When welcoming a new dog into your household — be it one you adopt or getting a puppy from the breeder — you want to make sure your new furry friend fits in with your pack, including your kids.
When trained correctly, dogs are excellent for children, as they provide endless love, companionship, and hopefully teach your kiddos responsibilities. But there are times when new owners unknowingly set the dog’s and child’s relationship up for failure, which could not only create a dangerous situation but one where an animal becomes dumped at a shelter for no fault of his own.
To set yourself up for success, we reached out to some of the trainers and asked for their advice about introducing a new dog into a household with children, some tips to help make the transition easier, and ensuring a strong bond is formed.
This guide is exhaustive, thorough, and provides a step-by-step strategy. However, when in doubt contact a professional.
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Before Bringing a Dog Into Your Home
Prior to welcoming a pup into your home, you should make sure you are ready, have done your homework, and are prepared.
Here is what Semel suggested:
1. Select the Right Breed by Doing Extensive Research
Although, you can never be 100 percent certain based on breed (as each dog is unique), you can increase your chances of a positive relationship by picking a dog that is great with children and has already met your children.
Also, assess what works best for your children and your living situation. If a larger, excitable puppy will make your sensitive child nervous, try an older rescue or a smaller breed of dog. Or if your child is older and looking forward to walking your puppy, a small or medium-sized dog may be a better choice than a huge Great Dane who may end up walking your child.
2. Get a Pre-Dog Consultation
It’s a common misconception to only hire a trainer or go to a vet after you welcome the pup into your family. Think about starting the conversation prior to getting a dog, as both professionals are happy to do a pre-consultation with you. They are able to help assess your breed options and guide you on the perfect dog for you and your family.
Also, consider taking an online questionnaire, like this one, to help you assess your lifestyle, living environment, and needs. While these types of surveys provide a recommended breed at the end of it, it is important to keep in mind that sometimes mutts are way better — and can do just as well.
3. If Getting From a Breeder, Do Your Homework
If you are selecting your dog from a breeder, look for ones who properly socialize puppies with children in advance, as this can make a difference when introducing your family and kids to a new four-legged friend. Also, the puppy should be exposed to other things early on: different sounds, busyness and certain situations (e.g. strangers coming over).
You should make sure the breeder is passionate and caring about their dogs, and not just breeding for money (also known as puppy millers). Check out the breeder’s home to make sure the puppies and their parents are in a loving, caring environment, and not stuck in cages, unsocialized, and neglected. Also, look for breeders who focus on one or two breeds, and only have a few litters throughout the year. (Usually if there is a waitlist and not puppies ready to go on some sketchy looking website that’s a good sign.) The breeder should be suggesting positive reinforcement methods and checking in on the dog’s development, too.
Here are a few questions you should be asking breeders:
1. How many dogs do they breed (smaller is better)?
2. How many litters do they produce each year (shouldn’t be continually breeding their dogs)?
3. Are they registered with any club?
4. How long do they guarantee the puppy’s health?
5. Are you allowed to meet the mom and dad (if no, this is a huge red flag)?
6. What are the parents’ temperaments like?
7. Can you provide references from other buyers?
8. What if it doesn’t work out (a reputable breeder will always take the dog back)?
Often, a breeder can help with selecting a puppy from the litter that would be a great fit for the household.
4. How to Find the Perfect Dog to Adopt Though a Rescue
Adopting an adult dog is a great opportunity to get a pet who is out of the puppy phase, acclimated to living in homes, and is looking for a second chance to love a family. If you are wanting to adopt a dog, look for rescue directories, like Petfinder, which provides a feature to show dogs that are good with children. (There are also plenty of puppies to be adopted, too.)
When meeting a rescue dog or inquiring about one, here are a few questions to keep in mind:
1. What is the dog’s story? How did he end up in the shelter or with the rescue organization?
2. How long has he been at the rescue?
3. How would you describe his temperament?
4. Was he around children in his previous home?
5. Has he met children during his time at the rescue? How has he done?
6. Does he have any behavioral issues we should know about?
7. Do you recommend this dog for families?
8. Has the dog had any training?
9. Is it possible to introduce kids to the dog before you take the pup home?
10. What if it doesn’t work out (a rescue organization should always take back the dog)?
5. Get Prepared by Getting the Right Supplies
While you should have a checklist of supplies all dogs need — food, a water bowl, leash, collar, toys and treats — with children in the household, there are some other essentials.
