Are you thinking about adding a dog to your family? Do you want to make sure your children know how to interact with it appropriately — and that it knows how to interact with your children?
Some people throw a dog into the mix and cross their fingers that everything will work out. When introducing a 4-legged animal with sharp teeth into a home with young children, though, you need to do a bit more than just hope for the best.
This guide breaks down some key guidelines every adult should keep in mind when introducing children and dogs.
Choose the Right Dog
Dogs come in all shapes, sizes, temperaments, and energy levels. If you want to set your kids up for success when it comes to interacting with a dog, making the right choice for your family is the first step.
Here are some of the most important factors to consider:
Do you want to buy a young puppy for your family, or would you rather bring in an older dog?
In some cases, a puppy can be a good choice because they have a chance to get used to being around children from a young age. At the same time, though, an older dog could be a better fit because they’re already potty trained and may have a calmer temperament.
Speaking of temperament, that’s another key factor. Do you want a high-energy dog, or do you prefer a breed that’s known for being a bit more laid back?
Do you have room for a large, rambunctious dog in your home? Do you have a big backyard or just a small balcony or patio?
Do you worry about a big dog potentially knocking down and injuring young children when playing with them? On the flip side, is there a possibility that your kids could accidentally hurt a small dog if they’re not careful while playing?
No matter what kind of dog you choose, careful planning is always required when introducing dogs and children.
The decision to bring home a dog should never be made on a whim. You need to set everyone up for success — your kids and the dog:
When it comes to bringing home a dog, set clear expectations for your kids. Here are some examples of rules and boundaries you might want to establish:
- No putting their face close to the dog’s face (no hugs, kisses, etc.)
- No roughhousing or wrestling
- No taking away the dog’s food, or putting their hands in the dog’s food dish
- No running at the dog when it’s lying down
- No touching the dog when it’s sleeping
True, some dogs are more tolerant of these things than others. However, it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially at the beginning.
If you have young children who can’t understand these rules, you’ll need to be extra vigilant as the adult in the situation. This might mean buying a kennel or putting up baby gates so the kids can’t get to the dog when you’re not able to give them your full attention, and vice versa.
It’s important to teach your dog proper boundaries and impulse control around kids, too. For example, you’ll want to teach cues like “leave it” and “drop it” early to prevent your dog from getting their teeth on things they’re not supposed to have (such as your kids’ toys or food).
Stressed or anxious dogs may do the following:
- Lick their lips
- Tuck their head and lower their body to the floor (making themselves smaller)
- Open their eyes wide so you can see the whites (this is known as a “whale eye”)
- Pin their ears back close to their head
- Tuck their tail between their legs
- Pace around the room
- Hide behind a person or object
When these behaviors don’t work, a dog may resort to more drastic or “aggressive” behaviors. This might include growling, snapping at the air, barking, or biting.
The more you know about dog body language, the easier it is to pick up on signs that your dog is stressed or uncomfortable. This, in turn, makes it easier for you to know when you should encourage kids to give the dog space to prevent accidents from happening.
Don’t open the front door, release the dog, and assume everyone will “figure it out.” Structured interactions make it easier for everyone (dogs and kids alike) to start on the right foot (or paw).
What do structured interactions look like?
Give the kids a handful of treats and ask them to toss them to the dog. This is helpful for a couple of reasons.
First, tossing treats on the floor discourages the dog from jumping on the kids, which can be scary and even dangerous.
Second, tossing treats allows the dog to see the kids in a positive light. It helps them associate the kids with good things, which can create a stronger relationship.
A short game of fetch or tug can also be a good way for everyone to get to know each other. Playing out in the yard and doing something fun helps to establish positive associations.
Just make sure the activities are age-appropriate. For example, a game of tug might not be good for young children, but it could work for older kids who have a stronger grip.
Going for a family walk can help everyone get to know each other in a less stressful way, too. It allows the dog to get used to being around your children, but it may be less overwhelming than if everyone was crowded into one room of the house.
Make sure your dog has a safe space where they can decompress away from your children, too.
Children can be stressful — and when you combine their energy with the stress of being in a new home and the dog possibly being away from its mother or siblings for the first time.
If your dog is stressed or overly tired, they may be more prone to exhibit anxiety-related behaviors, nip, or bite.
This is why dogs need lots of time to rest, especially when they first come into a new home. Give your dog a comfy crate with blankets and a bed, or put a baby gate in the doorway of one room so your dog has its own space to chill out.
A little prevention goes a long way when it comes to keeping your children safe, helping your dog feel secure, and encouraging a strong, healthy relationship between everyone in your family.
Giving your dog their own space is an excellent first step when it comes to preventing problematic behaviors and helping them to feel safe in the house.
Another key way to prevent accidents is to make sure your kids are never left alone with the dog. This is especially important at the beginning when everyone is getting to know each other.
You may want to keep your dog on a leash in the house for the first few days or weeks, too. This makes it easier for you to redirect the dog if you need to give them a break from the kids or if you need to encourage them to go to their kennel or another safe space.
Remember, don’t punish your dog for being a dog.
Spanking, smacking the dog on the nose, or spraying them with a water bottle might seem like good solutions — especially if they’re doing something around your kids that is dangerous or undesirable.
These actions don’t teach your dog what you want them to do instead, though. They can also cause your dog to become afraid of you or associate your children with negative experiences.
If your dog growls or barks, for example, redirect their attention to something else like a toy or a chew. Then, praise them for practicing a different, more desirable behavior.
Don’t be afraid to work with an expert, either. Hiring a dog trainer to work with you and your family right from the beginning is a great way to help everyone get comfortable with one another sooner.
A dog trainer can also teach you what to do and save you from making mistakes that could accidentally harm the relationship between you, your children, and your dog.
The process of introducing children and dogs can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never tried it before.
Following the steps outlined above can make things much easier for everyone, whether they have two legs or four. This is particularly true when it comes to having a team of skilled, qualified professionals on your side.
If you have concerns about your dog’s well-being or how they’re engaging with your children, get in touch with us at Cooper Pet Care today to talk to a certified veterinarian right away.