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You Want a Dog... But You Have Children

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books

In this article, I cover:

  • Getting a dog "for the kids"
  • How often dogs bite children
  • How to keep kids from being bitten by your dog
  • Choose a child-friendly dog
  • Raise your dog properly
  • Raise your KIDS properly
  • Older children and dogs
  • Infants and dogs

Getting a dog "for the kids"

The plan here is that the kids will come home from school and take the dog for a long walk and outside to play.

Dog pulling kids on leash

The problem is that most children don't interact with a dog in ways that encourage good habits. They don't create good routines, avoid bad routines, add rewards to good behavior, and correct bad behavior. Not consistently, anyway.

Child pulling dog on leash

Not good lessons for the pup (or the child) to be learning here!

In fact, children can (unintentionally) undermine your attempts to raise a dog to be well-behaved. Children tend to see dogs as furry playmates and will encourage the dog to do all sorts of undesirable things:

  • Children will wrestle with the dog with their hands, inciting him to struggle.
  • They'll let the dog pull on the leash and jump on them.
  • They'll run away from the dog, inciting him to chase and nip.
  • They'll stamp their foot playfully at the dog, inciting him to bark.

Mind you, none of this is done with bad intentions! Children who are having fun simply can't judge when a dog is out of control and they can't correct a dog with enough authority when his behavior does go over the line.

Over-excited dog jumping on child's back

More bad routines being ingrained here.

Similarly, dogs tend to look at children as littermates. Dogs jump on children, grab things away from children, nip, chase, and play roughly, just as they would play with another dog.

Dogs don't view children as potential leaders to be respected – not until the child is mature enough to follow the instructions in my training books. Typically that won't be until at least age 10 or so.

You need to look at your children as honestly and objectively as possible. Are they mature enough and responsible enough to follow your rules of handling the dog? If you tell them not to do something with the dog, will they stop doing it? How consistently? 95% of the time?

If not, they should not be allowed to interact with the dog unless you are right there supervising.

Family supervising kids with the dog

But it's not just the dog's behavior you need to monitor – it's the kids' behavior too. Some owners think that it's entirely up to the dog to change his jumping or nipping behaviors even when the kids are egging him on.

That isn't realistic or fair. Kids need to be taught what they are (and aren't) allowed to do, just as much as dogs do.

If one or more of your kids can't or won't follow your instructions even when you're right beside them, the dog should be off limits until the child matures.

I realize this will be a great disappointment to parents who got the dog for the kids. And I'm sorry for needing to say it.

Kids feeding dog from the table

The kids are having a good time, but the dog is learning bad habits from this.

A dog is a living sponge soaking up all the undesirable things they're doing with (or to) him, and all the undesirable things they're letting him do.

From the kids, the dog will learn that rowdy, excited, impulsive, dramatic behaviors are encouraged. And there is no behavior more dramatic than a sudden bite.

Dog baring teeth

How often dogs bite children

Regrettably, it's time for a few statistics:

  • In the United States alone, 4.7 million people each year are bitten by a dog. Nearly 400,000 of them require emergency room treatment, and 10,000 are hospitalized. Two thirds of bite victimes are kids
  • About two-thirds of bite victims are children, mostly under the age of 12.
  • 70 percent70% of bite injuries to kids under age 10 are bites to the face, often damaging the eyes or requiring major reconstructive surgery. Some children, including sleeping infants, are killed by dogs.
  • 50 percentOver 50% of bitten children are bitten by the family's own dog. Another 25% are bitten by a dog owned by a friend or relative. So even though we tell our kids, "Never pet a strange dog," the much more serious threat is inside our own home or over at the neighbor's.

I've been working with dogs for many decades and love them dearly. But I respect that they have strong jaws and teeth. I hope you'll have that kind of healthy respect as well.

Dogs may not always know that a young child is human.

Dog looking quizzically at baby

This dog is thinking, "What the..? Crawling critter?? Doesn't look or act like a human.... also smells bad... did you go potty? Hey, whatever you are, you're gonna get in trouble for that!"

You and I see children as human beings who are simply younger and smaller than adults. But a sensitive dog may view young children as nothing like adult human beings.

Young children move their arms and legs with unpredictable, herky-jerky movements. Young children bump into things, drop things, knock things over. They trip and fall. They jump up and down, hit and kick things, yell and cry in high-pitched voices.

"But my child is different!"

