“My son can’t stop trying to pull the dog’s hair and tail, even if I repeat a thousand times that he’s hurting the dog. I feel like I’m constantly correcting one or both of them.”
“I have a 2.5-year-old who will not leave my English lab alone - grabs her face, tries to touch her eyes, grabs her fur really tight. All of these are uncomfortable for the dog.”
“My toddler is extremely rough with our dog. We don't let them alone together. We never let him rough handle her. But even when we are right there, he is super quick to grab her paw or jump on her when she is sitting. I am concerned that she'll snap at some point, or it's negatively affecting her.”
Does this sound familiar?
I asked Caley Kukla, M.Ed., for her advice, as a behavior specialist and parent coach who integrates brain science and empathy into discipline practices. Caley is also a mom to two young children and a dog. Here’s what she has to say:
To toddlers, dog tails are a funny sensory toy that moves. Because toddlers are naturally curious, they want to grab or pull the dogs’ tails and they have a TIGHT grip!
What to do when your child has a grip on your dog
1. Move right away towards the child while CALMLY using a salient phrase.
You might try one of these:
**but don’t expect the child is going to respond to these cues immediately
Imagine your crawling child is about to pull something down on top of them - yelling ‘STOP!’ from across the room doesn’t ensure safety. The neurological pathways are not yet developed to process the language, stop the impulse, and reroute the movement.
Expert Tip: Verbal cues are NOT enough to stop a young child in the middle of an impulse. If you can’t be physically present, keep the child separate from the dog.
2. Release the dog’s tail/ear/fur from your child’s grip
Once you’re there, physically release the dog’s tail from your child’s grip. *IF* the dog isn’t showing signs of distress, sit with your child and explore the tail WITH them, without letting them touch/grab it: “Oh, look at the tail wag! It’s going so fast!”
Expert Tip: Don’t let an excited child pet a dog because they can’t help but grab, pull, or hit when dysregulated.
3. Physically separate the dog and your child
Next, physically separate the dog and your child so the child cannot return right back to the dog because they will. NOT out of defiance, but out of curiosity!
What to use to separate your dog from your child physically:
✔playpens and super yards
✔secure backyard, weather permitting
Go to Dog Meets Baby Amazon Store to check out baby gates and playpens recommended by me, my clients, and my followers.
Download the free Toddler and Dogs Guide. to teach your child how to pet the dog safely.
4. How to help your dog
- Many dogs won’t move in stressful situations, even when not physically cornered. If your dog has space to move away, use the AWAY cue. You can learn in this short video how to teach your dog to move AWAY on a verbal cue.
- If you have a dog who will jump at your baby when you lift them, picking them up is not safe.
- As soon as your baby is safely separated from your dog, you may give your dog a treat or toy and sweet talk to them.
Your dog will thank you!
There is no such thing as a dog getting used to hitting, pulling, pushing, or smacking. If your dog is showing signs of stress, listen to them.
Although dogs cannot speak, they constantly communicate using their body language. It is critical that you understand what your dog communicates. If you speak ‘doggie,’ it will help you keep everyone safe. Often the signs of discomfort are very subtle. To an untrained eye, many interactions look fine while they are not fine at all.
I do weekly dog body language quizzes in my Instagram stories if you'd like to learn more about dog body language.
Think of something your dog is mildly or moderately afraid of, e.g., a garbage truck or a specific noise. Moderately afraid means your dog is not barking, lunging, or growling.
Provided it’s safe, observe your dog’s body language and see which of these common stress signals you see:
✔yawning (when not tired at bedtime)
✔lip or nose lick
✔closed, still mouth
✔ears flat back
✔panting (when not hot or just exercised)
✔moving head away (to the side)
✔moving body away, backing up
✔stillness, body stiffness
✔crouched or lowered body
✔hard stare, wide eyes (you see the whites)
✔on their back, belly up
When evaluating body language, always consider the whole picture, including all the parts of your dog’s body. Take note of the context as to when they show signs and to whom.
You can’t predict your dog’s reactions
WHEN A DOG IS HIT, PUSHED, PRODDED, SMACKED, THEIR HAIR IS PULLED, OR THEY ARE CLIMBED ON, 99.9999999% of dogs will be uncomfortable. Some dogs are more tolerant than others. Many are tolerant until they are NOT. Most will show early signs of stress; some will react more severely.
If you don’t listen when your dog shows subtle signs, you risk your dog escalating the communication to more obvious signs of discomfort, such as a growl, air snap, or a bite. It may never happen, but do you really want to find out?
Am I being cruel for separating my dog and my baby?
Separating your baby and dog when the interaction doesn’t feel or isn’t safe is the right decision.
You are NOT CRUEL; quite the opposite! You are a responsible parent who sets the dog and the baby up for success. Keeping your baby SAFE by separating them when your dog is stressed around your grabby mobile baby is the right choice.
Your reaction has more of an effect than you think
✔ If you scream or have a big reaction, your dog will likely think they're in trouble and perceive it as being scolded.
✔ Dogs learn by association. If you scold your dog every time they approach your baby because you are worried the baby might grab or hit them, your reaction will affect your dog. Your dog might create a negative association with the baby and be more uncomfortable with your child over time.
✔ Frequent attempts by your baby to approach the dog, especially with a strong reaction from you, can create a negative association with the baby (called negative CER - negative conditioned emotional response).
The most important thing is safety and quickly resolving the situation.
Devon Kuntzman, the founder of Transforming Toddlerhood, a leading toddler parenting expert, says:
“It’s important to remember that it’s a toddler’s developmental job to experiment and explore. Combining this with their lack of impulse control and life experience, we can see why it’s hard for toddlers to follow through on the limits we set. Instead of waiting for your toddler to comply with the limit, it’s our job to follow through by separating the toddler from the dog to keep everyone safe.”
Having a dog and a toddler is often the most challenging phase of parenthood. If you are in the thick of it, please know it gets EASIER.
Here are a few ways you can support your toddler:
✔ Teach them the dog in the bubble concept. Most kids love bubbles and grasp this concpet really fast.
✔ If you allow petting and your dog consents, teach your child how to pet a dog safely. Watch my kids demo 4 ways to pet a dog.
✔ If you have a dog who likes to play fetch, watch this reel to see how your toddler could play safely fetch with your dog.
You’ve got this!