Did you decide to get a dog as a couple before having a child, or did you and your pup come as a “package deal”?
Or, are you a single parent or a couple with young children looking to add a dog to your family but not sure when and how?
I’ll walk you through different scenarios to help you prepare your dog for future kids or help you choose the best moment for your family to get your dream dog.
Option 1: First dog, then child
Many couples get a dog before they decide to have children. It's a good way to learn responsibility and selflessness. Dogs teach us better planning skills and to be more flexible. And, if you get your dog as a puppy, you’ll also get a taste of the inevitable sleep deprivation that comes with a baby.
If you plan on kids entering the picture at some point -no matter how far down the line- getting your dog comfortable around children is important.
When socializing a dog with unfamiliar or familiar children, it is extremely important you do it right. Here’s how:
Getting your dog to like children
You want your dog to have repeated positive associations with young children. If you have a young puppy or your dog is neutral and relaxed around young children, here are a few examples of how you can help your dog create positive associations.
✔ Your dog sees young children from a safe distance and gets a treat or plays with a toy. Your dog learns that young children =treats and play! Rinse and repeat!
✔ Ideally, meet in a neutral space, ensuring the child gives your dog plenty of space and choice.
✔ Your dog is given a choice to approach a child and comes in a happy and relaxed manner, with loose wiggly body language.
✔ The interactions are brief. If your dog chooses not to approach, ducks away or backs up, there is no greeting.
✔Expert Tip: Avoid having a child's face near the dog's face, don't let a child lean or loom over a dog.
✔ Initially, no treats should be involved; give your dog treats at a safe distance after the greeting.
✔ If your dog has willingly approached a child several times and shows relaxed body language, a child may offer treats. No treats if a dog is protective of food or takes treats using teeth.
✔ If your dog likes to play FETCH, has a solid Drop cue, and is not jumpy or protective of toys, an adult-supervised game of fetch with a preschooler or a kindergartner would be a positive experience for a dog that is comfortable around young children.
Expert Tip: If your dog has shown aggression, fear, or discomfort around children, I recommend working with a certified dog trainer.
Check out this post to learn about other ways to “childproof” and prepare your dog for future children.
Avoid creating negative associations.
Don’t take your dog with you to:
✔ Birthday parties of young children
✔ A picnic with a lot of kids
✔ Any super busy space with (many) children
✔ Your attention may be divided, and you will not be able to supervise closely to ensure your dog remains relaxed and has space.
✔ If your dog is overwhelmed and overhandled, carried, or repeatedly touched by young children, whether supervised or (worse) unsupervised, it can do more harm than good.
✔ Likely result: your dog will create a negative association with young children.
Saying hi to children on walks
Letting children approach and touch your dog on leash is usually not a good idea. When a dog is on a leash, they can't freely walk away from an uncomfortable situation. While many dogs may be interested in sniffing a child (all that food on their face and clothes!), many don’t want to be touched.
How can you tell?
Watch a dog’s body language when a child reaches and touches a dog.
A few bad interactions with young children can turn a friendly dog into a scared and uncomfortable one.
Option 2: First child, then dog
My tips for choosing a dog for families with young children
✔ If I were to choose a dog from a breeder, I would focus on a breeder who is transparent, breeds responsibly, and is well known in their breed community. A breeder who does the recommended health tests focuses on early socialization, one I can visit.
✔ Whether a rescue/rehome or a puppy from a breeder, I would choose one that is pro-social to people and dogs, confident, can be easily touched all over, and is not protective of food or toys. One that has been raised with littermates (not a singleton).
✔ With adult rescue/rehomed dogs, I would prefer to foster them for a few weeks to see how they do in our home.
✔ I would look for one that has been socialized with young children, isn’t fearful when walking in my community or visiting my favorite places, is not protective of spaces or their resources from people, and is about 1-3 years old.
✔ Remember to choose a dog whose needs you can meet and one that matches your lifestyle.
Child’s best age to get a dog
I genuinely believe that you can make every configuration work.
It might not be easy, but having an infant, a toddler, and a dog is doable. Based on my personal and professional experience, there is a time when it gets EASIER. This magic age is when children are better at following rules, are more coordinated, and are somewhat independent.
For us, that magic age was 4.
✔ Having dogs at our house for the board and train program became easier.
✔ My children would actively participate in training without screaming and running every time a dog jumped on them. They knew how to ask for a sit or down.
✔ They were taller than a dog, and their faces were not right in front of a dog’s face.
✔ A game of fetch wasn’t anymore about holding a toy forever or aiming the ball at a dog.
✔ They knew how to redirect a dog to a toy or cue a sit before a dog grabbed their pants while running.
✔ My children have been helping me prepare dogs’ food puzzle toys since they were little. 4-5-year-old children can fill the Kongs or Toppl puzzle toys independently without me spending hours cleaning the kitchen afterward.
It is a very individual decision. I know many families who choose to wait longer, they want their youngest child to be at least 6-7 years old before getting a dog. And many who want their children to grow up with a dog, specifically a puppy, even if the beginnings might be rough. There’s no right or wrong decision.
Whatever you decide, good luck! You’ve got this! And I’m here to help and support you.
Helpful resources when you are getting a dog
When you subscribe to the Dog Meets Baby newsletter, you’ll receive the Rules of Interactions for families with young children and dogs, with a template for your rules.
If you have a toddler, a preschooler, or a kindergartner, download my free Toddlers and Dogs Guide for safety tips and practical exercises.