It's perfectly natural to believe that your child is different from other children, that your child will behave just fine around any dog.

But it's not how YOU see your child that counts. It's how a DOG sees your child that counts. And from a DOG'S perspective, the vast majority of children ARE much the same.

Their tone of voice, their facial expressions, the way they move their arms and legs.... it is NORMAL child-like behaviors that can trigger a growl or a bite.

From a dog's perspective, a young child may appear to be a mystifying creature and an altogether different creature than you are.

How to keep kids from being bitten by your dog

  1. Choose a dog who is good-natured and friendly.
  2. Raise the dog properly.
  3. Raise your kids properly.

Short and sweet, that's it. For more details, keep reading!

First, choose a dog who is good-natured and friendly.

How can you predict a dog's temperament?

Well, you can't guarantee  it, but you can predict it (with more or less reasonable accuracy) by temperament-testing.

  • If you're getting an adult dog, do temperament tests on him before agreeing to adopt him.
  • If you're getting a puppy, do temperament tests on both the pup AND the parents.

You can find temperament tests (for pups and adult dogs) in my dog buying guide, Dog Quest.

When you have kids under age 10 (or thereabouts), it is safest to...

sad faceAvoid dogs who are shy, sensitive, or easily startled – they will have a low tolerance for sudden movements (like a child waving her arms), sudden sounds (a child yelling), roughhousing, even the kind of enthusiastic patting that kids like to do. This describes many Poodles, Shelties, and sighthounds  (fast, slender breeds like Greyhounds and Whippets).

Sensitive dogs often become stressed and nervous around small children and may react with an involuntary, defensive snap.

Toddler with Longhaired Chihuahua

I don't recommend toy dogs, like this Longhaired Chihuahua, for young children.

sad faceAvoid tiny dogs (under 10 pounds). First, it's unsafe for the dog. Even when a child means well, a tiny dog can be accidentally stepped on, sat on, squeezed too hard, or dropped. You can supervise them 24 hours a day, but the one day your child plays Speed Racer with his bike will be the day your tiny dog will be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Second, tiny dogs often become stressed and nervous around small children and may react with a defensive snap if a child suddenly tries to pick the dog up or pat-pat-pat  the top of its head. We should appreciate the perspective of a wee little dog who sees a palm suddenly swooping down from the sky... looks threatening, doesn't it?

sad faceAvoid feisty or opinionated dogs (for example: most terriers, many Dachshunds, Lhasa Apsos, Basenjis, Chows, Australian Cattle Dogs) who won't put up with nonsense from little life forms that they view as below themselves in importance.

sad faceAvoid dogs who act aggressively toward other dogs. Fortunately, most dogs who are dog-aggressive are not automatically people-aggressive! But some dogs do have this dual aggression, and for others, it's only a short hop to becoming so. In addition, you can't safely allow a child to take a dog who is dog-aggressive for a walk.

sad facedog guarding food Avoid possessive dogs who guard their food or toys. This trait isn't breed-specific; any breed can develop this bad habit. Now, no child should be allowed to approach a dog who is eating or chewing on a bone. But if a child once in a while happened to do so, you wouldn't want a dog who is likely to lash out. I simply would not keep a food-possessive or toy-possessive dog around a child.

sad faceAnd finally, when you have young children, I don't recommend these breeds:

  • Akita
  • American Bulldog
  • Boerboel
  • Bullmastiff
  • Cane Corso
  • Caucasian Ovcharka/Shepherd/Mountain Dog
  • Pit Bull Terrier
  • Presa Canario
  • Rottweiler

My concern is not that the breeds above, when well-bred and well-raised, are likely to bite a child. They're not.

My concern is (1) there are so many people producing these breeds with aggressive or unstable temperaments  that it's hard to feel confident that the one you buy won't be one of those dogs; and (2) they can do SO much damage when they do bite.

Which breeds DO I recommend for families with kids under age 10?

When I consult with people who are looking for personal breed selection advice, we discuss your family, lifestyle, house, yard, other pets, your experience with dogs, etc. Without that specific info, there's no carved-in-stone, one-size-fits-all list of breeds I can recommend. And I don't know your particular kids either.

check markThat being said, it's hard to beat a good Golden Retriever or Labrador Retriever. My top two GO-TO breeds for families with young children, these retrievers are among the most good-natured, friendly, and stable of all breeds – seldom aggressive toward anyone.

