Choosing to have dogs in a home with children is a decision many parents make. And it is a great one! I cannot imagine my childhood without our lovable German Shepherds or our Siberian Husky mix who lived to be nearly 18 years old.
They were my protectors, my playmates, and a source of constant entertainment in our home. Naturally, I want to provide my son with those same memories.
But, if there is one thing I learned throughout all of those years with our dogs, it’s that they are animals. Animals who can and will act on instinct, usually to protect themselves. Even though we love and trust them, and they do us, it is critical to always be aware of how they are acting and how we are interacting with them.
It’s important for all parents to know how to keep kids safe around dogs, BEFORE bringing a new dog or child into the home. This will ensure the best possible outcomes and, hopefully, nothing but happy memories for years to come.
Growing up with pets can be a great experience.
In our home, the dogs were members of the family. I firmly believe that if you have pets in your home, this is exactly the way it should be. They received tons of love and attention, were cared for and worried about, and received a fair share of Christmas presents. In our home, they even had their own photo albums; and they were full.
Pets, particularly dogs, can be comforting when you’re sad or lonely. They sense our sadness and seek to comfort us. A warm, gentle snuggle on the couch can be very soothing.
They can make you feel safe. Nothing scares away would be intruders like a low growl and ferocious bark in the dark. Bad guys may not be afraid of many things, but a dog seems to be one thing that few of them are able to face.
They can make you laugh. From tipping their heads at strange noises to chasing sprinklers to zooming around the room and chasing tails, dogs do the craziest things. We once had a dog that leapt onto the kitchen table excitedly when my mom came home and had such force behind her that she slid all the way across and fell off the other end. She still laughs when she thinks about the 80-pound German Shepherd gliding across the table, looking at her as she flew by, completely confused.
Their individual personalities can light up a sad room or lighten a tense moment. Dogs can teach us to live more spontaneously, with their infectious, excitable attitudes. They’re good for our health; I’ve taken far more walks in the years we’ve had our dogs than before them.
Best of all, they love unconditionally and allow us to do the same. There really are so many great reasons to add a dog to your family.
But nothing in life is perfect, and sometimes things can go wrong. Accidents can happen.
Even the best dog can make a mistake. And even the best kid, can get hurt.
My son has been around dogs his whole life.
When we brought him home from the hospital, he was eagerly greeted by our Siberian Husky, Odin, and our Great Pyrnees/Doberman, Daisy. Daisy was instantly protective of him, letting me know when he was crying, as if she wasn’t sure I knew. Eventually, he was just another member of the family.
My parents currently have three German Shepherds. They barge over to him, lick his face, knock him down…and he just barrels through.
Growing up with dogs, he knows what is okay to do and what is not. He knows what dogs mean when they behave in certain ways. He understands when to leave them alone and when they want to play. They’ve learned the same from him.
But not every situation is completely avoidable. It’s impossible to completely keep kids safe around dogs even with doing everything right. Sometimes, things just go wrong.
Recently while playing outside, we had one of these moments.
Zach fell off the edge of the steps and landed on Odin. Odin was not paying any attention to him at the time and was looking off into the yard. I don’t even know if he was aware Zach was near him. With the force he must have landed on him with (Zach weighs about as much as Odin) Odin instinctively lunged back and latched on to the first thing he came into contact with. That happened to be Zach’s face.
The evening flew by in a blur for Zach, Odin, and my husband. I, fortunately, was at work at the time and did not have to experience all of this. I am grateful for that as my husband is far more useful in emergency situations than I am. That’s just not where I shine.
Zach was afraid of Odin and hurt. Odin was hiding in the basement. My husband was scared for our son and furious at our dog.
After a trip to the emergency room, some suture tape, a pep talk from the doctor and an antibiotic, they were back at home. Odin was still hiding in the basement, but Zach wanted to “have a talk with him.” When he wouldn’t come up, they decided to let him be alone.
The next morning, the two of them acted like nothing ever happened. Life continued as normal as they each went about their business. He has no fear of Odin. Odin is over what I can only assume was fear and confusion over his mistake.
To be clear, I do not take this lightly. A dog biting a child’s face is a serious thing. We are so lucky that the bite wasn’t worse, didn’t hit an eye or sinus cavity, and didn’t require surgery. However, I can be calm and rational about this because of a few things.
I know my kid. I know he wasn’t doing anything to antagonize the dog and this was a genuine mistake. He was being a kid and a mishap occurred. Kids are clumsy, they don’t always watch what they’re doing, and they move too fast sometimes.
I also know my dog. He is not aggressive toward the family…or anyone really. He’s not generally territorial, doesn’t treat Zach any different than the rest of the family, and is overall a good dog if a little odd. He did not do this intentionally and once he bit him, he did not react in a way that exhibited aggression.
There was no growling or power displaying. There was no shaking and tearing while clamped down, as there would be with prey. He’s a dog and he was acting on instinct. Had the situation been even slightly different, I’m confident it never would have happened.
