Introducing a New Dog to Children

You envision your new dog romping in the backyard with the kids, playing fetch with your daughter or sleeping at the foot of your son’s bed. These visions can become reality but it takes care to foster such happy relationships. How can you successfully introduce a new dog into your household when you have children?

Just as children need to be taught how to be well-behaved around other people, they need to be taught to be well-behaved and respectful around animals. They need to learn what kinds of games are appropriate, how to touch the dog properly, how to interpret the dog’s body language and when the dog is not to be disturbed. When they’re old enough to understand, children should also be involved in the dog training process.

Introductions Step by Step

Careful handling of introductions will set the scene for future interactions and help your dog settle into family life.

  • If you are considering a new dog the first thing to look for in an introduction is that the dog shows a genuine interest in the children. Therefore, if a dog is consistently ignoring or avoiding your children and only seeking attention from adults, then that is probably not the best dog for your family.
  • Even if used to children in the past, a new dog will not be used to your children and will need time to get to know them. Start with the dog on a leash and be observant of how the dog is reacting. Help prevent the dog from feeling overwhelmed by insisting that the children wait for the dog to approach them instead of rushing the dog. Children should be standing still or sitting when the dog is first introduced. They can encourage the dog to come to them by sitting down and offering a treat. Have the child toss small treats on the ground as the dog approaches. Ask them not to stare as this can be threatening. Rather, they should try and look at the dog’s feet.
  • Tell the child to not look directly into the dog’s eyes or reach toward, lean over or hug the dog. Dogs do not appreciate being hugged or cuddled. It is a great temptation for children to do this, especially if they have been used to doing it to a previous dog.
  • When the dog looks comfortable picking up the treats from the ground at the child’s feet, have the child hold her hand at her side with a treat in her fist (knuckles up). She should not move her hand toward the dog. When the dog sniffs her hand, she can slowly open her fist and allow the dog to take the treat from her open palm. Repeat this over and over.
  • If the dog is fearful, DO NOT tighten up on the leash or require him to sit-stay. This may increase his fear because he cannot back away. Do not force scary interactions on the dog. You will need to go more slowly with your introductions. Continue to have the child offer treats from a sitting position and contact a dog training professional for dog behaviour assistance.
  • If the dog is showing aggressive behaviour, separate the children and dog and contact a dog training professional for dog behaviour assistance. If the dog is not fearful, but is boisterous and jumping up instead, require him to sit for a treat. A Gentle Leader head halter can help with boisterous dogs. Do not use physical punishment at any time. If the dog is jumping, have the child walk away and only return when he is sitting calmly.  If you haven’t already done so, or if you need a refresher course, consider registering for a RHS dog training class or contact a dog training professional.
  • When the dog is comfortable taking the treat from the child, she can gently scratch him under the chin as he does so. Never reach over his head. The child can then ask the dog to “sit” for a treat reward. Gradually introduce more interaction, like petting and stroking, if dog is doing well.

Be a Good Parent to Your Children and Your Dog

  • Do not leave the dog and child unsupervised! Children should never, ever be left alone with any dog, no matter how reliable the dog has been before. A responsible adult needs to be on the scene watching the interactions between them to prevent any aggressive behaviour by the dog and to keep the child from putting him or herself in danger. Telling the toddler to stay away from the dog isn’t enough.Remember that young children don’t recognize when they may be in trouble. It’s up to the adult to keep them safe from the dog and to keep the dog safe from the children. If you can’t be right there to handle whatever might come up, the dog should be put in an area out of reach of the children. Crates and baby gates are excellent for children and for dogs when you cannot supervise them appropriately.
  • Teach your child appropriate behaviour around dogs. You need to teach your children that they cannot be impolite to the dog. They may not sit on the dog, pull on his ears or bother him when he’s eating or in his crate. You will need to teach your children to “leave the dog alone” at times. You need to be the one who is always paying attention and be ready to step in and separate if necessary. Be sure to remove your child, gently but firmly, from the dog long before the dog has become irritated to the point of growling. If you are always there to manage your child’s behaviour around the dog, and vice versa, you will help build positive interactions and prevent negative ones.
  • Some dogs, such as Collies and Shepherds, have a strong herding instinct and may nip at children’s ankles, causing them to squeal and run away. This excites the dog, encouraging more of the same, so this type of behaviour must be stopped at once or it can become a habit. Children should stand perfectly still when the dog attempts to “herd” them and the dog will usually stop immediately.
  • Be especially careful with older dogs and children. A dog with impaired vision or hearing can be startled by sudden approaches. An older dog who is in pain due to arthritis may not want to be touched on a particular part of the body. Explain the difficulties the dog is having to the children so they learn to approach more gently.

Successful relationships between children and dogs require a large investment of time by the parent but the rewards are great.  Remember it is important to start off right with controlled and safe introductions. For the safety of both dog and child, appropriate supervision is always imperative.