A trainer can help

  • Look for a trainer who really enjoys working with kids. Ask questions before you sign up.
  • Kids 8 and up are often excellent dog trainers (with parental support).
  • Younger kids can participate too. Look for ways to get the whole family involved.

Gentle & humane

Only use gentle, positive training methods.Any technique that relies on force or fear has the potential to create aggression. See the American Society of Veterinary Animal Behaviorist's position statements on training here.

Expecting a baby?

The Dogs & Storks program is an excellent way for expectant parents to prepare their family dog for a new arrival.

There are presenters all around the U.S. and Canada. I do sessions in Northern Virginia.

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Peek in my mailbag

cartoon of dog writing
My dog loves kids. He’s great with my two and all of their friends. But he’s really uncomfortable with adults. He often growls when a parent comes over to pick up their child after a playdate. One mom won’t let her son play here anymore. How can I make these parents understand that that Sparta would never hurt their kids?
~ Gail in Louisville, KY

Get a trainer to help—soon! You need to work on changing his emotional state so that he enjoys having people come over, regardless of their age.

When Sparta growls, he’s warning that he could become aggressive, so it’s very important that you work with a professional to help you design a behavior-modification plan. You’ll use a combination of training and management techniques to prevent Sparta from feeling the need to growl.

We all get better at what we practice, so don’t let him practice growling at your guests. When you are unable to train, put Sparta in another room. Don’t punish him for growling though. We do not want to eliminate his warnings; we want to change how he feels about adults.

This is a very serious issue. Even though Sparta is gentle and kind with children, it’s completely understandable that parents would be uncomfortable about having their kids play at your house. I wouldn’t let my kids go to a house where a dog growled at me. So, enlist the services of a good dog trainer and get to work. Otherwise you may find that all playdates happen at other homes.

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I am sick of repeating myself. My kids know how to behave around dogs, but I feel like I’m constantly nagging them about how they should act. I’ve even threatened to get rid of the dog! How can I make them understand?
~ April in Houston

Do your kids remember to use a napkin at every meal? Mine don’t. They know what is expected, but sometimes they forget. That’s part of being a kid. Your kids may know the rules, but it’s hard for them to be consistent and empathetic.

When it comes to teaching kids how to interact with dogs, I tell parents to think of themselves as a coach, giving constant feedback (both positive and negative) and encouraging improvement.

Will your kids still make mistakes? Yep, every single day. Instead of threatening to get rid of the dog, please choose a different consequence, like having extra chores or losing a TV show. It’s really not fair to get rid of your dog because your kids are acting like kids.

However if you have any concern that your kids are being cruel, that’s a different scenario entirely. I would definitely recommend rehoming a dog in that case.
But if your kids are just being boisterous and a bit clueless, spell out the rules and consequences clearly—and follow through, over and over, day after day. I’ll be the first to admit living with kids and dogs isn’t always easy, but it really is worth it.

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My 10-year-old son’s feelings are hurt because our dog seems to like my 8-year-old daughter better. To be fair, she’s more of a dog person than he is, but how can I help improve the relationship between my son and the dog?
~ Allanah in Chicago

Dogs will have a unique relationship with each member of the family. Some people, like your daughter, naturally form a strong bond with a dog, but the good news is that there are lots of easy things you can to do help your son as well.

First buy some extra-special dog treats that only he can give the dog. (Freeze-dried liver is a favorite.) He can use these treats to play simple games with the dog. One popular choice is a version of the shell game in which your son will hide a treat under one of three overturned plastic cups. Then he’ll mix up the cups and let the dog knock over the cups to find the treat. Some dogs will know immediately which cup has the treat; others will investigate every cup.

He can set up trails around the house for the dog to follow using one treat every 3 feet or so. It’s also fun for kids to teach dogs to navigate obstacles. He can encourage your dog to jump over a broom balanced on the rungs of your kitchen chairs or crawl under your coffee table. Remind him to reward the dog often so that the dog doesn’t get frustrated trying to figure out what your son is trying to teach him. Enrolling the two of them in a training class that welcomes kids would also be a great idea.

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I would like to get each of my daughters a puppy. One of my neighbors said she heard it was a bad idea to adopt littermates. Is that true? Should I get the dogs from different litters?
~ Wendy in Louisiana

Don’t get littermates. In fact, don’t even get two dogs.

I think having a dog is a great experience for a child, but the dog should be part of the family, not a personal pet. Your odds of dog-to-dog aggression issues are increased when you have two dogs of the same size, age, and gender. It’s quite common for littermates to not enjoy each other’s company as adults and to sometimes behave aggressively toward one another.

