Many children consider their family dog their very best friend!
While playing and exploring the world side-by-side, children and dogs can build incredible memories together.
However, having a multi-species household requires educating everyone on how to safely and appropriately interact with one another. Even the most well-tempered dog deserves autonomy and respect, and it’s your job to teach your children how to safely interact with dogs.
Below, we’ll explain some of the most important steps in teaching kids how to interact with dogs — no matter what the child’s age!
Teaching Kids How to Interact with Dogs: Key Takeaways
- Any child can learn how to interact safely with dogs. There are tons of great games and educational materials that can help any child from toddler to teen better understand how to safely interact with dogs.
- Even an easy-going dog deserves to be treated with respect. Just because a dog tolerates being handled a certain way doesn’t mean the dog enjoys it. Teaching your children the importance of animal consent is a huge lesson that can transfer over to respecting the autonomy of other humans too.
- Teaching your child about safe dog interactions prevents bites. Children are the most common victims of dog bites. When a child is taught how to look for warning signs that a dog is nervous or unhappy, they drastically decrease their risk of being the victim of a bite.
- Have a kids and dogs living under one roof? Consider taking a comprehensive course. The Family Dog has a fantastic online course for the entire family that teaches kids and adults how to safely communicate and interact with dogs through fun games and lessons.
Teaching Kids to Interact with Dogs: 13 Important Lessons
Setting the ground rules for canine interaction with your child is critical, but it doesn’t need to be complicated.
Establish the basics from the start, including:
1. Teach your child that dogs can be dangerous.
It’s never a fun topic, but your little one must understand that any dog can bite, including large and small breeds.
There’s no need to go into gruesome details or scare your child to death about dogs. However, you should explain to your kiddo (in an age-appropriate manner) that not every dog is friendly, and that dogs who’re frightened or don’t want to be bothered may bite.
That, you should explain to your child, is why it is important to treat dogs with respect at all times.
2. Teach your child to respect dogs.
It may sound a bit silly to adults, but it is important to teach your children that dogs are living creatures who are deserving of respect.
Simply put, you have to teach your kids that they should be kind to dogs — and all animals for that matter!
Acknowledging dog consent is important in building a healthy and safe pup-person connection. Essentially, this just means that everyone needs to respect a canine’s agency and right to comfort – especially children, who tend to act impulsively and in ways dogs don’t always enjoy.
This means not pestering dogs for pets, avoid bothering dogs while they’re eating, nor doing things like pulling a dog’s tail. Your little one also needs to understand that doggos are just like people and don’t like to be treated or grabbed roughly.
One easy way for kids to learn how to solicit a dog’s consent is via the “Pat, Pet, Pause” game. In a nutshell, this means that your child should:
- Pat his or her lap, the ground, or a chair to call the dog over. If the dog approaches, your little one can move on to step two.
- Pet the dog for about 30 seconds or so. The child should do so gently and as instructed earlier.
- The child should then pause and observe the dog’s reaction. If the dog “asks” for more petting, your kiddo can resume petting the pupper.
Teach your little one to “pause” regularly to ensure the dog is still enjoying the interaction.
A significant issue with small children is climbing on or riding four-footers.
These moments might make cute photos or TikTok clips, but you need to ask yourself: Are these kinds of interactions comfortable for your dog, or are they just putting your child and family friend at unnecessary risk of injury?
In most cases, it’ll be the latter.
Accordingly, it’s best to just teach your kids not to climb on dogs.
3. Teach your child to always ask for permission before petting a dog.
Teach your kiddo to ask an owner for permission before petting, touching, or approaching a dog, even if the pup is leashed.
As mentioned above, your child should know that not every dog is friendly. It’s also important to stress that some pups may be fearful of strangers, no matter how “happy” they appear (more on this in a minute).
Explain this lesson in kid-friendly terms that resonate, like “You wouldn’t like a stranger to run up and pet you, right?”
At the same time, your child needs to understand that “no” means “no.” If an owner declines for any reason or none at all, it’s time to stop asking to pet the dog and move along.
You’re critical here as a parent too. Once an owner says “no,” give the pet parent space and move on to something else. Pestering an owner isn’t just rude; it can be dangerous if their dog is reactive.
4. Teach your child to approach dogs slowly (and from the side).
Unfortunately, the standard way most humans approach dogs is pretty rude in the canine kingdom.