It’s impossible to avoid every potential circumstance for accidents. They happen. It’s a part of life. I’ve had my fair share and Zach will too.
It is, however, possible to keep kids safe around dogs and help prevent avoidable situations. The proper awareness can even help prevent accidents like the one that happened with us from becoming much worse.
Odin knew what he did was wrong. I have no doubt that he knew the second he realized it was Zach he had bitten. Had he not, and felt he was somehow in the right or justified in his reaction, this could have been much worse.
So how do we keep kids safe around dogs?
Four Critical Steps to Keep Kids Safe Around Dogs
There are four basic critical steps to consider to keep kids safe around dogs. First, focus on teaching kids what they need to know to keep them safe. Second, teach dogs how to behave appropriately within the family. Third, consider how you will introduce a new member, child or dog, into the family. Finally, there are extra things you should do to serve as extra protection in addition to the above.
Some of the below steps are for when kids are meeting new dogs. Other steps are more for regular behavior around their own dogs or family member’s dogs. For instance, once your child and dog are older and comfortable with each other, the child obviously does not have to stop and wait for the dog to smell him. The dog will do it anyway, but he already fully knows who the child is.
All of these steps utilized together throughout infancy, childhood, and adolescence will help to keep kids safe around dogs; whether it be their own or others!
What to Teach Kids
- Always Ask: Always remind children that just because their dog is friendly and loves to play and snuggle, that does not mean every dog is the same. Some dogs they will encounter have had no experience with children or may suffer from anxiety disorders. Remind them that they must ask the adult with the dog if they would like to pet it. Then, if the answer is yes, to move slowly, allow time, be gentle, and do not invade their space. Many children have been bitten by perfectly nice dogs because they got too close, didn’t heed the dogs warning, or moved too unpredictably, causing the dog to rely on its instincts to protect itself from a perceived threat.
- Move Slowly: Children, especially toddlers, move fast and unpredictably and make dogs nervous. This is especially true if it is a dog that is not used to small children. Encourage children to move slowly around and toward the dog. This allows the dog time to see the child coming, watch the child, and prepare. It also gives time for the dog to leave the area if it is not interested in interacting at the moment.
- Be Gentle and Calm: Start when children are very young to teach them to be gentle. Discourage any rough behavior with stuffed animals before meeting a dog. Once with a dog, stay close and immediately correct any hitting, fur or tail pulling or grabbing. Instead, model and help (depending on age this will vary) the child to know the correct way to pet a dog. Additionally, teach the child to remain calm and quiet when approaching a dog, and not to yell or make other loud, startling noises.
- Do Not Invade Space: Children love to hug and cuddle, but many dogs do not like their space invaded. When approaching new dogs, or dogs they do not see often, teach children to stay back a few feet and allow the dog to come closer to them if it wants to. If it doesn’t, they can pet it, but it keeps them from doing things like sticking their face in the dog’s face or getting closer than the dog likes. This is especially important with dogs that are rescued and are not puppies. We cannot always know what experiences that dog may have previously had with children. With your own dogs, once they are comfortable with each other and the children are older, hugs and cuddles are fine as long as you know the dog is okay with this (ie, doesn’t react in a distressed or aggressive manner).
- Allow Time: After a child has moved slowly toward a dog, they should still allow a little time before attempting to pet. Most dogs that want to be petted will automatically move toward the child and engage. The child can put their hand out, palm up with fingers curled back, below the dog’s headline to avoid seeming threatening. Do not stretch it out at the dog, just in front of it. Allow the dog to sniff the child’s hand. The dog will likely move closer and sniff the arm or leg or in the air up toward the child’s face. After being sniffed, the child can attempt to pet gently if the dog seems calm and happy and is not backing away or showing any of the signs of aggression listed below.
- When to Back Off: Sometimes dogs need their space. A normally calm and loving dog may suddenly not want to be bothered. The dog may be feeling ill, be overheated, be too tired, or just need a break. Teach children all of the warning signs that dogs present when they do not want to interact. Growling, teeth-baring, back fur (hackles) raised, a rigid tail, and moving away are all indicators that dogs can give before they become aggressive. If children are following the above steps, there will almost always be time to realize that the dog is acting differently and may need some space. (Of course, if this is not normally how your dog is and it becomes this way for an extended period of time, you may want to have them checked by a vet. Dogs can develop health problems and changes that are causing their personality to change. Always be aware of and monitor any personality changes in your pets.) Additionally, ensure children know to leave dogs alone when they are more likely to be startled and react adversely: while they are eating or sleeping.
