Teaching kids and dogs how to behave with one another

Click for source.

NOTE: This is a piece I wrote a while ago, and since I don’t have any good photos of Pyrrha or any good updates lately, I thought I’d post it to start a conversation. Pyrrha is pretty scared of children, especially infants and toddlers, and this is an area I really want to work on with her. I welcome your thoughts, comments, and advice! — Abby

Despite what this adorable picture suggests, in general, kids are pretty terrible with dogs.

Kids like to tease dogs. Even if they’re just babies and unaware of what they’re doing, kids like to mess with dogs. They like to stick their hands in the dog’s eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. They like pulling the dog’s tail. They like riding on the dog’s back. They like squeezing dogs around the neck to express affection, even though the dog interprets this as invasive and frightening. This doesn’t mean that kids themselves are terrible. They’re often unaware of what they’re doing and how to read a dog’s body language.

Kids have a tendency to freak dogs out, for all the reasons listed above. Kids are really noisy. Their body language can be erratic and unpredictable to a dog. They like to get right up in dog’s faces, in their food, in their beds, on their backs. It’s no wonder that many dogs are afraid of children and that many, unfortunately, lash out in fear-based aggression.

But dogs, undoubtedly, bring (most) children an immense amount of glee. Even babies will light up at the sight of a dog. It always warms my heart when I see this. And there are many dogs who seem to love nothing more than children. (Bo is one of them: He drags me after strollers and runs up to every kid we see, beside himself with excitement, or with the prospect of food crumbs on grubby faces.)

There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that dogs and kids were “made for each other,” but that’s not always the case, and the majority of dogs AND kids need to be taught how to behave around one another. So how do we train them to behave well with each other? It’s not something that exactly comes naturally to either species.


As someone who doesn’t have kids, I often worry about those parents who don’t train their kids well with regard to dogs. I have responsibility for training my future dog how to act around kids; I expect that parents have the responsibility to train their children how to act around dogs. When we’re out walking, I can’t tell you how many times parents have let their little children run up to Bo to pet, squeeze, or hug him, without so much as a glance at me or a question if my dog is even friendly toward children. Thankfully, Bo is wonderful with kids, as I mentioned before. But what if he wasn’t?

I always walk Pyrrha very carefully around playgrounds and around people with young children. Thankfully, we haven’t had any parents let their tots run up to us (and I think this has a lot to do with breed; Pyrrha looks “scarier” than Bo, the golden retriever, does) and if a kid wants to pet her, they usually ask first. But this certainly wasn’t always the case with Bo. Parents would let their little children run right up to him without asking me.

But: Have you ever had to intervene in a situation between children and your dog? What would you tell the parents, perhaps by way of educating their kids?

Karen London posted a great short list of things she tells children about dogs, covered by the funny but true heading: “Don’t lick the dog,” from Wendy Wahman’s picture book for kids. That book sounds like a great resource for any parent of young children. I feel like I should buy a bunch of copies to hand out to parents on the downtown pedestrian mall here…

The Lab babysitter. Click for source.


One of Pyrrha’s last remaining big fear thresholds is little children. We seem to have ameliorated her previous big fear, which was greeting other dogs, and she hasn’t snarled or raised her hackles at a dog in two months. I consider this a huge victory! But the kid thing is another issue entirely.

Pyrrha is OK with kids who are calm and move slowly. This, unfortunately, is not many children. She’s submitted to attention from older children, perhaps 5-7 years of age, and she doesn’t seem bothered by pre-teens or teenagers.

It’s the babies and toddlers who really make her anxious. This is, obviously, a really difficult thing to work on. I wouldn’t let my infant around a German shepherd who was scared of babies, and I always keep Pyrrha removed and completely controlled when she’s in the presence of small children. So what do we do? How do I work on exposing her and acclimating her to this fear? It’s not like you can ask an infant to work with you, to make all of its movements calm and controlled, to stop squealing erratically.

