right time. However, for those who are prepared for the challenge, it’s something that adds much richness to family life.

Further reading:

How to deal with kids being allergic to dogs

Choosing a good dog breed for children and families

References:

Arhant, C., Landenberger, R., Beetz, A., & Troxler, J. (2016). Attitudes of caregivers to supervision of child–family dog interactions in children up to 6 years—An exploratory study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 10-16.

Le Brech, S., Amat, M., Camps, T., Temple, D., & Manteca, X. (2015). Canine aggression toward family members in Spain: Clinical presentations and related factors. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.

McGreevy, P. D., & Masters, A. M. (2008). Risk factors for separation-related distress and feed-related aggression in dogs: additional findings from a survey of Australian dog owners. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 109(2), 320-328.

Jeannette WC Ting, Brian Yin Ting Yue, Howard Ho Fung Tang, Alexandra Rizzitelli, Ramin Shayan, Frank Raiola, Warren M Rozen and David Hunter-Smith. Emergency department presentations with mammalian bite injuries: risk factors for admission and surgery. Med J Aust 2016; 204 (3): 114.

Lakestani, N., & Donaldson, M. L. (2015). Dog Bite Prevention: Effect of a Short Educational Intervention for Preschool Children. PloS one, 10(8), e0134319.

Lakestani, N. N., Donaldson, M. L., & Waran, N. (2014). Interpretation of dog behavior by children and young adults. Anthrozoös, 27(1), 65-80.

By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. We do not accept payments or incentives in return for stories. Like or follow our page or subscribe via email to read the latest.
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Andrew

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