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Keeping your family dog and visiting children safe

Dogs are part of the family and while your dog will be well used to the family unit they live in, they will be less familiar with people who visit your home. So, whether you’re hosting a schoolmate play date, looking after the grandchildren, or have friends and family round for Christmas festivities or a summer BBQ, it pays to be prepared. 

The canine species doesn’t have an innate understanding of how we would like them to behave around babies and children, so training, preparation and management is vital.

Awareness of canine behaviour, together with an understanding of managing situations, will help to keep visiting children and your dog safe, and this advice is here to guide you and is split into the following sections:

  • Preparing a child to visit a home with a dog
  • Preparing your dog and home for visiting children
    • Settling your dog
    • Supervision
    • Separation
  • Dog body language
  • Are some breeds of dog safer with children than others?
  • Dogs and children’s health
  • Dogs and the law
  • Helping dogs and visiting children to become friends

Preparing a child to visit a home with a dog

Before you welcome a child into your home, it’s a good idea to set some ground rules. We strongly recommend talking to the visiting child’s parent or guardian about how to keep everyone safe before the meeting takes place, particularly if the child is a baby or is too young to understand the rules. 

To help stay safe a child should not approach when the dog:

  • is eating
  • has a toy
  • has puppies
  • is sleeping
  • is in bed or under a chair or table
  • is sick or injured
  • is trying to move away

If the child is old enough to understand, ask them to think about the dog they are about to meet from the dog’s point of view. Why not turn this into an activity and draw up some ‘doggy dos’ or ‘doggy rules’? Not only can this be fun to do together, but it is something you can easily refer back to if needed. Doggy rules could include:

  • Do not allow chase games or wrestling games between children and your dog. Your dog may become too excited and hurt someone.
  • Never sneak up and surprise a dog
  • Do not allow anyone to tease a dog
  • Never hit or hurt a dog

Understandably, children may want to make friends with the dog, and may not realise the following situations might be seen by the dog as a threat:

  • Cuddling the dog
  • Taking the dog’s toys away from them so they can play a game
  • Getting into bed with the dog
  • Comforting the dog who is hiding under the table

You dog may feel worried or confused when you are interacting with children in a way that they have not experienced you doing before. 

For example, human adults tend to praise young children for doing something well in a similar way to how they praise their dogs, ie making a fuss with lots of congratulations and often using higher pitched sounds. This can make dogs really excited, and is an example of a time when separation may be the best idea. 

Unfamiliar items to dogs that are lots of fun, or simply practical, for children can cause confusion and worry too. Baby walkers can accidentally (or not!) ram into dogs’ feet, which can make them worried, and bouncers and swings that attach to doorways can be very exciting for them too.

Preparing your dog and home for visiting children

Settling your dog

Ensuring those first few interactions are positive for both the child and the dog will help set you up for future visits. 

Set yourself a routine that works for you and your dog. This could include walking your dog before your visitor arrive, settle your dog in their quiet place, don’t rush ensure both child and dog are settled before introductions. 

Supervision

Encourage gentle interaction between your dog and the visiting child(ren) at all times

It should go without saying that children and dogs should not be left alone together without adult supervision. Realistically, you will not be able to actively supervise your dog and the children in your home 100 per cent of the time they are all in the same place. This is where careful management proves a godsend (see ‘separation’ below). 

Active supervision means you are consciously watching both the child and dog; if you need to pop to the car or prep lunch for a few minutes, it’s best to separate the dog and child while your attention is focussed elsewhere. Bite incidents can happen in seconds, so it’s safest to avoid the risk.

If your dog has access to the same area where a child is present, the number one rule is that you must supervise. If active supervision is not possible, you must separate (see below).

Depending on their age, a child can be unpredictable in their behaviour (particularly from a dog’s point of view) and squeals of delight, temper tantrums and boisterous play can be an exciting or frightening experience for dogs and puppies. You’ll need to show young children in particular exactly how you want them to interact with your dog, by encouraging gentle interaction at all times. Seeing a relationship blossom between a child and dog is a lovely sight, but this should never be forced and better relationships are built by trust, boundaries and positive interactions. 

Many puppies and dogs will put up with a great deal before showing any obvious behaviours that they are uncomfortable (see ‘dog body language’ below) and it’s just not fair or responsible to expect them to cope with boisterous or rough handling. By being proactive and using separation in your daily routine this will help make your dog feel more comfortable and limit the chance of them having to get to the stage where they show the signs of stress behaviours. 

