Let’s be real: Toddlers can behave like real jerks sometimes. That does not mean toddlers are jerks. They are so new here still with only one to three years under their belts.
I’m not one to sugarcoat the reality of raising a toddler. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. And they change dramatically from day to day, acquiring new skills and learning new things, that once you feel like you’re getting a handle on something, suddenly your two-year-old is tall enough and strong enough to open your kitchen drawer and is wandering through the house with a hammer in one hand and a tub of glue in the other.
Toddlers are noisy. They’re messy. They’re hyper-mobile but not yet coordinated. They’re unpredictable. They experience extreme emotions that often include extreme outbursts–of joy, sure, but also pain and frustration and anger and sadness.
I could go on, but you get the point. Toddlers are hard.
(They’re also lovely in a million ways. Watching them discover and innovate with language and their imaginations… priceless.)
Those things that make toddlers who they are also make them inherently unreliable around dogs.
When it comes to kids and dogs, the focus should always be on safety. That’s it. That’s the whole of it. Safety for the kids, safety for the dogs. Dog bites are almost always preventable (read TONS more about dog bite prevention here), but I also want to emphasize that avoiding bites isn’t the be-all-end-all of kid + pet interactions. It’s what gets the most attention, sure, because it has the most devastating consequences, but:
You do not want your kids and your dog living in fear of each other.
Whether there’s a bite risk or not (and there’s always a small bite risk), you want your kids and your pets to coexist happily. You want everyone to feel safe and comfortable around each other. So, let’s dig into how to achieve that when you have dogs and toddlers and just want everyone to get along.
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Teach your kid to interact appropriately with all dogs, not just your dog.
This is where it all starts.
Don’t be that parent who lets their kid trip and stumble and flail and wave at a random dog. “Oh, she just loves dogs,” is never a reason for bad behavior.
Start when they’re babies (I have gobs of ideas and resources in this post about dogs and babies getting along) and teach them they’re not allowed to approach or touch a dog without checking with you first–and you, in turn, check with the dog’s owner first. Show them what is and isn’t okay when petting a dog. Demonstrate how to be gentle, how not to pull or grab, how to always approach from the side. Kids soak up our behavior and imitate it; make sure YOU behave appropriately around dogs.
With your own dog, make sure your little one is clear on boundaries: leave the dogs alone at meal times, for instance, or never go into the dog’s crate, or whatever fits with your family and how your dog is trained. Involve your kid in your dog’s care (more on that in a minute) but be clear that it can only happen when you are present.
Give your dog space to flee.
Your pets should never feel forced to interact with your kid. Ever. Give them the ability to excuse themselves from a situation. We use baby gates for that. (Plus, we want the cats to be able to come and go as they please, so we use gates like this to ensure all species are happy and safe.)
You, as the adult, need to monitor your pet, too. Cooper is a perfect example of dog who is so desperate to hang out with me at all times, he would choose to be uncomfortable to stick by my side. When Violet is playing with toys that scare him like her fire truck or if the baby is screaming or whatever, I’ll simply ask Cooper to come with me to the kitchen where I hand him a food-stuffed Kong (I keep a stash of these large Kongs filled with PB or yogurt in the freezer) and then I go back to the living room and close the baby gate. He happily works on his toy while I supervise the girls.
Speaking of supervision…
Over the years, I’ve written about dog bites a lot, and one of the most common–and heartbreaking–things I’ve read over and over and over again is this: “I only stepped away for a second.”
(Child proofing is clearly beyond the scope of this post, so whether or not your kiddo is able to play somewhere independently and safely is up to you and your family.)
Honestly, we all have to step away now and again. Like, throughout the day, I have to go to the bathroom. Or get a drink of water. Or take a phone call. The baby gates come in handy, of course, but I also take Coop with me if it’s something quick like a trip to the bathroom or to grab a rag (I always need a rag… everything always spills…) That way, I know Violet is safe doing whatever she was occupied with while Coop is with me.
If it’s not possible to leave Violet where she’s playing (like in the backyard) and I need to do something quick like change the baby’s diaper or grab snacks or whatever, she has to come with me. She usually complains, but she’s pretty solid on the boundaries about safety, Cooper, supervision, etc.
Reinforce positive interactions.
I believe that kids should be involved in pet care where it’s age- and skill-appropriate. Violet doesn’t scoop out their food or count their medications, but she does carry their bowls to their assigned spots and sets them down. She doesn’t pick up poop in the backyard, but she runs around with me and tells me when she finds some to pick up. She doesn’t hold the leash when we walk Cooper, but she often carries a can of cheese to dole out whenever she wants.
