Pet Newz

Dogs and Babies: Can everybody get along?

I read a lot of dog training forums and belong to a bunch of training Facebook groups. Generally, they’re full of amazing, helpful people who love dogs and who love helping dogs live better lives. Occasionally–as with anything on the internet–the conversations devolve into bickering or negativity, but dog people are usually pretty cool with one another.

Recently, a pet-and-child parent posted a question: What’s a good cue I can teach my dog to stop licking my kid’s sticky, disgusting face? I rephrased it a bit for brevity, but the gist is that kids are yucky and dogs love licking yucky things. How can we work with the dog on this?

There were dozens of replies by the time I saw the post, and the first thing I realized while scrolling was… no one helped her. Not one person. Instead? They all judged her.

Your dog should never be close enough to your child for a face lick.

You need to manage your dog better.

Small children can’t learn how to behave, so you’re putting your dog in harm’s way.

They need to be separated.

Deep breath. OK. I have a lot to say about this and a ton of resources to share, so stick with me because I hope this post can be helpful to any parent who’s struggling to figure out how to let their children and dogs interact and grow together–safely.

Dogs and Babies: Can everyone get along? Sure, it takes some safety strategies--and some common sense--but there's no reason your dog and your kiddos can't be best buds! Read on for how to make it happen!

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TL; DR Version

We’ll get into detail, and I’ll share our first-hand experience, but in case you’re in a hurry:

  1. Know and respect your dog’s personality. If you know he hates, say, loud noises, honor that by providing a safe space when your little one is crying.
  2. Teach your kid safe dog manners. This is HUGE and can start really, really young.
  3. Use common sense. It should go without saying, but as the adult, you need to use your head. Don’t let your toddler waddle around holding a peanut butter sandwich and expect your dog not to snatch it… along with your kiddo’s pudgy fingers.

Also, do note I’m focusing on little ones, like under three or four. There’s a whole lot more to be said about big kids, a lot of which I covered in this dog bite prevention post.

Set Your Dog Up for Success Around Kids

You need to keep your dog from landing in a spot where he or she feels compelled to bite. End of story. Whatever that is varies by dog. Some dogs can stay super chill and laid back around groups of kids. My mom’s dog, Otto, is like that. Emmett was like that. However, in both cases, they’d happily snatch food from an unsuspecting child–nailing a finger accidentally in the process–so they needed to be separated from those situations.

But what about the rest of the dogs, the majority of pups who have firmer lines drawn? You need to put their safety above their momentary happiness.

I’ll use my lovey as an example: Cooper hates unpredictability in all things. Kids live on unpredictability. Flailing, screeching, dive-bombing, running, tripping… all these typical child behaviors send him into a fit. So, when we have kids around who we know behave like that, Coop hangs out in my office for the visit. No, he’s not happy, but he’s much happier than he would be among loud, boisterous kids, AND he’s safe. There won’t be any incidents that force him into an uncomfortable situation.

And, to be totally honest, most kiddos who behave like that around him are kids who don’t have a dog at home or whose parents aren’t super dog savvy. It’s my job to keep him and our guests safe, and safety trumps happiness.

Same thing when we’re out walking: If a kid wants to pet him, I simply tell them no. Sure, we get some weird looks, but I don’t care. His safety–and the kid’s–is more important.

Watch your dog. If your dog shows any sign of stress around a kiddo, and that kiddo isn’t able to regulate his or her behavior, then remove your dog. Baby gates work great. For littles, stick ’em in a playpen. Use another room if necessary.

If kids are going to be around at all, whether it’s the new baby you just brought home from the hospital or your nieces and nephews in town for a long weekend, figure out what will keep your dog safe and do that.

Read more: What I wish you knew about my reactive dog

Teach Your Kid How to Behave Around Dogs

This one got me a little fired up: Small children can’t learn how to behave, so you’re putting your dog in harm’s way.

Um. Yeah.

Nope.

Small children most certainly can learn how to behave. As early as eight months old, they develop an understanding of cause and effect–if I do this, then this happens–and empathy starts to kick in around 18 months.