Crate: As for the crate, it can act a safe spot for your dog to go to when she needs some alone time or may need to relax for a bit. Semel recommends a wire crate for durability.
It is also important to note that the crate should be large enough for your dog to stand and turn comfortably. For puppies and dogs who will grow, you can always get a divider for the crate and remove when full size. Semel says to put a blanket on the bottom, along with a toy. Also, don’t leave your dog in it all day; it isn’t a babysitter.
Baby gate: This can help when the dog needs to be separate from the kids or when the pup isn’t allowed in a certain part of the house. Below is a great one that is flexible for different dog sizes.
Exercise pen: The exercise pen is also great, as it has a dual use as a pen and can be used to block off an area. If you have a breed known for high jumping, such as an Aussie or Poodle, make sure you purchase an extra tall pen. Here is one that is great for the shorties, or a tall one for the jumpers.
Setting Up Your Kid and Dog for Success
While welcoming a new furry friend into the household can be challenging and an adjustment for everyone, dog included, there are a few things you can do to make the introduction between your kids and your dog go smoothly.
Trainer Sarah Fraser of Instinct Dog Behavior & Training provides insight into making the transition as seamless as possible.
Here are some best practices:
6. Understand Dog Body Language
Fraser says kids should learn about dog body language prior to the arrival of the new canine family member, so they can be better aware of how a dog is feeling in response to their interactions and attention. There are some great free videos on YouTube, including this one from ZoomRoom.
There are also excellent, kid-friendly handouts on dog body language, including one from the late Dr. Sophia Yin.
Before the dog arrives, make your kids some doggy flashcards, and quiz them about different body language cues. Studies show that pet owners are great at accurately identifying happy body language in dogs, but are less skilled at identifying fearful or anxious body language, so this exercise will help.
7. Teach Your Kids How to Interact with a Dog Appropriately
To be most effective, keep instructions short, simple and framed in the positive, especially with young children. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t hug the dog,” you can provide specific coaching, “Always pet with one hand at a time,” “Pet her on her shoulders, like this,” “Pet for 1-2-3 seconds, then stop.”
Posted by Instinct Dog Behavior & Training LLC on Friday, May 13, 2016
Remind your kids about dog body language as they interact with the dog, by regularly asking questions like, “How do you think he’s feeling right now?”
8. Practice in Advance
After your kids have learned about dog body language and received some coaching on the “how-to’s” of dog interactions, have them test out their new skills on a couple of practice dogs. Depending on their age, this may mean purchasing a stuffed dog, or having your kids interact with a friend or family member’s dog who is social, confident, and experienced with kids.
Related: Abused Dog Now Helps Abused Children
Practicing in advance can also mean rehearsing the first introduction with your kids, so they know what to expect on the big day. Here is an example of what you can say:
“Mom is going to pick up our new dog from the foster home and bring her here. The dog may feel a little overwhelmed at first, because she doesn’t know we’re her new family just yet. We’re going to do our best to make her feel comfortable by taking her for a nice long walk first, all together as a family. We’ll bring yummy treats and offer them to her if she approaches us. We’ll talk in quiet, happy voices and let her just get used to being around all of us. After the walk, we’ll come inside and, if she’s up for it, we can practice the petting skills you worked on! Then she’ll likely need to take a nice long nap.”
9. Get the Excitement Out
It is important to set up the environment for a successful introduction. Keep in mind, welcoming home a new dog is EXCITING for kids! It’s understandable that they want to jump and scream and give their new dog a big hug. Unfortunately, all of those very natural responses can be overwhelming and scary for a new dog. Rather than trying to suppress all that excitement, encourage your kids to have a 30-second “New Dog Celebration” before meeting the dog. You can participate, too. Jump up and down, cheer, give each other hugs, and get all that excited energy out. Then, spend some time calming down and reminding everyone what a big important job they have: to help their new canine family member feel welcome and relaxed in their new home.
10. Meet Outside
If possible, meet outside and go for a family walk with your new dog first, either along a quiet street, or even around your backyard. This will allow both kids and dog to get to know each other in a low-stress setting. Be prepared, giving everyone a few yummy treats to keep in their pockets, so they can share with the new dog if he or she approaches to interact.
11. Plan a Relaxed, Low-Energy Activity
After coming back from your walk, settle the family in for an afternoon of dog-themed movie watching — 101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, and Homeward Bound, to name a few. Having the kids watch a movie is a great way to keep them quiet and relaxed during the dog’s first few hours in a new home, and will allow for some nice bonding time together.