She once growled at a toddler who tried to come near her. I removed Pyrrha from the situation and put her inside. It was a scary and disheartening moment. I want a dog who’s OK with little children. But how do we get there?

For those of you who adopted an adult dog, how did you expose your dog to kids? How can we help Pyrrha overcome her fear of small children, without endangering babies or eclipsing Pyrrha’s fear threshold?

As always, I’m very open to your suggestions!


5 thoughts on “Teaching kids and dogs how to behave with one another

  1. I know there are a million audio CDs specifically for desensitization to children and baby noises. You could look into those if you’re curious if it’s the noise that makes her anxious.

    Otherwise, it’s just super-positive associations must be made with appropriate children, if you have any nearby. I’d say work your way backward in age. And associate sleeping infants before awake ones.

    Dogs and Babies (blog) might be of interest to you. As would the Be a Tree program by Doggone Safe.

    Elli’s like Bo. She thinks kids are the bees knees. She basically loses most impulse control around them – lots of licking and over-wagging ensues.

  2. All of our dogs really like kids, and that’s not an accident. Even nutty Morgan was raised with kids, and when she sees them, she relaxes immediately. It makes her a much happier girl to be around them most of the time, with one exception. In our family, there are a lot of kids, not here at my house, but my husband is the oldest of nine, and his youngest sister will turn fifteen in December, plus there are a few nieces and nephews around, including one who’s just five weeks old. Our dogs have been exposed to all of them, whether they were adult Greyhounds who were retired from the track or Kuster as an eight week old puppy.

    When I first take the Greyhounds to be around young children, I put their track muzzles on them with a stool guard on. They could possibly bite through it, but they would have to be VERY determined, and I would have seen a lot of warning signs before we got to that point. With Morgan, we approach new situations from her comfort level. We walk as close as she feels comfortable and let her watch. She gets rewarded for acting calmly. With Pyrrha what I would do is start with very little babies, if possible. Let her sniff one in a baby carrier. I think the thing that has made the biggest difference with our dogs getting used to babies has been letting them get a good sniff, because babies smell FASCINATING. At least, according to our dogs, they do. There’s always a big sniff fest the first time they see one, but after that, it’s not as big a deal. If you can let Pyrrha sniff a few babies, or even some of their possessions, like blankets and toys, you might find that it helps to alleviate a lot of her apprehension about them.

  3. Honey loves children so much we had the opposite problem. But we still needed careful training at the beginning because an overly friendly dog can do almost as much damage as a fearful dog.

    We used to hang out on the distant edges of the playground, outside of Honey’s excitement threshold. When she was calm and relaxed, I clicked and treated and we’d move a little closer. If she got overexcited, we took a step back.

    Ximena and Carrie have both made good suggestions. You just need to pair the sounds and actions of kids with something Pyrrha really loves until she feels comfortable. You’ve done it with Pyrrha going outside with Guion–this is just a different iteration of the same problem.

    Good luck!

  4. Horror story of kids being taught all the wrong things: In my home town, of of the drug addicts have a wonderful, huge male shepherd. He will tie it outside the store when he goes to shop. The dog is well behaved and obvously well cared for (his coat *glistens*), but he’s exposed to a lot of erratic behavious both from his owner and from others in the same environment, and is very protective. Imagine my panic when a IDIOT mother sent (as in “look at the pretty doggie, go pet it!”) her three young kids to the tied-up dog…! I was to far down the street ton intervene, as the kids ran up to the dog and started petting it. It was so scared and uncomfortable, trying to evade them – but somehow, it didn’t bite. I reall don’t think the dog could have been blamed if it did. It was trapped and under attack. Then the owner appeared and rescued the dog, yelling at the mother and kids – and the mother was mortally offended! “If the dog is dangerous, you should have it put down!”. Gah.

    bottom line: people are idiots, dogs will do their best to deal.

    I like the suggestion of letting Pyrrha meet a sleeping baby a few times, being given lots of positive attention when she’s calm – I wish you the best of luck, you’re doing a great job with her!

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