Violet’s also learning how to train Cooper. Every time we leave the house, she cues him to go to his bed, then gives him a cookie and says bye. She’s been working on recall training and some of the ASL training with me in the backyard. All supervised, all positive.
She’s OBSESSED, btw, with having her own clicker and treat pouch. It makes her feel so important. I have this treat pouch, and she uses one that’s similar to this one. We both use a super basic clicker or this touch stick. Cooper gets a million treats–usually for free–and she has a blast.
Allow them time together and time apart.
You are their person. Both of them. Or all of them if you have multiple kids or dogs. They should get time with you alone as much as possible. I know it’s tough. There are only so many minutes in a day. I generally reserve evenings for Cooper because the girls are both in bed around 7. Then he and I can train, play outside, walk, cuddle, whatever. Violet and Astrid get most of my attention all day long, so that’s his time.
Throughout the day, I encourage Violet to play independently, and if she’s playing and Astrid is napping, I can squeeze in some extra Coopsie time or make him a puzzle toy or something like that. They all deserve your attention, so dole it out mindfully when possible.
Increase your focus on safety in times of intensity.
Toddlers throw tantrums. They vary in degree. Some kiddos ball up their fists and scream while others go full Red Ross.
Violet’s tantrums reside on a spectrum so far beyond Red Ross that officials are considering renaming Kilauea volcano, the most active volcano in the world, after my dear daughter.
In those moments, my job is to keep her safe AND keep the animals safe. If your little one tends to be on the more volatile end of the tantrum spectrum, first, please know I’m right there with you holding space for our tiny little warriors. But, also, remove your pets from the room. Put your kid somewhere safe for a sec, move dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. from the room, then close the door and focus on your kid. This is pure management, not training, and that is literally the only thing you can do in those moments.
(BTW, I’m not interested in any parenting tips, tricks, advice, etc. about tantrums. Every kid is unique. I know my kid. You know your kid, so do what’s best for him or her in the moment. Hold space. Stay calm and present. The end.)
Will they be BFFs?
Maybe. Maybe not.
And it doesn’t really matter either way. Your job isn’t to force a relationship but rather to teach everyone how to interact together safely and to supervise them whenever they are together. If they become friends, great!
In my house, I know Violet loves and adores Cooper roughly 279% more than he does her. And that’s okay. If it were up to her, she’d be the kid climbing all over him, kissing his face, hugging his neck, etc. But it’s not up to her. It’s up to me, and I’ve taught her that none of those things are okay.
When she runs and screams and prances around, he gets worked up. I don’t want him to get so fired up he nips, so when I can see it starting (actually… hear it… his first line of defense is barking…) I know to remove him from the situation. That’s my job.
Dogs and toddlers can get along. But the most important thing is that they interact safely.
Photo by Levi Saunders on Unsplash
Chris from Boise says
“If your little one tends to be on the more volatile end of the tantrum spectrum, first, please know I’m right there with you holding space for our tiny little warriors.” What a wonderful mom you are, Maggie!
This is the crux: “But it’s not up to her. It’s up to me, and I’ve taught her that none of those things are okay.”
Bless your heart for this column.
Thank You! Well said, so tired of dogs getting blamed for interactions with small children who were unsupervised or never taught to respect the dogs’ space. It ends up being unfortunate for everyone, albeit the dog is usually the one removed from the home. “I’ve taught her that none of those things are okay”. What a great mom and teacher you are. Surprises can happen, I love that you attempt to minimize the risk through education and action.
I agree with you lak.
I know of a family who rehomed an awesome dog because their toddler is clumsy and was always falling on the dog, who in turned growled when fallen upon. In light of that lack of management, it was definitely the right thing to do but, boy, a little more responsibility on the part of the adults may have been nice.
Thank you so much. I cringe every time I see a post on Facebook or IG of a child sitting on a dog, or pushing it’s face into the dogs. The bite risk is real, and so many uneducated replies about how cute it is, how funny it is. Well duh, not funny when the dog has had enough and pays with it’s life because “there was no warning, the attack came out of nowhere”.
Parents need to step up and manage their children with their dog. Children need to be told from the youngest age that it’s not ok to sit on/poke/hit the dog. That it’s not ok to put their hands in it’s food. That it’s not ok to disturb it when it’s sleeping. And parents need to supervise – dogs and small children should NEVER be left alone together.
Indeed. Parents’ guidance is highly really recommended when getting their kids interact with dogs. Thank you so much for sharing this article.
A very good and useful article. Thank you so much