12. Help Your New Dog with the Adjustment
When first training dogs to navigate new situations successfully — being off-leash without running away or visiting Grandma’s house — Fraser relies on a few simple but effective strategies:
1. Teach the dog what to do in those situations, instead of just telling them what not to do.
2. Practice those skills in advance, so the dog is already great at the pre-selected good behaviors when the big day comes.
3. Set up the environment to make “good choices” easier for the dog
These same strategies can be applied to kiddos, too. Before the big day, do the following:
Avoiding the Doggy-Danger Zone
There will be times when things don’t go right in your household – either your dog doesn’t have a good day, or your child is having a “moment.”
Trainer and behavior consultant Anthony Newman of Calm Energy Training shares some advice on prevention and how to deescalate certain situations.
Here are a few tips from Newman:
13. Start Off on the Right Foot
The new dog may have a lot of pent up energy, so get everything out. If you can, take him on a walk (as mentioned above). Or if he is social with other dogs, taking him to the puppy park to burn off energy is an invaluable way to start. (Make sure he has all his vaccinations first.)
When you bring him home, leave the leash on, or buy something called an “indoor leash,” which is a lightweight lead specifically for home use that he won’t associate with going for walks. Lead him around to each room to sniff; it will help minimize messing, chewing, and marking.
Also, have at least one dog bed. Look for dog beds with sides, as Newman has found they make dogs calmer and more obedient. As already mentioned, have supplies ready to go. You should already have his food/water bowl, toys, and ideally chews like bully sticks (though look out for resource guarding). Utilize those baby gates and gradually over the first few weeks start to give the dog freer reign of the home, as he gains your trust.
14. Realize with Kids, It’s a Two-Way Street
Newman says that most owners are surprised when he tells them it’s the norm, not the exception, for dogs to be wary of and even reactive or aggressive towards children. Kids are wobbly, loud, unpredictable, and often don’t respect physical boundaries. They also aren’t naturally calm leaders. Though this can temper over time, especially if your kids help walk, feed, and train the dog, you also need to train your children to respect the dog’s needs and boundaries. Some good ground rules to follow: let sleeping dogs lie (don’t disturb him when in bed or lying down); don’t approach him when eating, chewing a bone, or enjoying any other valuable “resource”; and don’t hug, pull ears/tail or play rough.
15. Pay Attention to the Signs
You’ll often hear that growls should be respected. If you dog is someplace more “powerful” — the couch, your bed, or what have you — he can be sent off if he growls. But in most cases, respect the growl and teach your kid to respect it. When the dog’s in his bed, steer clear. When he’s eating or chewing a bone, same thing. A growl indicates discomfort with the situation; we want to respect that communication and help your dog feel safe. Other similar signs are ears pinned back, tail tucked under body, licking, shaking, and looking away — all signals of dog stress. By respecting these, we can change them back to happy, floppy goof balls within minutes.
16. Keep Your Dog Calm with Kids Around
Are kids smashing around making your dog scared and nervous? Then use the “jolly routine,” including a happy, fun voice. Sit right next to your dog, and give him loads of belly rubs! Even non-treat-focused dogs tend to love belly rubs. In my experience, it’s the most universal reward outside of running in the park. It doesn’t only reward your dog for calm peacefulness, but also communicates to him that you, his leader, aren’t freaked out by that tiny loud whirlwind. You’re leading by example, communicating calmness, and happiness to your dog.
17. Know How to Handle Scary Interaction Between Your Dog and Child
Be prepared. Realize there could be problems that arise between children and dogs. The first thing you need to do is focus on safety. Make sure you have whatever tools you need to guarantee the safety of your children: baby gates, closed doors, leashes, crates, even muzzles.
If a bad incident does occur, you need to “repair” the situation to the best of your ability. Think of it this way: If your dog growls, barks, snaps, bites, or runs away, and you tell the kids to go play in the other room, your dog could think his aggression worked — and is more likely to continue in the future. That’s conditioning 101; it’s how dogs learn.
Instead remain calm and ease the situation, keep your dog from being aggressive, and also from running away (i.e. blocking both the “fight” and the “flight”). This can help create a positive, social, situation together. Only, then send the kids (or dog) away. That’s the last thing he’ll remember. The aggression didn’t send his enemies away; being calm and peaceful did.
18. Have a Safe Spot for Your Dog.
As for specific obedience behaviors, Newman loves “go to your bed” (mentioned earlier) Having multiple beds around can be a huge help. He’s trained his dogs so that when his toddler comes stumbling over, smashing the floor with a toy fighter jet, the dogs jump up and move to a different bed — even to a different floor.
He started with baby gates, light leashes, and working the “leave it” and “go to your bed/crate/kennel/home/whatever” obedience commands, and now they’ve internalized it. To snap at his son, or any kid who comes over for a playdate, Newman says his dogs would have to be completely trapped in a corner. Otherwise they move of their own accord to a different bed. Again, you have to train and enforce this at the beginning, then they’ll start to generalize it.
19. Manage Dog Behavior That Isn’t Kid-Friendly
There’s a distinction between behaviors that are appropriate and ones that aren’t. Being jumpy, overexcited, dominant, demanding, pushy, snappy, and the like, tend to be behaviors that deserve correction and redirect to calm, peaceful, submissive, obedient alternatives. Keep in mind, these are very different from growls or hard stares that happen near the dog’s food, bones, or bed.
What do we do about misbehavior? First, Newman says, minimize with as much outdoor off-leash mental, physical, and social fulfillment. Then stop those behaviors and bad mindsets before they explode. Practice a “leave it” — though the typical treat-focused way of doing this isn’t always effective. Always redirect to a calm, peaceful, happy alternative, like a bed, bone, walk, or toy. The goal is to stop the dog’s bad behavior and encourage him to do good behavior instead.
20. Focus on Exercise, Socialization, and Leadership.
Just like kids, dogs need exercise, socializing and leadership, or what Newman likes to call the “Calm Energy Recipe.” The first two are best found off leash in a dog park — at least an hour a day for regular-energy dogs. Hire responsible walkers who go to the dog park, so you can keep the routine consistent even when you’re working, sleeping in, or busy.
Leadership happens on leashed walks and all other times your dog is getting something he wants. Basically, if you give your dog all the things he loves when he’s calm, quiet, peaceful, trusting, and respectful, that’s how you’ll condition him to be. If instead he gets good things and has fun jumping up, barking, running away, stealing, or being dominant or aggressive, that’s how you’re training him to be. As mentioned before, my favorite at-home obedience command is “go to your bed.” Use it before feeding, leashing up, belly rubs, Kongs, chews, and pretty much anything he loves. Then load him up with cuddles and love.
Maintaining the Strong Bond
Training with your dog is key to maintaining a long-lasting bond. It helps communicate consistency and structure in the dog’s life.
Twahlee Rollins, the owner of Metro Dog Training, is an experienced trainer who focuses on developing a clear line of communication between owners and their dogs. He understands that the bond is imperative and should be cultivated over time.
Here are some suggestions from Twahlee:
21. Assign Your Child Dog Duties
Have your kiddo chip in and be responsible for some of the dog’s daily activities, like walking, feeding, and exercising. These are moments in the day that your dog will look forward to and bond with the person who is providing these resources and activities.
Feeding treats is a classic way to gain a dog’s trust, but to take it to the next level, handful by handful, dispense the dog’s breakfast and dinner out of your hand. (This shouldn’t be done with wet food, though.) This engagement will sharpen your dog’s focus and obedience and is a way to help maintain your bond for years to come.
22. Enjoy Safe Playtime
Bonding can be maintained and developed through playing with your pup. Throwing the dog’s toys and keeping your pooch entertained is a great way for a child to establish and fortify a bond with your pup. However, make sure to have multiple toys, so there is a clean transition from one toy to the next, limiting the chance for conflict and keeping the fun going.
23. Focus on Positive Reinforcement
It’s important for your child to communicate with your dog using positive words or phrases associated with treats, affection, and general positive reinforcement. If used often enough, these words will embed deep into the dog’s psyche and will generate excitement and a positive experience, which you can use as a bonding tool.
24. Ensure Your Dog is Part of Your Child’s Everyday Routine
Let your dog be part of your kid’s daily life. Simply having your dog around as your kid is reading a book or hanging out in the living room are moments that your pup will learn to love. Or when you go out for walks, errands to the store, or to park, take your dog with you. Doing these things helps keep your dog’s spirit and drive up.
But keep in mind, bonding activities do not always need to be filled with energy, food, or play. Just simply being next to them and petting them helps grow the relationship.
By following these tips, you are setting up your dog and child to form a special friendship that will only get stronger as the years go by. Keep in mind, this guide doesn’t replace getting professional advice from a trainer. When in doubt, seek out professional dog help.