Dogs and Kids: How to Ensure Compatibility

Dogs and Kids: How to Ensure Compatibility

While some dogs can be wonderful around children, many others can be fearful of a child’s high energy and over-eager nature, creating issues for parents and dog owners alike. If you’re unsure what category your pup falls into, here are some ways to understand a dog’s behavior and what to do if you have one that’s less-than sure about kids.

How Dogs Respond to Children

There are many ways a dog can respond to a new source of stimulation, with emotions ranging from excitement and happiness to fear or aggression. If your dog has been exposed to children from a young age and those interactions were positive, they’re apt to feel comfortable around kids as an adult. Dog behavior including a relaxed body, a loose tail wag, playful posture or physically approaching a child are all indicators of a positive response to something, says Victoria Wells, senior manager of behavior and training at the ASPCA adoption center.

“The more exposure a dog gets at an early age to children, the more likely they are to be receptive to them,” she says. “If they have consistent positive interactions with children, they have nothing to fear.”

A dog that has had negative interactions with a child, however, may be predisposed to be fearful of them. The awkward, unsteady movements of a young child moving towards a dog can set off a fearful reaction in a dog, Wells says, with behavior that includes backing away, tucking its tail between its legs, looking away and even growling or barking. Dogs that have never interacted with children may also have fear-based responses because of the child’s foreign nature while dogs that are shy and fearful in general may have negative responses to children because they’re predisposed to be afraid of things that are different, Wells says.

How to Help Put Your Dog at Ease

Even if they aren’t in your home, children are everywhere (especially if you live in a city) so it’s important for your dog to have a positive association with them. Parents aren’t always vigilant about keeping their children close, Wells says, so it’s up to the owner to make sure they are exposing fearful dogs to children at a distance and rewarding them for good behavior to prevent any issues.

To help your dog have a positive association with kids, give your dog a high value treat or play every time you pass a child on a walk. If they are going to be around children in the near future but haven’t been exposed to them before, try purchasing an mp3 or app with childlike sound effects or a baby crying and play it at home while your dog eats to get them used to the sound, Wells says.

If you can control the environment in which your dog will be meeting a child for the first time, put your dog in a crate or behind a baby gate and have the child approach it slowly, giving treats to the dog as they get closer to it on the other side of the barrier.

“The goal is to expose your dog to the child in a way that’s not intimidating for either of them,” Wells says. “The dog will be exposed to the child and experiencing positive reinforcements at the same time.”

While it’s important for parents to educate their children about how to approach a dog (by asking permission first and then petting the dog from under their chin rather than over their head), the dog owner is responsible for the interaction and they must keep their dog at a distance if they know it is reactive to or scared of children. You want to prepare it for experiencing kids eventually by exposing it to different sounds, ways of being pet and behaviors, but if there is a serious problem, Wells recommends seeking professional help.

Tell us: how does your dog respond to kids? Do you have any tips for helping dogs and kids get along?

Photo courtesy of the ASPCA