Approaching a dog head-on is considered quite confrontational, and many dogs are uncomfortable with a person who’s twice their size leaning over them and reaching up over their head.
There’s a much more polite way to greet a dog!
Instead, instruct your youngster to squat down parallel to the dog, at their side, and allow the dog to move towards the child, rather than having the child approach the dog.
It can be hard for kids to contain their excitement at meeting a new dog, but it’s always essential to allow the dog to decide for himself whether he wants to say hello to a stranger or not.
A good rule of thumb is always to let a dog come to you!
It’s also a good idea for kids to announce themselves calmly, too, with a “Hi, dog!” or a similar phrase.
Note that this is also necessary with family dogs, as sometimes kiddos can startle sleeping or distracted dogs.
5. Teach your child to hold out a hand and let the dog sniff it.
It’s important to teach your kiddos that dogs are very different than humans, and they collect and process information in different ways. Obviously, you must do so in an age-appropriate manner, which you can usually do by simply explaining that dogs primarily learn by smelling things.
You could even explain that for dogs, sniffing a hand is kind of like a doggie handshake.
So, instruct your little one to expect (and allow) a dog to sniff during greetings. Most dogs will greatly appreciate you giving them a few seconds to sniff your hand, feet, or legs before trying to go in for a pet.
And the dog should initiate the sniffing, meaning that your child shouldn’t reach toward the pooch. It’s fine for a little one to present their fisted hand to a dog to sniff after an owner gives the OK, but you should never shove your hand in a dog’s face. Simply put out your hand and let the dog come to you (if the dog wants to).
Just make sure your kiddo knows to leave the sniffing to the dogs. That may not only cause the dog to become frightened or confused, as they don’t see humans usually trying to smell them!
6. Teach your child to learn to read canine body language.
Children are still learning human body language and communication, so it can be tricky to teach them the body language of a completely different species.
But it’s really important that you teach your son or daughter a few important bits of dog body language.
Go over some of the common dog body language signals, covering some of the signs a dog is stressed or nervous (such as lip licking, yawning, and whale eye), as well as signs that a dog is up for a play session (such as when a dog performs play bows).
It’s also wise to remind children that a wagging tale does not always indicate a friendly or happy dog. It can be pretty tricky to analyze the tail speed or direction (which body language pros often use to assess a dog’s feelings), so instead, have kids look out for stiff vs loose body positioning, ear direction, and posturing to better asses if a wagging tale is exhibiting friendliness or anxious arousal.
The video below shows some great examples of how varied tail wags can be, and how they can indicate all kinds of different canine emotions!
7. Teach your child how to pet a dog.
Kids can be a tad boisterous when displaying affection, so you want to make sure your tiny one learns the proper way to pet a pooch.
One safe and easy way to get started is by teaching your kiddo to pet a stuffed animal. Place your little one’s hand on the stuffed dog’s chest and teach him or her to pet the pupper with slow, gentle strokes.
This is also where you want to teach a child where not to touch a dog, such as the legs, feet, tail, and head.
And that last one is especially important.
The top of a dog’s head is often people’s first target for petting, but this is not a good idea (especially for unfamiliar dogs). Reaching toward a dog’s head or face can be perceived as a threat, and it really freaks a lot of dogs out!
Generally, the best place to pet a dog is their chest area or the upper half of the back, on or near the neck.
You also want to explain that hugging dogs is an absolute no-no – despite the number of pics and videos of people hugging the dogs on social media, very few four-footers actually like this. At best, some dogs tolerate it.
Holding a dog down is a big no-no too! Dogs need to always be allowed to get up move away if they’re feeling uncomfortable.
If your family needs some help when it comes to teaching kids how to safely interact with dogs interactions, you’ll check out The Family Dog’s program.
The Family Dog founder Justine Schuurmans is a family-based CPDT–KA certified dog trainer who has created a really comprehensive program designed to teach the entire family (kids, adults, and dogs) how to safely interact with and understand one another.
If you have a new dog in the family, we’d suggest the “Peace, Love, Kids & Dogs” program. Or, if you’ve already experienced some scary snap or biting events and are feeling nervous, check out her “Code Red” program.
See the full program options from The Family Dog!
Her programs feature special activities and games designed to help teach even young children how to give their pet affection appropriately, and when to give dogs some space!
8. Teach your child how to play with a dog.
Of course, most kids won’t be satisfied simply petting a dog – they’ll want to play too! And as with meeting and petting dogs, children need to be taught the proper ways to play with pooches.
Start by covering the four-footed fundamentals, including not jumping on the dog or causing harm during play. Roughhousing and rounds of tug aren’t recommended for children, but other dog-friendly games are a great way to tire out the duo together.
Nosework is ideal for kiddos old enough to understand how to hide treats for a pup to find. Kicking a soccer ball for the dog to chase can also be heaps of fun, provided your pooch isn’t the type to get too riled up.
And make sure you monitor play time closely. If things get too rowdy, skip the play and have your kiddo accompany you and the pooch for a walk instead.
It is important to acknowledge that some dogs don’t like kids or simply aren’t interested in canine-and-kiddo interaction.
That’s OK! Dogs are allowed to have their own preferences, wishes, and desires. It is up to us, as their owners, to avoid unnecessarily upsetting them. For that matter, it also just makes good safety sense to prevent your little humans from interacting with dogs who aren’t up for it.
And even dogs who are interested in playing with kids should be screened. Your dog must, for example, know how to play safely with a child to avoid accidental injury, too. Dogs who play rough, have poor impulse control, or are still struggling with play-biting issues should not be allowed to play with kids.
9. Teach your child when to give dogs space.
Boundaries are necessary for any relationship to function smoothly, particularly between canines and kiddos. So, teach your child how to respect your dog’s boundaries.
There are several different ways your child must do so, but a few of the most noteworthy include:
- Your child should leave pooches alone while they’re eating or chewing anything.
- Kids should avoid waking or petting sleeping dogs.
- Children should never prevent dogs from trying to leave or move away.
Also, ensure that your child knows that he or she must never take a treat, toy, or chew from a dog. This is important when interacting with any dog, but it is absolutely critical when dealing with a dog who’s ever exhibited resource-guarding issues.
Generally, the safest course of action is to simply always invite a dog to come to you, rather than approach the dog yourself. A child should be taught to call a dog over or invite it over with some gentle knee-slapping.
If the dog comes over — awesome! If the dog ignores you, they aren’t interested. And that’s A-OK!
10. Teach your child how to offer treats to a dog.
Canines can get chompy when eagerly accepting treats, so it’s safest for your kiddo (and you) to offer treats from a flat palm with fingers held together. Among other things, this presents the pupper with fewer tooth targets, which can help reduce the chances of an accidental nip.
Sometimes, it may even be best for your little one to toss the treat to a doggo, particularly if they struggle with the flat-palm technique or the dog is especially aggressive with treats.
Also, as with petting an unfamiliar pup, your child must always ask the owner before offering an unfamiliar dog a treat.
11. Teach your child that loud sounds and yelling can upset dogs.
Loud noises can be super stressful to dogs, particularly the high-pitched screeches and laughs of small children.
So, teach your kiddo to use a “nice voice” or “indoor voice” around canines.
While doing so, explain – in child-friendly terms – that loud noises scare dogs. You could even say loud noises hurt the ears of dogs or give them a headache. Little ones might retain this information (and be more mindful of it) when they think they’re causing pupper pain.
This may be “white lie” territory, but it’s close enough to the truth that most parents will probably feel the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks.
12. Teach your child not to run toward or away from a dog.
Running toward a dog can be frightening and elicit a defensive response, which is obviously something you want to avoid. But on the flip side, running away from a dog can also cause problems, as it may trigger a canine to give chase.
Either scenario can be dangerous, as the dog may harm your child; either by getting over-excited and grabbing at the running target with their teeth, or knocking your little one to the ground.
Now, it may be safe for your kids to run around with a family dog who’s known them for years, but this is definitely not something to do with an unfamiliar four-footer.
Also, you must consider the specific dog in question.
For example, running around herding dog breeds is particularly discouraged (even familiar ones), as these working woofs can and will herd children, even implementing ankle nips.
13. Always supervise children around dogs.
It’s important to point out that no matter how well your kiddos understand the rules of canine-kid interaction, you cannot leave your children alone with dogs.
Dogs and kids must be supervised when together, whether it’s a family pet or an unfamiliar Fido. This also includes monitoring babies around dogs, as canines sometimes get too curious and cause harm by lifting crying infants as they would a puppy.
All dogs should be monitored around kids, including puppies, seniors, and small dogs. Any canine can cause harm or be harmed if left alone with a child.
The Importance of Teaching Kids How to Interact with Dogs
Normally, we keep things upbeat about our furry friends, but safety isn’t something to take lightly, and dog bite statistics clearly show its importance.
According to a 1994 CDC report, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs annually in the U.S., with children aged 5 to 9 the largest demographic affected.
Hands are the most common bite site for those over 5 years of age, but for those 4 and under, the head and face are the primary bite site, which can have devastating results.
This helps illustrate the importance of teaching your kids how to interact with dogs, including those in your household as well as unknown canines.
Proper dog interaction may seem like a no-brainer to you, but kiddos are still learning about the world around them.
Set your little ones up for lifelong success by teaching them the dos and don’ts of dog interaction!
Teaching Kids How to Interact with Dogs: FAQ
This topic has lots of layers that can be confusing. Check out these commonly asked questions about kids and canines interacting.
How should a child approach a dog?
Children should always approach a dog calmly and only with the express permission of its owner. Kids are easily excited (especially at the prospect of petting a cute dog), but they need to remain relaxed to avoid stressing out the dog.
The child should squat low to the ground, turn sideways, and then wait for the dog to approach and sniff them before proceeding with gentle pets.
How can I teach my child to interact with a dog?
Teach your kid to interact with a dog by breaking it down into easy-to-digest steps. Start with explaining how to treat dogs with respect, such as no hitting, yelling, or rough petting.
Move on to boundaries next, meaning leaving the dog alone while eating, sleeping, or chewing a toy. Then you can touch on how to meet a new dog, including always asking for permission, always letting the dog approach you (rather than getting in the dog’s face), and more.
The learning process will vary by age group, so adjust terminology and methods as needed, but always keep treating dogs with respect front and center. Over time, you can work in dog training for kids if your little one is old enough, along with a family care contract for building responsibility and comfort around canines.
How can you teach a toddler to be gentle with a dog?
Practice makes perfect.
Use stuffed animals and demonstrate gently petting the toy along the upper back or chest. If your child is too rough, correct the kiddo and start over. Feel free to put your your hand over your child’s , so he or she can learn the proper pressure.
Use toddler-friendly terms and keep phrases short. Don’t force your kiddo into interactions, either. If your little one is too rowdy to interact with animals, stick to fake ones until he or she develops better emotional control.
At what age can kids play with dogs?
It depends. Every kiddo is unique. Some toddlers may be calm and ready to interact with a dog, while an older child may be too rambunctious to play with a pup.
Consider your child’s disposition and receptiveness to learning how to interact with canines.
On the same note, some dogs shouldn’t play with kids, period. Older dogs tend to have a shorter fuse with roughhousing or rough pets, while puppies and toy breeds are too fragile for clumsy feet and flailing little bodies still learning their strength.
Can kids play with a puppy safely?
Again, it depends.
Some kids can safely play with puppies if they remain gentle and understand how to handle a dog respectfully. Others may be too boisterous and risk injury to themselves or the puppy.
For safety’s sake, always have your little ones sit down or stand in one place during play (depending on their age) to avoid accidentally stepping on a puppy paw. They also shouldn’t lift the dog to prevent falls or dropping.
Is it safe to leave your baby with a dog?
No. It’s never safe to leave a child of any age alone with a dog, particularly a baby. The wide array of baby cries, fusses, and shrieks can be terrifying to a dog, or they may act in a nurturing way and try to lift the infant, causing severe injury. This is true for dogs of any size. Don’t risk it.
Are some dog breeds safer/more dangerous around children?
Any dog has the propensity to be dangerous to kids, but larger breeds present a more obvious threat due to their size and strength. Others, such as terriers and toy breeds, are more prone to correcting slights with a snap rather than a warning growl.
There is a great mix of breeds perfect for families with differing needs, whether you’re looking for the best dog breeds for busy families, the best small dogs for kids, or the best dogs for tolerating babies.
Teaching your child to interact with dogs safely is as valuable as any other life lesson, from swimming to how to cross the road safely. Hopefully, today’s tips aid in your teachings.
Do you have any advice for parents teaching a child how to interact with dogs? Anything lessons that worked well with your non-furry kids? Please share with us in the comments.