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Kids and Dogs

While some may believe that certain dogs are inherently good or bad with children, it has much more to do with how they are initially introduced to each other and how that relationship is managed long-term. There are also many other factors that contribute to the level of bonding success, including the dog’s health and prior experiences, the age and behavior of the children, and how the adults in the home handle the interactions. By doing your homework prior to bringing a new animal into your home, you can set both your dog and children up for success, helping them build a positive and lasting relationship that will grow in strength through the years. 

Expectation Setting

While bringing home a dog is an incredibly exciting time for the whole family, it is important to create clear expectations for our children. Dogs are individuals and, as such, will have individual levels of tolerance for petting and varying sensitivity around resources, noise, and activity. Although a dog may have lived with children previously, the relationships in a new home will be starting from scratch. Children will need to understand that until they get to know their new dog (and the dog gets to know them), they will need to take a hands-off approach to interacting. Let them know that petting is only allowed when the dog approaches and “asks” them for attention, and only when they are in the presence of a supervising adult. If the dog does not approach, the child will need to give the dog space. This will require a high level of commitment, supervision, and support from the adults in the household. Emphasize that the entire family is responsible for helping your new dog to feel safe and secure.  


Management (the practice of setting up your dog’s environment to prevent problem behavior) is one of the most important tools to help your children and dog develop a positive and successful relationship with each other. Be sure that you plan regular breaks for your dog throughout the day so that they can relax in a space where they will not be required to interact with the children. The number and structure of the breaks will vary from dog to dog, but there are some generalizations that we can make based on the age of the children. 

Dogs and Young Children

Young children (0-5 years) naturally lack impulse control and the ability to follow directions. It is important to recognize that even if your young child is typically very polite and calm with your dog, you cannot guarantee that they will always maintain that level of composure. It only takes one misstep to forever affect the relationship between your dog and children. At this age, the expectation should be that their relationship is primarily “hands-off.” Young children should be redirected away from the dog unless the dog is very clearly soliciting attention from them. Young children are active, noisy, and unpredictable in their movements, which can be scary and triggering for dogs. While your children are this age, it is most important for your dog to learn that it is safe to share space with your child, so that they do not become overwhelmed. Expecting anything more than basic coexisting sets both your kids and animals up for failure. This is the foundation for a positive relationship for the rest of their lives.

Dogs and young children should not be on the floor together, especially if the dog is new to your household. Be sure to have a gate or pen between the dog and small children who are lying on the ground or crawling to minimize the likelihood of your dog becoming uncomfortable or your child approaching the dog.  

If your young child is adamant about petting the dog, purchase a toy dog that looks as much like your actual dog as possible. If the child wants to pet the actual dog (and the actual dog is not interested in petting), encourage the child to pet the toy dog instead. The toy dog can have the same name as the actual dog (ex. you can differentiate by saying “Real Bingo” or “Stuffie Bingo”) and can even be given a collar and tags. Remember, the toy dog’s purpose is to teach them how to gently and appropriately pet the actual dog, so model and encourage gentle handling with the toy dog in the same way that you would with the actual dog. Even if your dog is soliciting attention, having your child practice soft, gentle pets on a toy before the actual dog can help set your child up for a successful interaction with the dog. 

Older Children

Slightly older children (5 years+) are more capable of following directions and will be able to learn about dog body language. This means that you can begin to instruct them on concepts like the three-second rule. This is a practice where you pet the dog for three seconds, then take your hands away and pause to read the dog’s body language. If the dog walks away, the interaction should end. If the dog looks uncomfortable (lip licks, shakes off, yawns, etc.) that is a cue for the adult to instruct the child to walk away from the dog. If the dog solicits more petting (nudges their hand, leans into the child, etc.) the child can pet the dog for three more seconds and then pause to re-assess the dog’s body language again. These interactions should still be closely supervised by an adult.  


Many teenagers can take an active role in caring for the family dog. Feeding the dog meals, training with them, and taking them for walks are all great ways for your teen to build a positive relationship with your dog. Keep in mind that teens may be tempted to be overly relaxed around your new dog, and should still receive support, supervision, and guidance about dog body language until they are both comfortable together and are interacting in a consistently safe manner. Even teens may need to be reminded that your new dog will need space and time to acclimate to their new lives and, as such, should only be interacted with if they choose to approach your teen.

Clear rules that should apply to ALL children, with no exceptions: 

  • Children should not go inside of dog crates and should not interact with a dog who is in a crate. 
  • Children should not attempt to touch or interact with dogs while they are eating their food or chewing on an edible item/treat.
  • Children should never attempt to take resources from a dog who is engaged with that resource (i.e.. taking the water dish from a dog who is drinking, or a chew toy from a dog who is chewing, etc.) 
  • Children should never attempt to interact with the dog while they are sleeping.
  • Children should never attempt to lay on the dog.
  • Young children should never attempt to pick up a dog (teenagers, with the support and supervision of their parents, may be able to pick up some dogs). 
  • No hitting, pulling, pushing, or yelling at the dog under any circumstances. 
  • Children should never hug or kiss the dog.

