How to Introduce Dogs and Children

Many of us have a fairytale image of a child and his dog, best friends forever. Think of Lassie and Timmy, Dorothy and Toto, or Snoopy and Charlie Brown. You probably have dog_boyfond memories of your own beloved childhood pet. But are children and dogs a perfect match? It depends.

As of 2010, over 45% of households in the United States owned at least one dog, making canines the most popular family pet in the country.1 Children are naturally drawn to dogs, and many dogs seem to genuinely enjoy interacting with kids. Raising children with pets provides many benefits. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, pets can:

Children who live with pets learn positive lessons that last a lifetime. What dog lover wouldn’t want this for their child?

But according to the CDC, about 800,000 Americans per year are treated for dog bites, and more than half of the victims are children.3 Children are much more likely than adults to be bitten in the face, head and neck. Dog aggression can have severe consequences for children, both physical and psychological. A child can learn to fear dogs for life. Proper awareness and education are needed to prevent this.


The truth about kids and dogs

Children can be very threatening to dogs. A small child is literally “in a dog’s face” because of their small stature. Children make abrupt movements and startling high-pitched noises that are very unnerving to a dog. Very young children may regard a pet as an animated stuffed toy just begging to be squeezed, poked and chased. Babies and toddlers can’t control their own aggressive impulses, nor do they have the cognitive skills to empathize with another creature’s fear or discomfort. By school-age, children learn empathy, but they still may have trouble interpreting an animal’s body language. They may not recognize that a dog’s growl or stiffened posture means “back off!”

Dogs are programmed to relate to us in certain ways. They are pack animals with a hierarchical social system. A dog tends to view adult humans as “alpha.” But with kids it’s not always so clear. Children might be regarded as equals or even subordinates. A pushy dog might posture, snarl, and then eventually snap at a child to keep them in line. A dog is just communicating displeasure in the way he knows best. This is probably how many bite injuries happen.

Some dogs, for their part, just don’t love kids. They may have had little or no exposure to children—or worse, a bad history with them. A dog who has been taunted or teased by a child in the past may be unable to trust again.

The bottom line is that kids will be kids and dogs will be dogs. Here’s how to bring out the best in both.

Dog-proof your child

Child-proof your dog

Choosing a family dog

When choosing a purebred dog to go with children, opt for breeds with laid-back, friendly temperaments. High-energy dogs with a strong herding drive or protective instinct may not be the best choice for a family with children, although for every rule there is an exception. It is wise to choose a dog that is large and sturdy enough not to be easily injured by a child, but perhaps not so large as to knock a small child over.

Consider whether you have the time and effort to put towards caring for a young puppy. Adult dogs not only require less work, but their temperaments are easier to determine. There are many wonderful shelter dogs looking for a good home. Canine rescue organizations— whether general or breed-specific—go out of their way to screen dogs and families for the appropriate fit. They can be a wonderful resource for pets with a kid-friendly track record. Your veterinarian can also advise what dog would best suit your family.

Update on Pet Allergies

Experts used to think that exposure to furry pets promoted allergies and asthma in young children. Sadly, expectant parents with a family history of allergies might be told to get rid of the family cat or dog. Newer research indicates that the exact opposite is true. One prominent 2002 study indicated that having two or more dogs and cats during the first year of life actually reduced the child’s chance of having pet allergies at ages six and seven.5 It seems that early exposure to pets can actually “educate” the immune system in children.

Learning empathy and respect for another living creature is the best education of all.

  1. “Industry Specifics and Trends” 2011. American Pet Products Association. 26 February 2011
  2. “Facts for Families #75: Pets and Children” 2006. American Association of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 26 February 2011§ion=Facts+for+Families
  3. “Dog Bite: Fact Sheet” 2008. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 26 February 2011
  4. Kilcommons, B. Good Owners, Great Dogs. New York: Time Warner, 1992.
  5. Ownby D. “Exposure to Dogs and Cats in the First Year of Life and Risk of Allergic Sensitization at 6 to 7 Years of Age. Journal of the American Medical Association, 288(8) (2002): 963-72.

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