Friction between your daughters is another concern. Each dog is an individual, which means that one of your daughters will have a dog that is (pick a characteristic) smarter, more obedient, more social, less jumpy, less prone to chewing, more easily housetrained, and on and on.

And, as in the letter above, many times one child will be preferred by the dogs over the other. You really don’t want to have to explain to one of your girls why her dog seems to like her sister better. You want a family dog to be a shared experience, not a rivalry.

All of these factors make me strongly in favor of families adding one dog at a time and giving that dog all the attention and training it needs before adding another.

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My son is receiving intensive speech therapy. He gets frustrated when our dog doesn’t respond when he asks him to sit. I don’t think the dog knows what he is saying, but I don’t want to tell him that as we are encouraging him to speak as much as possible.
Any idea how to bridge the gap?
~ Sofie in Turlock, CA

Dogs communicate primarily through body language. It’s quite likely that you already use some sort of body-language cue to ask the dog to sit. Most people have a tendency to both verbally say a cue and do some sort of physical signal.

Figure out what signals your dog looks for and teach them to your son. Then encourage him to say “sit” first, and then do the physical cue. Practice with them at first so you can make sure the dog responds. By giving the verbal cue first, the dog will begin to anticipate the physical cue and respond even before it occurs.

Soon your dog will sit when your son asks, even though it sounds different from how the other family members say it. And if you have have fun practice sessions with tasty treats, your dog may soon respond to your son better than he does to anyone else, which can be very exciting for a child.

P.S. One simple way to figure out what kind of body language you use to communicate with your dog is to stand like a toy soldier, stiff with your arms at your side, and ask the dog to sit. If the dog doesn’t sit, relax your body and repeat the cue. What changed? Odds are that you nodded your head forward and moved one of your hands either upward or in a pointing motion at the dog. Notice what seems natural—that’s what your dog is watching for.

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My family just adopted a 5-month-old beagle mix. Parker’s really sweet and playful, and we all love him—all of us except our 7-year-old shepherd mix that is. When Parker wants to play with Cookie, she frequently growls loudly at him. He’ll bring her toy after toy, and she’ll occasionally play tug, but most of the time, she’ll just get up and move away from him. Heaven forbid he follow her because she’ll turn around and bark in his face. She doesn’t hurt him, but it looks scary. Will we have to give up Parker?
Diane in Butte, MT

It sounds to me like Cookie doesn’t have a lot of tolerance for puppy antics. In most cases, this isn’t a serious issue, but rather an adult dog setting down the household rules. It will help if you make sure that Parker gets lots of exercise and, if possible, opportunities to play with dogs closer to his age. Having an outlet for his energy will help.

You may also want to take Cookie in for a physical, just to rule out any health or aging issues. If you find that after a month things haven’t settled down (or at any time if they escalate), you may want to bring in a dog trainer to watch the interaction and give specific advice. But based on your description, it really sounds like Cookie is just telling Parker that she’s the queen and she’ll let him know when he has earned the right to play with her.

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I have a HUGE problem. My dog is very skittish, and my 2-year old son wild. Andrew pursues her all the house. He laughs when she leaps up to move out of his way. And for some unknown reason, he just doesn't quite get the word “no” and “dog” being in the same sentence.
He is obsessed with her tail. He smacks it every chance he gets.  When we all go out, he throws rocks and gravel at her.
We had the dog years before we had our son. I don't feel as though I should have to get rid of her because of him. She has never done anything back to him and gives him no reason to mess with her. I am just afraid it will turn ugly. I would hate for her to bite him, although my husband always says that if she was going to do it, she would have done it by now.
~ Mandy in NC

Toddlers are notoriously short of empathy. Your son isn’t mature enough to understand that he’s scaring or hurting your dog. He just likes getting a reaction.
That said, you need to do everything you can to prevent him from bothering your dog. Indoors make liberal use of baby gates, so that your dog can see and hear you, but Andrew can’t get to her. When you and Andrew are playing outside, leave her in.

When you take her out for a potty break, try giving him something to hold that he can’t throw well, like a zip-lock bag with water and a few floating toys. He can squish the bag to make them move, but the weight will make it difficult for him to throw. Keep that as your special outside toy that he can only have when your dog is outside with you (and change the floating toys from time to time to keep it interesting).

Most important, make sure you praise and reward Andrew when he interacts with the dog in appropriate ways. As much as he needs you to stop him when he’s doing something wrong, he also needs to know how pleased you are every time he is gentle and kind.

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My 15-year-old wants to exercise our dog by biking beside the dog as he runs. Is that a good way to wear out our 2-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever?
~ Amy in Newport, RI

If your dog has good running manners, he might enjoy running alongside your son. I would not recommend this for a younger child, but at 15, your son is probably old enough to manage any situations that might come up.