Safe interaction tips

  • Most importantly, actively supervise. When the visiting child(ren) and your dog are together, make sure you pay attention to what is happening at all times as you’ll want to intervene at the earliest opportunity should either look worried or you see that things are getting out of hand. 
  • Encourage gentle stroking at all times - no pulling, grabbing, heaving patting or sitting on!  
  • A good way to see if a dog or puppy would like to have a stroke is to ask them! When they are awake call them to you as opposed to approaching them. If they approach confidently, then this is there way of saying ‘yes’ and if they stay where they are, they are politely declining your invitation and you can try again later. This is a really simple exercise that you can invite visiting children to carry out (once they are old enough to understand your instruction) and it enables your dog or puppy a choice in the matter too.
  • Take care that the visiting baby or child doesn’t touch or walk into your dog when they are eating or chewing. Although the child is unlikely to want to eat the chew, your dog won’t know this and may feel worried and behave defensively.
  • Be careful when children are playing with their own toys. Dogs can find it tricky to know if a toy is theirs or a child’s, which can be confusing to them. Toys can also be really exciting for dogs and may raise their activity and ‘bounce’ levels, which can be unsettling for children.
  • Human food is extremely tempting to many dogs. If your dog is used to humans eating around them and you are comfortable with this, ask your dog to settle and ensure you supervise while people are eating. If your dog is easily distracted by food it is safer to move them to a separate area or crate while people are eating, particularly if the visiting child is young and may throw food around or onto the floor.
  • If you spot your dog becoming worried, intervene. The dog body language section below will help you to recognise the signs your dog and the child(ren) may need some time apart.
  • Equally, if the visiting child(ren) is becoming frightened or annoyed by your dog, intervene. It’s much nicer and safer for both if you remove the dog in these situations (and give them something else to do!) as this will ensure that their relationship stays on track for repeat visits.

Remember, the visiting child(ren) and your dog don’t always have to be interacting whilst they are in the same room together. Sometimes just letting the dog observe at a distance they feel safe at can help them get used to noises, new voices and new toys. 

Thinking of fun things to do together when a niece, nephew, grandchild or friend visits will help teach the child about safe interactions with dogs

Separation

Stairgates and crates are brilliant tools for keeping children and dogs separated when they need to be

Giving your dog some time alone through separating them should be part of your daily routine when children are around. It should always been seen as a positive separation and by no means a punishment.

When you are busy and cannot keep a close eye on the children and dog(s) in the home, the answer is to keep them separated. We cannot emphasise strongly enough that dogs (of all breeds or types) and children should not be left alone together when you are unable to actively supervise.

Dogs are a social species and typically enjoy human company, but they need their own space when they feel overwhelmed, stressed or are simply not in the mood for fuss; all totally normal feelings for dogs when people they do not know, or do not know well, visit the home.

This can also be the case for children who maybe slightly anxious around dogs, or over excited when they are around them. And some children may be really very scared of dogs and not want to spend time around them at all. It can be quite overwhelming if a dog and child are not used to being together most of the time and offering a time to relax for both is essential to create a happy household. 

This is not to say your dog should be shut away and ignored for hour upon hour, but getting your dog used to spending a little time alone with fun things to keep them entertained will ensure they are happy when you need to utilise separation as a management tool. If the child is happy to do so, you could get them involved with stuffing a Kong, or choosing – or even making new – toys for your dog to play with.

Top separation tips

  • Get your dog used to enjoying spending time alone. Stuff a Kong with something really tasty for them to nibble on when put them in a separate room or space, so they see this as a positive thing.
  • Crate train your dog. When properly introduced, a crate (or indoor kennel) can become a great ‘safe space’ for your dog that allows you to separate them from children, but at the same time keeps them in the same room as you. As dogs are social creatures they will often choose to stay with their family even if they feel a bit overwhelmed. This is why crates are a fantastic option in this situation as you can safely pop them in there so they are still near to you and don’t feel excluded.
  • Invest in a stairgate to segregate certain areas of the home
  • Let your dog sleep undisturbed. Puppies in particular need a lot of sleep, and being startled or woken regularly may begin to affect your dog’s behaviour and they may become irritable or defensive.
  • If either your dog or the visiting child is having one of those days (too excitable, easily frustrated or just a bit boisterous!), then management is the key to avoiding accidents. Use your stair gate or dog crate and keep your puppy safely occupied with a tasty chew or stuffed Kong.