A good German Shepherd can also be great with young children. Unfortunately, it's harder to find a good German Shepherd today. There are so many different "types" and temperaments, so many health problems, so many irresponsible breeders. But if you can find a good one, they're great.

German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever

German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers are solid family dogs. Just be careful where you get them!

Basset Hounds and Boxers also have a pretty good track record of child-tolerance.

But be aware! It's not just about the dog's BREED... it's also about the individual dog.

In every breed, there are individual dogs who don't follow their breed's typical temperament or behavior. For example, some individual Lhasa Apsos adore children, even though the breed in general... doesn't (to put it mildly).

The actual temperament of an individual dog  is more useful than the expected temperament of the breed in general. 

On the other hand, unless you're good at evaluating whether the dog you're looking at has  or doesn't have  the breed's typical temperament, it might be safer to expect  the breed's typical temperament.

There's no doubt about it. When you have children, it's difficult to choose a dog and feel confident that you've chosen the right one.

Let's say you've done the first step: You've chosen a dog who is good-natured and friendly. Now, what should you do next to keep kids from being bitten by your dog?

Second, raise your dog properly.

  • Make sure you and your spouse are the leaders in your household. If instead your dog thinks HE is the leader, then he will feel perfectly justified in disciplining (biting) a lower-ranking group member (child) who does something the dog doesn't like (touching his paw, for example). That's what can happen if you allow an improper "hierarchy" or "pecking order" to develop between the humans and the dog.
  • Maintain your dog's health and grooming so he isn't in chronic discomfort. A dog who hurts feels irritable and could lash out if a child did something (even accidentally) that made the pain worse. Painful health issues include hip dysplasia, arthritis, infected teeth, matted hair that pulls on the dog's skin, even an ear infection. So stay on top of your dog's health!
  • Don't tether your dog outside, and don't leave him unsupervised in a yard where he can run up and down the fence barking. Tied-up dogs and fence-runners are more likely to develop frustration and subsequent aggression.
    Dog chained to doghouse
  • Don't allow your dog to practice excitable behaviors such as rough play, jumping on people, or bark-bark-bark-bark-bark. Families with kids need a calm dog. If you need help with this, see my training books.

Let's say you've done the first two steps: You've chosen a dog who is good-natured and friendly, and you're raising that dog properly. What's the final thing you should you to keep kids from being bitten by your dog?

Third, raise your kids properly.

Don't allow a child to:

  • hug a dog (this can make him feel trapped)
  • kiss a dog, or put her face near a dog's face
  • stare into a dog's eyes
  • startle a dog by touching him when he's sleeping or looking in another direction
  • climb onto a dog's back
  • approach a dog when he's eating or chewing on a bone
  • try to take something away from a dog
  • chase a dog
  • make barking or growling sounds at a dog
  • stamp her foot at a dog, even playfully
  • yell or scream around a dog

Inappropriate child/dog interaction Inappropriate child/dog interaction Inappropriate child/dog interaction Inappropriate child/dog interaction Inappropriate child/dog interaction Inappropriate child/dog interaction

This. This is why many dog bites occur – when a child, even unintentionally, pesters or disrespects the dog. Don't allow a child to do anything like this with any dog.

You must stay in charge of your kids' behavior

It's astonishing when parents let their child engage in behaviors such as hoisting a dog into the air, squeezing a dog, holding a dog in awkward positions, trying to take a toy away from a dog, and so on.

"Oh, no worries," says Mr. Parent. "My dog tolerates anything. He would never bite."

I'm sorry, but that's bad parenting of the child and bad leadership/guardianship of the dog. You're supposed to be the protector of both of them. That means you don't put either of them in harm's way, the classic "accident waiting to happen."

Not just your child, but her friends and cousins too

My no-no list above – what things children should not do with a dog – also applies to any child who visits your home. That's nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and neighborhood kids who come over to play with yours.

Golden Retriever with group of kids

Stand up for your dog – don't let any child be rough or persistent. And stand up for the kids – don't let your dog jump on them or chase wildly after them. Children and canines must both be respectful.

If any child in your home or yard won't follow your instructions about what they can and cannot do with your dog, then (1) the child needs to leave or (2) your dog needs to be put someplace that's off limits to the kids.

Older children and dogs

When can a child interact with your dog without supervision?