Creating a “Success Station”

You will want to designate an area of your home as a “success station” for your dog. This should be in a place where your dog can ideally see the family and hear what is happening in the household, but the children are not able to interact with the dog. You can babygate the entrance to a particular room or put several puppy pens together (for larger dogs) to create a partitioned-off area. It will be important for the children in the household to understand that when the dog is in this space, they are not to interact with them. It may be helpful, particularly with small children, to have a large red stop sign on the entrance to this space as a reminder, or set up a second gate further out to create an additional buffer so the child can’t approach the dog’s barrier. 

This area will serve multiple purposes. This will be a space where your dog can take scheduled breaks throughout the day, where they can engage with enrichment items, where you can put them when you are eating meals with the family (so that they are not eating food that has dropped on the ground or jumping on the table), and where they can go when guests enter the home so that they are not practicing jumping on guests or potentially door dashing. Plan when you will put your dog in their “success station” throughout the day, and be sure to have some type of enrichment prepared for them to engage with in this space, such as a treat puzzle or a peanut butter stuffed KONG. You will also want them to have access to water and a comfortable bed to lie on. Some dogs will benefit from having a crate in this space, particularly if they are easily overwhelmed and enjoy spaces to retreat to.  

Outside of the normally scheduled breaks, take your dog to their success station if you see that they are becoming overwhelmed by the level of activity in the home. You can also guide your dog there if you find that your children are struggling to follow directions about appropriate interactions.

Types of Interactions to Encourage

Passively Sharing Space | It is important to teach your child and dog to be relaxed while sharing space with each other without the pressure of physical interaction. A great way to set this up is to give each of them an activity on separate sides of the room. For example, you could give your child art supplies at a table and your dog a snuffle mat on the other side of the room. You could also sit down to watch a movie with your child while your dog works on a stuffed Kong on a dog bed in the room. Give your child the opportunity to pick out what each of their activities will be and work on building enthusiasm for this type of interaction. Be sure to remind them not to approach the dog while they have a resource and redirect your child if they attempt to approach the dog during these times.

Playing with Toys | If your dog knows a reliable “drop it” cue and enjoys playing fetch, it can be a great way for the two to interact. Just be sure the child knows never to try pulling a toy out of any dog’s mouth – the dog should be dropping it and allowing the child space to pick it up. If these skills are not reliable, you will have to build them independently before the game can be handed over to your child. If you have a young, enthusiastic dog, err on the side of using larger, longer toys so that if your dog attempts to take the toy out of their hand, it is more likely that they will bite the toy rather than the child’s fingers. This would not be an appropriate option for a dog who resource guards their toys. Again, remember to always monitor these interactions.

Training | Older children can attend group classes and participate in the training of your family dog. Be sure to use positive reinforcement. This will be a great opportunity for your dog to have positive interactions with your child. It is also a great way to expand how they communicate. 

Walks | Bringing your children along on walks is a great opportunity for your dog and children to spend time together without the focus being directly on each other. Young children should not be allowed to hold the dog’s leash independently, regardless of size. 

Creating Enrichment

Dogs benefit from daily mental and physical enrichment, and treat-dispensing toys tick both those boxes. There are many ways to create your own and turn this into a fun project for your children, giving them an opportunity to be involved in the dog’s care. Your child can create the items and then choose your dog’s enrichment when they’re in their success station or while practicing sharing space. This is an especially great way to give your child an active role in your new dog’s life, even if the dog isn’t comfortable with physical interaction with your child.  

  • Homemade enrichment can include cardboard boxes with treats and toys inside, stuffing Kongs, freezing treats or toys in bowls of ice, etc. Check out our dog enrichment and frozen bowl resources for more ideas. 
  • Calm children who can follow instruction can also participate in providing daily care with the support of their parents. If the dog does not guard resources, your child can help with feeding meals and filling the water dish, as well. 

A Note About Visiting Children

Even if your family dog is doing well with your own children, that is not a guarantee that they will enjoy the company of new, visiting children. Families with children will likely also entertain their children’s friends and will need to be prepared to manage those interactions and set ground rules the moment that they walk in the door. Be sure to utilize your success station when visiting children are coming over, and be sure that you never leave your dog unattended with any kids. Your dog’s body language should be closely monitored and, if the level of energy is increasing in the room, put your dog away until the children have calmed down.

Remember, petting should never be forced. Holding your dog in place in any way, including grabbing their collar or asking them to sit/stay so someone can pet them is unfair and inappropriate. Some dogs simply do not enjoy petting and it will be important to foster a positive relationship through other types of interactions. It is incredibly important that your dog always has a choice in whether to interact with people, especially children. Be sure that your dog has the option to move away and leave any interaction that they are having with a child. and are great additional resources for families with children. If you have any concerns about your dog and children, seek additional support immediately. The Wisconsin Humane Society’s behavior team is available to you via phone at 414-431-6173 or email at