Dog body language

We often hear that dog attacks came out of nowhere, or that the dog didn’t give any signal they were about to bite, but this could be because not many people recognise the signs dogs give us before they bite.

Dogs will typically try to avoid biting people, but will do so as a last resort to make something they perceive to be scary stop or go away. Before dogs bite, they will usually exhaust a wide range of signals or warnings with the intention of avoiding conflict. If the visiting child(ren) is old enough get them to talk about how they would feel in different situations and how they might act. This will help them to understand what a dog might be trying to tell us and help encourage them to act safely and calmly around them.  

Signs that your dog or puppy is feeling worried include:

  • avoidance, moving away, hiding
  • tail tucked under, looking away, appearing ‘smaller’
  • lip licking, yawning (when not sleepy), paw raising
  • growling, flashing teeth, snapping, biting

A good separation routine will help avoid your dog getting to this situation, but if your dog shows any of these behaviours, they are telling you they are uncomfortable and it is time to remove them from the situation that is making them worried. Now is the time for a time out between dog and child. Move your dog to a separate area away from the child and give them something nice to focus on, such as a favourite chew or stuffed Kong. This is the safest way to avoid a situation escalating into a bite incident.

Read more about dog body language and understanding behaviour signs here.


Are some breeds of dog safer with children than others?

There is no scientific evidence to suggest that any breed of dog is naturally more aggressive than any other breed of dog. However, because of the difference in size between larger breeds of dog and children, a bite by a larger dog is likely to cause a more significant injury to a child than a bite a smaller dog. Bites from even very small breeds can cause life-threatening injuries to babies and toddlers.

Because of the heights of children and dogs, children are more likely to be bitten on the head and face area (76 per cent bites to lips, nose, or cheeks), and therefore suffer more serious, life-threatening injuries than adults who are bitten (10 per cent bites to head or neck). [Research published by BMJ]

Incidents of fatal dog bites are on children in the UK are rare and have involved a range of breeds and types, both large and small. Non-fatal bites also involve many different types of dog. While acknowledging typical breed tendencies is useful when thinking about how a dog may behave, focussing solely on breed alone (including whether or not the dog is a legal type) is unhelpful when it comes to deciding on risk; all dogs have teeth and all dogs have the potential to bite.

Assessing the situation based on the individual dog’s behaviour and separating the dog and child when needed is the best way to keep everyone safe.

When the child(ren) and dog are together, you must actively supervise. Better relationships are built by trust, boundaries and positive interactions.

Dogs and children’s health

Give your dog a regular worming treatment and ensure you clear away their poo from the garden quickly. 

Teaching the visiting child(ren) a good hygiene routine which includes washing hands after stroking your dog or before eating is a good idea. 

Younger children often put things in their mouths and so are more likely to suffer from diseases such as toxocariasis, which is contracted when people eat the eggs of roundworms found in the faeces of un-wormed dogs, cats and foxes, or contaminated soil. In rare cases toxocariasis can cause blindness, seizures or breathing difficulties.

If someone is bitten by your dog, seek medical attention quickly.


Dogs and the law

It is against the law to allow your dog to be dangerously out of control in a public or private place, which includes your home and garden.

If your dog harms someone in your home or garden, you could be prosecuted. The penalty for those convicted of allowing a dog to bite someone in their home or garden is a prison sentence of up to five years for injury, and 14 years for a fatality. A court can also order a dog belonging to an owner found guilty of this offence to be euthanised and ban the owner from keeping dogs in future.

This law applies to all dogs of all breeds and types.

Aside from the law, the impact of injuries caused by dogs on family members and friends are devastating and can have long term physical and mental effects on the injured child, those who witness a bite, and their families, as well as the owner. Sadly, all of the children killed in fatal dog incidents in the past 10 years in the UK were killed by dogs in the homes of friends or families.

Dogs and visiting children can become great playmates if careful boundaries are put in place

Helping dogs and visiting children to become friends

Preparing for visits by putting boundaries in place and thinking of fun things to do during time together will help your dog and the visiting child(ren) to enjoy the visit. Plus, children mimic and copy adults’ behaviour, so if you set a good example, treat gently, and act calmly and quietly around your dog, the child is more likely to do so too. Benefits include:

  • Going for walks and exploring the great outdoors
  • Learning about responsibility
  • An opportunity to teach children about safe interactions with dogs they meet when out and about, which will help to keep them safe
  • Animal activities. We have some great free online resources available for carers of children which will help them learn about dogs 

— Page last updated 24/07/2017