Kids and pets don’t always get along. In fact, a disproportionate number of dog bites happen to toddlers – which isn’t all that surprising, unfortunately. For one thing, both toddlers and dogs don’t always think carefully before they act. Also, toddlers can grab, step on, or fall onto dogs, all of which can be startling and sometimes painful to the dog. Not all dogs are able to react calmly when someone startles or hurts them (this applies to humans, too, by the way). So what can you do to help? You need to be proactive to keep everyone safe.
No dog is guaranteed to be “toddler-friendly”
While some types of dogs tend be calmer around children than others, every animal is an individual. No dog is guaranteed to be safe around children. Any dog will bite if pushed hard enough. The key to keeping kids and pets safe around each other is managing and supervising their interactions. Below are some suggestions to help you keep toddlers and dogs safe.
Learn about canine body language
While dogs are often surprisingly good at reading humans, aren't usually very good very good at reading dogs. Dogs have a wide range of body language signals they use when they are feeling stressed, frightened, or overwhelmed.
They start with “whispered” body language requests, though they
will move on to “shouting” if they aren’t being heard.
Some common “I need space” signals
When a dog feels overwhelmed, you may see some of the following body language signals. Note that this list is not complete. There are resources listed at the end of this article to help you get a better sense of canine body language.
Here are some ways dogs “whisper” when they want space:
- Lip licking (even though there is no food in front of them)
- Sniffing the ground (even though there is not much to sniff)
- Yawning (even though it’s not bedtime)
- Excessive blinking
- Lifting one paw
- Turning the head or body away
If we don’t “hear” these signals, dogs may get a little “louder” (a.k.a. “more obvious”) in their requests. Here are some things you might see as dogs go from “whispering” to “talking in a louder voice”:
- Walking away
- Slinking away
- Rolling over (which usually does NOT mean they want a belly rub)
If these signals are ignored too, dogs have no choice but to “shout.” Here’s what “shouting” can look like:
Bottom line: Try to notice the whispers, so your dog doesn’t have to shout!
Body language: Check. What else?
There are three main keys to keeping toddlers and dogs safe and happy:
(A) Appropriate management
(B) Encouraging safe interactions by teaching your child how to behave
(C) Active supervision of all interactions
(A) Appropriate management
Management means setting things up so that your kids and pets are never able to get to each other unless you are there to supervise closely. Management is much easier when you use physical barriers such as a pet gate or an ex-pen (ideally with a childproof “door” that makes it easy for adults to go in and out without undoing the entire pen or gate). Putting your pet on one side of the gate and your child on the other can help prevent problems. In fact, you will want to keep your toddler and your dog on opposite sides of a physical barrier a lot of the time.
(B) Safe interactions
But what about the times when you want your toddler and dog to interact? First, teach your child how to interact properly with your dog, by literally showing your child what to do. Most dogs like to be petted on their flanks, so you can model gentle petting on the dog’s flanks. Discourage petting of the face or ears, since those are areas where the less finely tuned touch of a child can be painful or scary. Emphasize that it’s OK if Fido wants to walk away. Help your child understand that pets can be hurt or scared too. Then, whenever your child is with your dog, supervise actively.
(C) Active supervision
“Active supervision” means you are actually paying full attention to the interaction between the dog and the toddler. That means you are not doing laundry, watching TV, looking at your cell phone, or answering e-mail (to name just a few distractions). As you watch the child and dog interact, look for the subtle body language signs mentioned earlier. As soon as you see any of them, call the toddler away from the dog (or vice versa) and give everyone a moment to calm down. If the dog walks away at this point, let them – and make sure the toddler doesn’t chase after the dog!
IMPORTANT: If you only have limited attention for your dog and child, use management to keep them separated. You should also use management any time you need to leave your toddler and dog alone, even briefly.
Feeling particularly excited about helping your dog and toddler learn to live together safely? If so, consider teaching your dog to go to a mat on cue and target your hand. Any time things are getting tense, you can use the mat cue to send the dog away from the toddler, or the hand target to get the dog to come away from the child to you.
The bottom line
Most injuries involving kids and dogs happen because adults either weren’t there to supervise, or didn’t understand the dog’s stress signals. When nobody is looking out for the well-being of the dog and the toddler, a situation that could have been interrupted safely can get out of control. By being proactive – setting up barriers to manage access, teaching toddlers how to properly interact with dogs, and supervising interactions carefully – you can prevent problems and keep everyone safe and happy.
Victoria Stilwell’s The Secret Language of Dogs: Unlocking the Canine Mind for a Happier Pet covers canine perception, body language communication, and much more.
Here are a few websites with great resources for families with dogs: