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Teaching Children How to Interact with Dogs is a Must-Have Life Lesson

Reading Time: 6 MIN

Whether or not you have a family dog in your home, it is VERY important to teach your children how to interact with dogs. There is no way to predict at what point your child will encounter a strange dog, and you may not be around to supervise so you must teach them proper interactions from a very young age!

According to Wikipedia,

“The dog population experienced relative stability from 1987 to 1996, before seeing a yearly increase of 3-4% since that time.[48] In 2000, there were 68 million dogs in the country, and by 2010 that estimate had grown to 75 million, with about 40% of American households owning a dog.[49][50] In 2012, there were 83.3 million dogs and about 47% of households had a dog.[51] 70% of the owners had a dog, 20% of the owners had two dogs, and 10% of the owners had three or more dogs.[51]

A beagle meeting a kid and smelling him.

The number of households with dogs is steadily increasing, and multiple dog ownership is increasing as well. Dogs are everywhere and all children need to be prepared for these interactions.

To children, most dogs seem sweet, fluffy and cute, and since children may have never been exposed to a strange dog before, they may think that any behavior on their part is appropriate. But adults and parents know that while most dogs are friendly, there are aggressive and fearful dogs out there. There are pet owners who do not train their dogs on child-appropriate behavior, and there are some dogs who think that children are just plain strange and do not want anything to do with them!

Children and dogs can have great friendships, so don’t be scared to introduce them. They will encounter dogs eventually anyway so prepare them! With the proper tools and teaching, kids can learn what to do and what not to do to greatly reduce their chances of being bitten and have a positive doggy interaction every time.

Supervision and Parental Modeling

A little girl telling a secret to her Golden Retriever.

If you have a family dog then you can teach your child from a very young age how to interact with him, and you should! Teaching correct interactions should start at home with the family dogs. Children should learn to treat all dogs with respect, even if they know the dog and they are comfortable around him.

If there is no family dog, then one of the first things to do as a parent is to make sure that you set up supervised encounters with dogs you already know to be friendly. While you are on these encounters you and your child can practice proper ways to interact with dogs. Make sure that you always model the proper way to interact with dogs and behave around them as well. Children do as you do, not as you say, and they are always watching! Do not get a new family dog without first teaching your child what that will mean and how they must treat him!

First Interactions

When you are preparing your child to meet his first dog, here are a few things to teach him:

  • NEVER approach and/or touch a dog you do not know.
  • ALWAYS ask the owner’s permission before petting their dog.
  • Once they receive permission, children should quietly wait for the dog to approach them to say hello.
  • Children can then stay still and allow the dog to sniff them, or slowly offer their balled up fist out toward the dog so he can sniff their hand.
  • Once the dog has sniffed the child, then the child can very gently pet the dog with soft strokes.
  • When spending time with any dog, make sure your child has calm, gentle, quiet interactions instead of frantic yelling and playing.
  • If a friendly dog does jump on your child playfully, they should not scream, cry or run, but instead ignore and turn their back on the dog, causing him to drop back to the ground. A dog will think screaming, crying or running mean the child wants to keep playing with them!
  • If you have a family dog, you should teach your child to participate in his care and routine from a young age.

The No-No’s

Here are some things you should teach your child to NEVER do around dogs:

  • No hitting, no poking, no pushing (especially on the hips), no hair, ear, limb or tail-pulling, no hugging or kissing, no sitting on or riding dogs.
  • Never walk directly toward a dog or make direct eye contact, instead approach him from the side.
  • NEVER try to pet or approach a dog who is eating or who has a treat or chew. Dogs who are otherwise very docile can be aggressive around their food or treats.
  • Never yell in a dog’s ear or face and never yell or stomp near a sleeping dog.
  • Do NOT stare directly back at a dog that is looking very intensely at you. Avert your gaze.
  • Do not follow or chase a dog who is walking or running away.
  • If a strange dog does seem like he may become aggressive by growling or baring his teeth, or runs toward your child in a scary way, teach them NOT to run away or scream, but instead to remain as calm and as quiet as possible and stand still with all limbs held in at their sides.

What if My Child Doesn’t Follow the Rules?

Little girl playing with dogs face and cheeks.

If your child does not follow the rules you have laid out, then calmly separate your child from the dog immediately and give clear, unemotional consequences for any misbehavior on the child’s part (or the dog’s) so they know that these are serious rules. Praise your child when he is following the rules! Children must be taught that dogs are living, breathing creatures that can feel pain and can become angry or sad. Teach them to be empathetic to a dog’s need for a break or a nap, and teach them to leave dogs alone during these times.

Learn to Read Body Language

Teach your children to constantly observe the body language of dogs around them and talk to them about what certain postures and behaviors mean regularly. This way they can begin to become versed in reading the body language of dogs themselves and their knowledge can grow over time.

Positive Body Language

  • Relaxed face while looking at you
  • Averting his gaze from you
  • Closed mouth or slightly open mouth (known as smiling)
  • Relaxed, normal ears
  • Natural tail position or wagging accompanied by other positive body language
  • Overall relaxed body language

Negative Body Language

  • Wide eyes
  • Intense staring directly at you
  • Lips pulled back to expose teeth
  • Excessive, exaggerated yawning
  • Growling, aggressive barking
  • Ears pinned back on head
  • Tucked tail
  • Stiff tail with rigid wagging accompanied by other negative body language
  • Pacing
  • Raised hair down the back/shoulder blades
  • Hunched body/making himself look small (may bite out of fear)
  • Stiff, tense body


I’ll Say Supervision Again!

A family of four walking their golden retriever.

Remember that supervision, especially around younger children who have not learned to read a dog’s body language yet, is key! Never leave your young child alone with a dog, even if the dog’s owner says that they will be fine and his dog is not aggressive. People tend to play down any negative behaviors in their own pet (or child!). Remember that young puppies will jump, scratch and nip as they are learning appropriate behaviors, so you even need to provide supervision around them.

Go over these things regularly with your child. If you have a family dog at home, these same rules apply while your child is young even though you know your dog and think nothing could go wrong, why take chances? Children and dogs both misbehave and forget how they are supposed to act sometimes.

This is not an all-encompassing list, but a good start to begin to teach your child how to interact with family dogs and unknown dogs. Let me know if you have any stories about kid and dog interactions below in the comment section!

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