5 Lessons Children Should Be Taught About Living With Dogs

Author: Dr. Jason Nicholas

Published: June 12, 2014

Updated: May 20, 2021

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child touching dog noseThere are many well-documented benefits of children growing up with dogs. They include a greater sense of empathy, better social skills, and a lower risk of allergies – all showing that growing up with dogs can be great for your children. Along with all of the benefits though, come some dangers – both for the children and the dogs.

Awareness and vigilance on your part – whether you’re a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or just a friend to someone with kids – can go a long way. Staying aware can help prevent problems and ensure that the balance stays on the side of the benefits. Here are five crucial lessons that all children should be taught about living– or even just interacting– with dogs.

Dogs and Children: 5 tips for living together

  1. Respect the dog.
  2. All dogs can bite.
  3. Learn to understand your dog.
  4. Stay tidy for your dog’s safety.
  5. Don’t share human food.

1. Respect the Dog

It’s important that children learn from an early age to respect dogs. Dogs need their own space, comfort, and ability to make their own decisions as living beings. Respect includes learning to not pull on tails, ears, legs, or fur, and not poking at a dog’s eyes or mouth. It also involves not hugging excessively, pushing or leaning down on the dog. Respect definitely means no jumping or riding on the dog.

The simple rule of respect won’t just serve your children as they grow and bond with your family dog. It will also help your children as they meet and interact with other dogs, and other people, too. It’s not just your child who benefits either. Respect will also serve your dog well, by minimizing the stress and anxiety (and potential pain) many dogs experience living with young children. This is an important lesson all around, so please don’t overlook teaching it to your children. Make sure that all adults model respect toward dogs, too. Be sure to take a little bit of time to designate and get your dog comfortable in a “safe place.” The safe space can be a room or area within the home where the dog can easily go when stressed. Make sure that all members of the household know not to disturb the dog when he is in his safe space.

2. All Dogs Can Bite

Regardless of a dog’s size or breed, or even typical personality, all dogs can bite. This is a truly important concept for children to know and learn from an early age. Preventing dog bites goes far beyond teaching your kids how to approach and interact with strange dogs (e.g. not running up to them, always asking the dog’s owner if they may say “hi” to the dog, etc.). It must extend to, and even start with, children learning how to behave around and interact with their own dog, as well as those belonging to friends and family. After all, their own dog or one belonging to a friend or another family member inflicts the majority of dog bites to children each year. Even once the lessons have been taught, it’s imperative that you, as a parent, remember this and never leave your young children unobserved around any dog – including the family dog.

3. Learn to Read Dog Body Language

Very few, if any, dogs bite “out of the blue.” Most only do so after provocation, when they are in pain, or when feeling threatened. Pretty much all dogs give off certain “warning signs” before they bite. These warning signs are part of the canine communication system – or dog body language – that all children and adults should learn to recognize and appreciate. It’s particularly important to teach your children that a dog who is trying to get away from them, or one who is showing teeth or growling, is a dog who is showing the warning signs that they are uncomfortable or unhappy with what your child is doing. A dog displaying these signs may progress to biting if the child doesn’t back off and change the situation. As a parent, it’s imperative that you recognize and appreciate these signs too. Know that a “snap” is an important warning sign – it’s often the last warning sign before a bite. A dog who “snaps” at your child after progressing through those other warning signs, without a change in the situation on your part or your child’s, is doing a good thing – the snap is another “warning.” A snap is much more desirable than a bite.

Ideally, you and your child would never let a situation escalate to this point, but if it does, immediately remove your child from the situation. Do not reprimand your dog for extending this “additional courtesy.” Think of a snap as the last courtesy. If you discourage your dog from progressing through these escalating warnings, your dog may be more inclined to stop giving them and just go right to the bite. That would be a situation in which everybody loses. You can look at and download this great Doggie Language poster by Lily Chin which can help you teach your children many of the common ways that dogs may “speak” to them.

4. Stay Tidy

Not only will this help you keep the house clean, but it’s also very important in protecting your dog’s health and safety. While it’s important for your kids to pick up any dropped food (see “It’s best NOT to share” tip below), it’s equally as important that they also not leave their toys, dirty clothes, and even their pacifiers and bottle nipples lying around, as these items are surgically removed from the digestive tracts of dogs on a daily basis. Examples of problematic toys include rubber balls, squeaky toys, and any toys containing batteries and/or magnets. Provide easy shelves and containers for your kids to store their toys. Then get them into the habit of doing so from an early age.

5. It’s Best NOT to Share with a Dog

This is all about your child not sharing his snacks and meals with the family dog. While it is sweet seeing kids giving dogs treats, it’s best to ensure that those treats are always dog treats, and not “people food.” It’s true that some common toddler snacks can be safe for dogs (e.g., unbuttered popcorn, carrot sticks, and apple slices), but unfortunately, some can lead to serious digestive problems or devastating toxicities. For example, grapes and raisins, very common toddler snacks, can cause devastating kidney failure in some dogs. And onions can lead to a potentially fatal destruction of a dog’s red blood cells. (I’ve both seen and heard of cases of kids sharing their onion rings with the family dog.) Even a piece of bacon or the trimmings from your kid’s steak can lead to digestive upset resulting in pain, vomiting, and diarrhea for the family dog. It’s safest just to teach your kids to never feed anything other than dog food and dog treats to the family pooch, and to set a good example by doing the same yourself.

About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Nicholas graduated with honors from The Royal Veterinary College in London, England and completed his Internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Nicholas spent many years as an emergency and general practice veterinarian obsessed with keeping pets safe and healthy. He is the author of Preventive Vet’s 101 Essential Tips book series.

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