What to Teach Dogs
- Training is critical. Whether you have children or not, dogs must be trained what is acceptable and what is not. This is the number one thing that will keep your kids safe around dogs. It is imperative that dogs immediately learn appropriate ways to play and behave with children. As soon as they begin to nip, become territorial, or behave in any manner that is not acceptable toward a human, it needs to be corrected. This isn’t just to prevent aggression and intentional harm. Training will help keep kids from becoming injured accidentally by a dog playing too rough that does not know how to listen to a stop command. There are many methods for training and the best way is to enroll in a proper course. It is possible, however, to train the dog at home. The most important thing is that the dog actually learns and follows the commands you give and understands the behavior that is acceptable and unacceptable. They should definitely know the commands of no, stop, sit, stay, okay, and off/down.
- In addition to basic obedience training, there should be additional rules in place to keep kids safe around dogs and vice versa. Requiring dogs to go to another room while eating, not allowing begging, and not allowing jumping or overly rough play are all good rules. They reduce cause for possible aggression or accidental roughness.
How to Introduce a New Child/Dog into the Family
- Research breeds to determine the best fit for your family. Some dog breeds are better with kids than others. They are more patient, less easily agitated, or more relaxed. Some are very active and high strung, others are not. Know what kind of dog will fit into your family situation the best before bringing one home.
- Before bringing home a new baby into a home with dogs, prepare the dogs in advance of the arrival. Let the dogs smell new toys, clothes, and the crib. Use a gate to keep the dog out of the room sometimes so that they begin to understand that this room is off-limits sometimes, without any association of the baby. Then, try to have someone bring home something your baby has used from the hospital, like a blanket, for the dogs to smell. That way, they will recognize the baby’s smell when he or she arrives home.
- When bringing the baby home for the first time, let the dog greet you before the baby is with you. This way they can express their excitement without possible harm to the baby. We chose to have my husband go in and let the dogs outside. I came in with the baby and sat in a kitchen chair, in a corner, with a large pillow on my side. (I had a c-section and didn’t want them jumping on me either!) When they came in, they greeted me and didn’t even notice the baby until they were in the other room and he cried. The pillow protected him from the dogs getting too close and gave me protection as well. Once the dogs are calm, you can then slowly introduce them closer to the baby. You may need to gauge how long this will take based on your own dog’s personality. Very excitable dogs may need more time than very calm dogs. Some highly excitable dogs may need to be on a leash at first if you feel like you need to be able to restrain the dog from lunging forward or jumping.
What You Can Do
- Never leave young children unattended with a dog. No matter how much you trust your child and dog, you never know what could happen. If my husband hadn’t been with Zach and Odin, our accident would’ve been much more severe. He was able to intervene and help Zach within seconds.
- Watch for warning signs/aggression and correct behavior immediately. Whether it be the dog or the child, be sure to stop the inappropriate behavior and redirect and coach the approved behavior.
- Seek professional help with difficult situations. Do not wait for it to improve on its own. If you are having difficulty acclimating a new dog into the home or your dog is having a hard time with a new baby, seek professional help from a certified trainer! The sooner the better.
- Let the child and pet bond and build trust and respect. Have the child help with age-appropriate pet chores like feeding or letting outside. This will help the dog to see that this tiny human, who perhaps used to be a source of stress, is helpful, loving, and cares for them the same way Mom and Dad do.
- Keep them separated when necessary. Give pets a break from the stress of constantly worrying about an unpredictable toddler. This can easily be done with baby gates. If the dog disappears to a dark, quiet room, let them be. This will allow the dog to rest and relax and help keep the dog calm when it is around the child. It will also let the dog realize you are there to help! Our dog used to look at us and we knew she needed a break. You can also teach the child to leave the dog alone when he/she is in certain areas or rooms. You can begin to identify those as the dog’s personal space that he/she goes when they don’t want to play or be bothered.
- Give lots of opportunity for supervised, positive interaction. Even when Zach was a baby, Daisy was fascinated with him and wanted to be right by us. And he adored her. Her playing with her toys was the first thing outside of himself that Zach really laughed at! They grew together to accept each other as part of the family and create a bond.
- Continue to give love and attention to both the child and pet to prevent jealousy or negative feelings. Dogs comfortable being the only “child” in the home may struggle to share the attention. Similarly, a child may struggle to understand why a puppy is suddenly getting so much attention. In the same way you would with a new baby, help them to understand that this is just a new member of the family and you all love one another. Letting the child help care for the dog keeps the child from feeling left out. Not shooing the dog away when caring for the baby and instead let him stay with you in the room, helps him to not feel neglected.
- Provide the dog with plenty of exercise, chew toys, and mental stimulation. This will help to keep them from having pent up energy that can be misplaced.
Keep kids safe around dogs…be aware, be alert, be proactive!
Dogs bring families great joy. Having grown up myself with no less than one dog, and as many as three, at a time throughout my childhood I know how much value they can provide. Dogs are, after all, man’s best friend. Of course, kids bring great joy as well, but also introduce challenges when in a home with pets.
Sometimes, the combination can have consequences. That’s why it’s critical to be aware of how to keep kids safe around dogs and approach the combining of dogs and children in a firm and focused manner. There may still be accidents, but they will hopefully be less severe and have a more positive outcome for all involved.