Don’t just attach a regular leash to a bike. Instead use a specially designed attachment so that the dog is kept a safe distance from the bike’s wheels. Three popular brands are the Springer, K9 Cruiser, and WalkyDog bike attachments.

Remind your son to be cautious about wear and tear on your dog’s paw pads and to increase distances slowly so that the dog can build up endurance. I hope they have fun!

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My wife and I are having a disagreement. From time to time, our dog, Mohican, will grab a napkin or Kleenex and run behind the couch. If you try to reach back to get it from her, she’ll growl at you. I won’t tolerate a dog growling at me, so I shove the couch out of the way, grab the dog, and wrestle it from her. My wife thinks we should trade a treat for the garbage. What do you think?
~ Michael in Little Rock

Many dogs will growl (or even snap or bite) if they have something they consider valuable and someone tries to take it.

Growling is an early-warning sign. It’s possible that she may be sufficiently intimidated by your method to give up growling, but that won’t make her any more comfortable about being approached when she has something she really, really wants. In many cases, this will cause a dog to skip over her warning signals and move directly to biting. Definitely not what you want.

Also force-based methods work only for people confident enough and strong enough to carry them through. Imagine if one of your kids tried diving behind the couch to retrieve a napkin from the dog—she’s be far more likely to bite a child who attempted your maneuver.

Trading for a treat can be a good idea if the dog is taught to drop what she has so that you can safely pick it up. The best book on the subject is Mine: A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs, by Jean Donaldson. You and your wife should read it to develop a plan that works for both of you, avoids aggressive behavior, and doesn’t scare your dog.

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I’m a single mom with a 2-year-old son, and I would really like to adopt a greyhound. I have talked with a local greyhound rescue, and they have approved my application.
But everyone keeps telling me to get a Labrador because they are the best dog for kids! I like labs, but I don’t think I have enough energy to live with one. On the other hand, I definitely want a dog that will love my son. What do you think? Should I get a lab?
~ Phoebe in Talledega, FL

Go for the greyhound—but make sure you choose one that is highly social (not just tolerant) with children.

There isn’t a best breed, but there are “best traits” for your family. There are laid-back labs and hyper greyhounds, so don’t choose simply by breed. Instead choose a dog that is social, gentle, tolerant, and has an energy level compatible with yours.

I’m sure the rescue group can help you identify dogs who may be good matches. Ask if they perform behavioral evaluations (or if you can hire someone to assess a dog before you adopt). Take your time. When the right dog comes along, you’ll know.

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We have a busy household with three teens, and our dog, Cargo, loves everyone—sometimes too much. He always wants to be in the middle of the action.
My mother-in-law is coming to live with us because she is having trouble getting around with her walker. She loves dogs, but I’m worried about her tripping over Cargo. I don’t want to yell at him for being friendly, but my mother-in-law can’t risk a broken hip.
~ Mary in San Francisco

Dogs are quite perceptive. I would not be surprised if Cargo intuitively gives your mother-in-law the space she needs.

Borrow the walker and practice teaching your dog a “move away” cue. You can teach him not to approach anyone using the walker, but that he’s allowed to approach when the person sits down. That way he can visit with your mother-in-law without tripping her. For the first few weeks, carry treats in a fanny pack so that you can reward him for being gentle and appropriate. He’ll soon learn that he needs to moderate his behavior around her.

Be sure that he gets lots of exercise too, so that he can burn off his excess energy in appropriate ways and won’t be quite so likely to be underfoot all the time.

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My 12-year-old daughter would really like us to get another dog. She loves all dogs and  is very attached to our 10-year-old cocker. The cocker has had some health issues this year, so I’m worried about how my daughter will react when he dies. Is it better to get a second dog now or wait?
~ Carolyn in Boulder, CO

There isn’t a perfect answer to this question. As a teen, I was in a similar situation and convinced my mother that we should get a “companion dog” so we’d never be in the position of getting a “replacement dog.” I was very upset when my 15-year-old dog died, and, for me, it was very helpful to have another dog I was already devoted to.
You really have to consider if you would like a second dog and whether it would be too stressful for your cocker. Some older dogs are really bothered by puppy antics, so you may want to consider adopting an adult dog.

If you decide to get a second dog, remember that age has its privileges. Be sure that your cocker gets plenty of breaks from the new dog as well as some special one-on-one time. It may seem that helping the new dog settle into the household takes all your attention, but make an effort to show your older dog how much you love and appreciate him too.

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Send your question

If you have a question about kids and dogs, feel free to write to me. I can't answer all the questions I receive, but I answer many.

I won't deny that living with kids and dogs is a lot of work! But when things are going well, a dog can be your child's best friend. That experience is a wonderful gift for any child and well worth the effort involved.