Obviously, age can't be a hard-and-fast dividing line. It would be silly to declare that a child who is 9 years and 11 months old isn't old enough.... but a child who is exactly 10 years old is!

Still, around age 10 or so is a reasonable dividing line, simply because many children around age 10 change their mannerisms and body language enough that dogs can recognize them as smaller versions of humans. This simple change in perception – by the DOG – can help decrease the incidence of dog bites that are related to the dog not recognizing the child as a human.

In addition, children around this age are better able to understand that their behaviors have consequences, so they're more likely to be consistent in behaving properly around dogs.

Older girl petting dog

But you need to look carefully at your individual child. If your 11-year-old is still quite childish (loud, boisterous, clumsy, or likes to roughhouse), don't trust him with unsupervised canine care. Give him more time to mature.

Once kids are mature enough, they can be amazingly tuned-in to a dog and can often handle the dog better than grown-ups! Especially when kids are raised with animals; for example, they might belong to a 4H club, or their parents might be farmers, or breeders (of dogs, horses, cattle, etc.). I myself trained my first dog when I was 11, and then she and I participated in obedience competitions when I was 14.

Babies and dogs

You may have heard that "dogs instinctively know how to treat a baby gently."

That's not true. Many dogs are uncomfortable around babies. Many dogs don't even realize that a baby is human. Dogs have killed babies, even sleeping babies.

Yet parents will pose their infants with the family dog with the infant propped against the side of the dog's head, or "riding" the dog like a pony. These parents mean well, but it shows a lack of respect for canine thought processes and canine teeth.

Infant with dog Infant with dog

The body language of these dogs shows stress. Licking their lips. Worried expression. These dogs are saying, "I wish I was somewhere else right now..."

Of course, ultimately it's up to you... much contact you allow your dog to have with your baby. All I can tell you what's safer and what's riskier.

The safest way to have both a dog and an infant is to make it clear to the dog that the baby is your possession, protected by you.

  1. At first you don't allow the dog to touch the baby or even enter the baby's nursery.
  2. If your dog wants to accompany you to the nursery, teach him to "Wait" just outside the door. (The "Wait" command is taught in my training books.)
    Beagle lying at open door

    "Good boy to wait at the door!"

  3. Once he is doing well with this lesson and won't enter the room, you can start giving him permission ("Okay") to come in and sniff around a bit. You want him to learn that this special room is yours and that you decide if and when he can enter.
  4. When he sniffs the crib or the baby's clothes, teach him that this new scent is called "Baby." Giving an infant its own word gives it a special status in the dog's eyes. "Baby. Good baby. Easy. Ah-ah! Don't touch."

    If your dog doesn't know all those words, or if he knows them but only listens when he feels like it, you need my training book.

  5. Next, you can push the baby in a stroller as you also take the dog for a walk. He should walk beside you and behind the stroller, so the dog learns that he follows both of you. This is an important psychological lesson that shows the dog the new structure of the family and where he fits into the pecking order.

    If you haven't yet taught your dog to walk properly on a leash so that he will stay behind the stroller, you need to work on that (see my training books) before walking the baby and dog together.

When should you allow the dog to actually touch the baby with his nose, or lick the baby? There's no definitive answer to such questions, but if your dog is calm and relaxed and you can control him at all times, you might give him the "Okay" to come closer to the baby.

Bloodhound sniffing baby

This dog is appropriately curious but calm, with a relaxed facial expression. The child is also calm and not intruding on the dog's space. I present the child as a possession of mine. "Baby. Good baby. Easy!" If you repeat it often enough and your Leader-Follower relationship is solid, your dog will understand that anything claimed by the Leader must be respected and treated gently.

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.

To help you train and care for your dog

dog training videos Dog training videos. Sometimes it's easier to train your puppy (or adult dog) when you can see the correct training techniques in action.

The problem is that most dog training videos on the internet are worthless, because they use the wrong training method. I recommend these dog training videos that are based on respect and leadership.

book coverRespect Training For Puppies: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved puppy. For puppies 2 to 18 months old. Your puppy will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
If your dog is over 18 months, you'll want book coverRespect Training For Adult Dogs: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved dog. Again your dog will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
book coverTeach Your Dog 100 English Words is a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will teach your adult dog to listen to you and do what you say.
book cover11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy helps your dog live a longer, healthier life.
book coverDog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams will help you find a good-tempered, healthy family companion.