How to make sure your children and dogs have a great relationship

Children and dogs can have a great relationship — as long as they understand each other and attention is paid to what dogs are trying to tell us, explains Carolyn Menteith...

It’s easy to think that dogs and children have an instinctive bond — after all, we’ve seen old ‘Lassie’ films, and often we expect that kind of close relationship to happen naturally between the two. With some dogs, and some children, it does seem to be a natural thing — but, for most, they both need training from an early age.

Children must be taught respect for dogs, how to handle them properly, and to understand a few dos and don’ts, while dogs need to learn that although children might behave a bit strangely at times, they are not something to be scared of, worried about, or to actively avoid.

We often don’t realise that, while we may think of aggressive dogs and dog attacks coming from vicious animals roaming around biting all and sundry, in reality, most dog bites happen in the home, to children, from the family dog.

Dogs and children can make fabulous companions and the benefits can be huge. Children who live with dogs take less days off school, have stronger immune systems, often get more exercise, and generally develop a greater empathy and better social skills than their non-pet-owning counterparts. However, this relationship takes work, understanding, and adult supervision.

Too many people think a ‘good dog’ is one ‘children can do anything to’ but that is totally unfair on the dog. A good dog shouldn’t have to put up with being pulled around and teased by family members.

Always keep a close eye on your children and dogs

Dogs and young children should never be left alone together. Children do not develop empathy until they are surprisingly old, and they are older still before they can transfer that empathy to another species. In addition, children do not recognise dog body language. In a recent survey of children under eight years old, most thought dogs showing their teeth were smiling.

Most people are aware of the need to supervise children and dogs, but in the case of some of the worst recent dog attacks that have hit the headlines, it hasn’t been a lack of supervision that has been the problem; it is adults not knowing or understanding what it is they should be looking for, what body language signs the dogs are giving, and what is an acceptable way for children to interact with dogs.

So how can we make sure the interactions children have with their dogs are positive? By keeping a close eye on them and watching their body language, of course!

Handle dogs appropriately

Dogs generally do not like being patted on the top of their heads, sometimes they can be a little overwhelmed by hands and contact!

Avoid rough handling

For a puppy, being high off the ground — and upside down for example — can be pretty scary. A dog yawning can mean that the dog is stressed by being held like this — and while he may not react more than that yet, he is very much at face-biting height if he starts to feel more uncomfortable.

Don't play chase games

A dog and his young owner could be in the garden playing chase and both look like they’re having fun, interacting well together, and showing a strong bond. Your dog may look focused, but relaxed and happy. Younger children, however, shouldn’t play these kind of chase games, as it is easy for an over-enthusiastic dog to jump up, knock them over, or even nip when they catch up with them. It’s far better to stand still when the dog gets close to catching up.

Lack of control

While a dog may not look stressed or worried, he could be pulling hard on the lead when out on a walk. This means he has little interest in his young owner, and is totally doing his own thing! Pulling on the lead like this can cause injuries to dogs — and it is no fun to take a dog out who walks like this!

Dos and don'ts

  • Do not leave children and dogs alone together.
  • Make sure children know when to leave the dog alone (when he is eating or sleeping — or if he has a tasty treat).
  • If the dog needs to be moved from furniture, the children should get an adult to do it and not try to pull him off themselves.
  • If they are old enough, children should be involved in the dog’s training (going to good, reward-based training classes), walking and dog care (such as grooming), and should be taught how to handle a dog gently and with respect. The Young Kennel Club is a great start but most good training classes will happily involve all the family.
  • Watch the dog’s body language during any interactions with children; look for yawning, lip-licking, whale eye, held-back ears, tucked tail, or lowered body posture, and indeed tension anywhere in the dog’s body. If you see any of these, listen to what your dog is clearly saying to you, and get him out of that situation straight away.
  • Discourage rough games and play, and instead use interactive toys, or even get children involved in dog sports like agility.
  • When children have their friends visiting (especially if there is noise and activity), it is best if the dog is elsewhere.

Relaxed approach

Dogs and children can grow up to be the best of friends; however all interactions need to be supervised. Let a puppy be free to approach the child in her own time, with no pressure to interact, and if she needs to she has plenty of space to move away. 

Top tip

If you have any concerns about your dog and your children, seek advice from a qualified and experienced behaviour professional.

Getting children involved in training classes is one of the best ways to help them interact positively with their dog.