Kids and Dogs: Tips for safe interaction

One thing you won’t find on our social media channels are images of young children hugging or putting their faces near dogs. In light of a couple of recent incidents with dogs and young children, we believe it is irresponsible to promote images of children interacting with dogs inappropriately.

Should you hug a dog?

As primates, we humans love to hug each other. Our desire to draw someone we love close to us and hold them is overwhelming.

For dogs, however, while they are social and have strong bonds, hugging is completely unnatural to them. Indeed, hugging can be perceived by some dogs as a threat to which they will respond by growling or using their teeth (i.e. biting). Unfortunately, for the dog, when they do need to resort to biting to express their discomfort with being hugged, a human face is often the closest body part. Hence, we see children being bitten on the face.

While, it is true, there are some dogs who will tolerate our human desire to hug them, hugging is not in the dog’s natural repertoire of behaviours. So despite the fact we can hug our dogs, the question really is, should we hug them?

How should you greet a dog?

Another source of miscommunication between dogs and humans is our greeting rituals. As humans we are very direct. We make eye contact, approach front on, and offer our hand to another person or hug them. Dogs, typically, do not walk up to each other, face to face because it is impolite to do so. Dogs arc around each other, give each other plenty of space, move slowly and give each other a range of “calming signals” to let the other dog know their intentions.

Unfortunately, humans including children, completely disregard dogs’ natural greeting behaviours and rush quickly straight towards a dog’s face or we shove the back of our hand at their nose.

For the dog this is impolite at best. In the worst case, however it is perceived as threatening and a cause for the dog to defend themselves. This is particularly the case, if the dog has no clear escape options like being restrained on a lead or backed into a corner.

Dogs are further condemned, because as complex social communicators, they give us humans plenty of signs they are feeling uncomfortable. We, humans don’t see these signs, we ignore them or punish the dog for them. Signs that dogs give us that they are feeling uncomfortable include head turning, moving away from a situation, licking (their mouth and nose), freezing and becoming stiff, sniffing and yawning.

By the time the dog needs to resort to growling, their discomfort levels are already escalating. Growling should never be ignored or punished. If you have missed all the other signals the dog has given, then do not ignore growling, help your dog. Remove them from the situation that is making them uncomfortable and take them somewhere they can relax and feel safe. This is your job as the dog’s owner and carer.

Can children and dogs play safely together?

For a child, there is nothing better than having a canine best friend. However, for both the dog and child’s safety, children and dogs need to carefully supervised and encouraged to play appropriately.

Supervision of children and dogs does not simply mean that there is an adult in the general vicinity of the child and dog. It means that one adult has the responsibility of actively watching the child and dog interacting together. Active supervision means that the designated supervising adult:

  • Has both hands free. They are not holding a drink, nursing a child or looking at a phone.
  • Is not engaged in any other activity except supervising the child and dog. This means the supervising adult is not talking with someone else, cooking the BBQ or hanging out the washing.
  • Is always standing close enough to the child or dog that they can reach either of them in an instant.
  • Is observing the dog’s body language for signs the dog is uncomfortable with the interaction and at the first sign of discomfort removes the child or dog from the situation.
  • Encourages appropriate play and interaction between the child and dog. Appropriate games for children and dogs to play include hide and seek (children hide and the dog with the supervising adult) seeks out the children and scenting games (children hide a treat in boxes or around the yard for the dog to find). Games involving throwing toys or balls, tugging or the children running typically encourage high excitement and energy which can easily spill over into nipping or other inappropriate behaviour.

Active supervision of children and dogs is especially important when there are multiple children or dogs and when the dog is not familiar with the children (i.e. children are visiting a dog’s home).

How can Teamwork Dogs help?

At Teamwork Dogs, our trainers can help you “read” your dog’s body language so you can always ensure your dog is comfortable in a situation involving children. We can also help you train your dog to respond calmly when interacting appropriately with children including teaching some fun games children and dogs can play together.

For more information about our courses please click here


McConnell, P.B. 2002. The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs. The Random House Publishing Group, New York, USA.

Rugaas, T. 2006. On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee WA, USA.

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