Girl petting dog

Q. My husband and I have two large, active dogs. We don’t have children, but many of our friends and family do. What are some things we can do to make our dogs as prepared for little human visitors as possible? And are there things we should do while children are visiting to make sure all goes well?

A. The first question to ask is if your dogs want to interact with children. Sometimes we just assume our dogs should be social with all humans when, in reality, that’s not what they would prefer. Some humans prefer to not interact with children, and dogs are no different.

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Have your dogs been exposed to children in the past, and what was that experience like? Keep in mind that babies, toddlers, children, teens and adults are all very different “animals” to a dog, so consider each experience with those age groups. If a dog has had no experience with a child, that often equates to a bad experience later in life. This is especially true if a dog did not meet children during puppyhood, specifically 4 to 12 weeks of age.

Is Your Dog Good With Kids?

The second thing to consider is whether your dogs have the characteristics that make them a good candidate for interacting with children. 

  • Have they had a positive experience with children in the past?
  • Are they social and do they enjoy visitors, rather than avoid strangers or bark, back away or hide behind you?
  • Can they calm themselves and not become overly excited or attention seeking?
  • Have they been trained with positive-based training techniques? Can they reliably go to their safe place, sit, target and happily come to you when you call them?
  • Are they able to rebound quickly from startling situations?
  • Can they be called off a chase?
  • Are they comfortable being touched anywhere on their body?
  • Do they have a history of not biting any humans?
  • Do they never guard objects, food or space?

If you believe your dogs would enjoy being around children, be proactive and set ground rules before the visitors arrive. Be sure to also discuss these specific rules with the child’s parents.

Rule 1: Dog and Child Must Be Actively Supervised

Supervision is the key component for keeping your pet and the visiting child happy during the visit. You cannot prevent or intervene in a potentially frightening experience if you aren’t there to see it. Supervision should be from a team approach with both the pet owner and the child's parents on the team. As the pet owner, your supervision should focus on how your pet is handling the visitor, while the parent's supervision should be on the child's behavior. If the roles of supervision are discussed ahead of time, it will decrease miscommunication, hurt feelings and confusion during the visit.

You want to use both proactive supervision (preparing the environment to prevent issues, such as planning for your dogs to go to a safe place when the child has a snack) and active supervision (keeping both eyes on the child and dogs at all times). Avoid passive supervision, which means you may be watching but distracted. Passive supervision is a recipe for disaster because your dogs’ signals of stress could be missed, putting you into a reactive situation with little information as to what occurred.

Rule 2: Be Aware of What Your Dogs Are Saying

You are your dogs’ voice and advocate; you speak for them when they cannot. So it’s important that you can interpret when your dogs are uncomfortable or stressed and then modify the environment accordingly. This often means either removing the child or allowing your dogs to leave the situation. Here are some signs to watch for that may indicate your dogs are experiencing stress or anxiety:

  • Leaving — When a dog attempts to leave a situation he’s uncomfortable in, he’s demonstrating excellent self-control. Don’t force your dogs to stay in the situation. Allow them to leave and make sure the children do not follow. It’s helpful to give children a visual barrier, such as a jump rope on the floor, and instruct them that when the dogs pass that point, the children are not to follow. 
  • Lip licking — A dog may lick his lips with quick little licks, which can be an indication that he’s uncertain and slightly anxious. If your dog licks a child with quick licks, the dog is letting the child know he’s not threatened, but he’s also not confident.
  • Yawning — If a dog yawns but doesn’t seem to be preparing for a nap, it’s an indication of potentially serious stress. Determine what is occurring in the environment and decrease the stressor (sound, proximity, movement, etc.). Also, give your dog a chance to take a break from the activity.
  • Wet dog shake — You may have seen your dogs do this after they’ve been taken off the exam table at the veterinary clinic. It’s an indication that the recent events were intense and a dog is trying to “shake off the stress.”
  • Turning face or body away — A dog may turn his head or even his entire body away, which can be a sign that he’d like to remove himself from the situation.
  • Staring or glazed look — This is an indication a dog is very upset and making a decision on what he needs to do next to keep himself safe. 
  • Freezing — This is a very serious indication that a dog is anxious and close to biting. Staring along with freezing is a sign of extreme distress, and it’s a red flag that a bite could be imminent.
  • Growling or lip lifting — Growling is an indication that a dog’s earlier signals may have been missed. Don’t punish your dogs if this happens. They are asking, in dog language, for what is occurring in the environment to stop. By punishing growling, you are taking away their ability to do that and leaving them with their only other option — biting.

A dog who stares, freezes or growls will not likely enjoy interacting with the unpredictability of children.

Rule 3: Create a Positive Association

People often dote on visiting children while ignoring their dogs, but this creates a negative association for dogs that children mean they get ignored. Instead, make sure when the child is present in the room that someone is giving the dogs attention by playing quietly with their favorite toy or training them using click training and their favorite treat. When the child isn’t present in the room, pretend your pet is invisible and ignore him. Then, as soon as the child reenters the room, resume your interaction. This creates a strong association that children equal good stuff.

Kids are scary to a dog; they move, smell and sound different from adults. When something startling happens — and it will, no matter how much you attempt to control things — give your dogs treats in a happy voice and then take them to their safe place. For example, if the child squeals or falls, give your dogs a treat. This will help your dogs to learn that no matter how “odd” or unpredictable a child’s antics are, it means something good for them.

Rule 4: Teach Your Dogs Coping Skills Before the Visit

The most important preventive coping skill you can teach your dogs is to go to their “safe place.” This should be a location where children are not allowed to enter, such as their crate or a room that has been designated solely for the dogs. The goal is to give your dogs an opportunity to leave the situation either by choosing to go to their safe place or by going to you so you can then take them to their safe place. If your dog is unsure or you’re unsure of his emotional state, call him to you and let him choose if he’d prefer to stay or go to his safe place.

When children are visiting, it’s important for you to be able to tell your dogs what to do to get them out of potentially sticky situations. If your dogs have been taught basic skills like “come,” “sit” and “mat,” you will have a way to communicate with them. Hand targeting is another beneficial tool that will allow you to move your dog to different locations in a nonconfrontational manner.

Rule 5: Keep Your Relationship the Same

Often we feel a social pressure to reprimand our dogs when visitors are present because it feels like that’s what’s expected of us. For example, you may regularly allow your dog on the sofa — except when visitors are present. The sudden rule change can be stressful and downright unfair to your pet.

Ahead of time, determine what behaviors may need to be altered and train new behaviors in their place. For instance, you can teach your dog to go to a mat or a different room when guests are present. To practice ahead of time, reward your dogs by allowing them to play with their favorite toy in the desired location.

As pet lovers, we know the depth of compassion and empathy our pets teach us. Not all children tolerate dogs well, and not all dogs tolerate children well. By being proactive, working as a team with the child’s parents and advocating for your dog, you can create a wonderful experience for all.