Perhaps more importantly for this discussion, babies learn social cues–like how to behave around a dog–from what they observe. If you model safe, caring behavior with your pets, your kids will learn that. If you raise your voice to yell at your dog or drag your dog by the collar, your kid will think that’s OK.

The second a baby can reach out for your pup, it’s time to start teaching what is and is not OK. For instance, if she reaches out to grab a handful of fur, stop her hand and explain why that’s not acceptable. No, she won’t fully understand what you’re saying, but she’ll start acquiring information on how to behave around dogs.

According to one of the dog trainers in that thread, she alleged that children can’t cognitively understand that they can hurt a dog until they’re four.

All the cognitive science clearly shows otherwise, and we’ve seen it first-hand with Violet.

She’s two, and she’s a keen observer of human emotion.

“Mama, you frustrated?” “Aunt Lizzy, you sad?” “I. SO. ANGWY.”

She understands fully when a friend on the playground gets hurt–whether accidentally or by her hand–and will identify the upset and try to figure out how to help her friend feel better. Same with the animals here. I stepped on Ripley’s toe when I was feeding her dinner the other night, and she yowled.

Violet asked, “Is Ripley sad?” I explained that I hurt Ripley’s toe by accident.

“Give her a hug, mama.”

Kids get it… IF they’re taught.

While I’m talking about little kids in this post, read more about dog bite prevention for bigger kids here: Safety first for kids and pets

Should you separate your dog and your baby?

This was the big topic under discussion in the thread I mentioned. The gist was that most people felt that dogs should never be close enough to lick a small child’s face to begin with, they should always be separated, and she was an irresponsible mother for allowing this to happen in the first place.

If you know your dog and set your dog up for success, and if you start teaching your child how to behave around dogs from the earliest age, you’re off to a great start. That said, there is a LOT of nuance to the “separate them” argument worth addressing.

For one thing, obviously, never leave your baby alone with another animal if you’re not right there. That is plain-and-simple common sense.

For another, don’t let your kid wander around with food in the same space as your dog. Also common sense.

Never have your kid sit on your dog (I mean, come on, people) or pull up on your dog or ride your dog like a pony or any other numskull behaviors you’ve likely seen on social media.

I mean, duh. Right?

OK, so all those common sense caveats aside: Should you separate your dog and your baby?

Well. It depends.

For one thing, with a highly sensitive dog like Cooper, if I’d kept him totally separate from Violet for four years, he would’ve leaped to some conclusions: OK, Lady won’t let me near the little pink monkey, so that little pink monkey must be dangerous, AND she’s keeping Lady away from me, so I hates it.

And it’s more than simply getting them used to each other’s presence. Cooper needed to learn not to lick her. Violet needed to learn not to pull up on him. I hoped they’d grow up to be good friends by learning how to be calm and respectful around each other. I know Coop inside out and always err on the side of safety, and I’ve trained Violet since the beginning how to be respectful of other animals. Is she perfect? Of course not. She’s two.

{{Funny enough, as an aside: She’s two. She throws tantrums. When one is brewing, both cats and Coop seem to have identified triggers even faster than I do and skedaddle to wait out the storm–lucky ducks–even before she starts screaming.}}

They like to be together. They like to play together. In fact, they prefer to be together–and with me–at almost all times, so it’s out of necessity that I teach them both how to behave around each other.

Life happens. You all live together in the same house. There’s no way I could keep them on separate sides of gates or playpens until she turned four years old, and setting parents up to think that’s the case… it’s simply unreasonable.

Dogs and babies CAN be great friends!

Use your head. Take appropriate steps you need to keep everyone safe. Invest in some food puzzles for those times when you do need to separate your dog. (We use a regular Kong, a Squirrel Dude, a Tux, and puzzle feeders, but holy moly I think we need this epic snuffle mat.)

Ultimately, find ways for them to interact in a safe, positive way together because there is no greater joy than watching your baby and dog grow up together!