How to Train Your Dog to Safely Interact With Kids

African american girl outdoors on skateboard with her dog.
Halfpoint / Getty Images

Safe interactions between kids and dogs are what every dog-loving parent wants. You may know all about dog bite prevention. You know better than to leave young children and dogs alone together. You have probably even child-proofed your dog. While you can hope that every child should learn how to act around dogs, that isn't always the case. Some do not have a dog at home, may not have a lot of interaction, or just don't follow the rules.

Many children are naturally drawn to dogs. Unfortunately, without the proper tools, kids may not know how to properly behave in order to keep themselves safe. Dog owners can learn to train their dogs to handle kids.

How Your Dog Should Be Approached

As you are out walking your dog on a leash, if you see kids, you can remind them to never approach a dog without permission. They should always ask a parent first, then the dog's owner. You can teach them not to run toward a dog and approach slowly. A child (or anyone), should not invade the dog's personal space. Let the dog come part way to the kid. The child can hold out the back of their closed hand slightly towards the dog, but not in the dog's face. Let the dog sniff you. Stoop down to the dog's level if needed (mainly with smaller dogs).

When To Say No

If a child asks, it's fine to not allow them to pet your dog. They should learn never approach a dog that appears anxious, stressed or fearful. You can usually tell by looking for appeasement gestures or reading body language. Children should avoid approaching a dog when it is eating or chewing on a treat or toy. Sleeping dogs should be avoided since they could startle awake.

Teaching Proper Petting

As a dog owner, it can be your responsibility to teach children (either your own or a visitor) the proper way to pet your dog. Use these guidelines but modify them if your dog has a personal preference:

  1. Start by softly petting the dog's chin or chest. Gentle scratching is also fine.
  2. Avoid bringing your hands over the face and head.
  3. If soft petting/scratching of the chin/chest is tolerated, you can gently pet or scratch the neck and back. Go in the direction of the fur.
  4. Stop petting if the dog backs away, snaps, growls, or demonstrates appeasement gestures or fearful body language.

General Behavior Around Dogs

If you are a new dog owner or a seasoned one, it's always helpful to remember some good general rules that you can practice to keep your dog (and any children) safe. If you'll have kids meeting your dog for the first time, it can be beneficial to go over some ground rules prior to the meeting. Making sure everyone is clear on the rules will help you safely enforce them. Remove your dog (and or a child) from a situation that is not safe for your dog.

  1. NEVER pull a dog's ears or tail.
  2. Don't grab on a dog's feet.
  3. Avoid hugging dogs. This makes many dogs uncomfortable. If a dog feels threatened enough to bite, your head is dangerously close (the "bite zone").
  4. Avoid putting your face close to a dog's face. This may invade the dog's personal space.
  5. Avoid running away from dogs. This may evoke a predatory response. Don't forget, most dogs have some predatory instinct (some more than others).
  6. Avoid yelling or screaming around dogs. Excessive noise can scare or excite some dogs and may just annoy others.

Problems and Proofing Behavior

If you see a strange dog wandering without a leash and owner, do not approach the dog. If the dog comes towards you, try very hard not to scream or run. Instead, act like a tree: stand still, remain calm. Do not make eye contact with the dog. If the dog keeps approaching, use the deepest voice possible to say "No! Go home!" (loudly, but without yelling). If the dog stops approaching you, slowly back away until you can find an adult to help you. If any dog (even one you know) shows aggression (begins to growl, snarl or snap at you), stop what you are doing and freeze. Put your hands behind your back and stop making eye contact. Get help as soon as possible.

If your dog does not respond well to children (and they cannot be avoided), it may be worth working with a canine behavioral specialist. They can help come up with a customized action plan that can help make peace between your dog and the children. While that plan is in place, never leave your dog alone with kids.