Pup Power: Helping Kids and Canines Cohabitate Safely

By Malia Jacobson

If your child’s first friend has four legs, here’s good news: Per a recent study in Pediatrics, kids living in homes with dogs get sick less often than those in pet-free homes. And living with a pet can help curious little ones begin to develop empathy and kindness toward others. New research shows that kids even prefer their pets to their siblings, with dogs scoring the highest in relationship satisfaction. Here’s what to know to help kids and dogs live together peacefully, from birth through the teen years.

EARLY YEARS 0-5

Pup Prep

For many dog owners, a smooth transition to new parenthood involves plenty of pet preparation. Start by taking your dog to the veterinarian for a routine health examination and necessary vaccinations. While you’re there, make plans to spay or neuter. The Humane Society reports that sterilized pets are healthier, calmer, and less likely to bite—making them better companions for little humans.

If your dog isn’t exactly a model canine citizen, now’s the time to act. Consult with an animal behaviour specialist to address behaviour problems like yipping, whining, leash pulling, and jumping. Although the thought of dog training may seem exhausting during new parenthood, your dog will benefit from the extra attention and be better prepared for life with an active toddler. Even older dogs can learn new tricks, so to speak, says Brad Howell, owner and head trainer of Red Beard Dog Training. “Training an eight-year-old dog to stop pulling on its leash is going to take more patience, but older dogs can settle into new, more desirable habits,” he notes.  

ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12

Behaviour basics

By grade school, kids may be ready for a larger role in walking, training, and feeding the family dog. Dogs pay attention to the people who feed them, so it’s a good idea to involve kids if possible, says certified trainer Wynona Karbo. “When a young child feeds a puppy or boisterous young dog, keep the dog behind a baby gate while the food is dispensed so the puppy won’t jump on the child during feeding and create negative habits.”

While dog training is important, it’s equally vital to ensure that your child knows how to behave around the dog, says Howell. “Far too many children (and plenty of adults!) get away with completely unacceptable behaviour toward dogs. Pulling ears, climbing and jumping on, or any invasion of space isn’t a position a lot of dogs want to be in, even if they don’t always give a clear sign they are annoyed. When dogs do show teeth, growl or even nip, we need to take a step back and examine what triggered the behaviour.” Teach children to observe and respect a dog’s cues, and they’ll be safer not only around your family dog, but any other dog they meet.

TEEN YEARS 13-18

Teen’s Best Friend

Whether you’re ready to add another canine to the family, or your older child wants his or her first puppy, the teen years can be a great time for a new, or new-to-you, family dog. Teens are old enough to walk and feed a dog independently, participate in dog training, even pick up pet food and ferry the dog to the vet or groomer’s. (Just know that you might end up with full custody of the canine once your child heads off to college.)

What’s the right dog for your family? Your local climate, favourite pastimes, and activity level should factor into your choice, says Howell. Families with a passion for sailing or watersports should look for breeds that enjoy the water; if you or your teen wants to hike or run with your dog, don’t choose a toy breed or one that can’t handle heavy exertion. If your teen’s heart is set on a large, active breed or a puppy, plan to commit hours to training, socialization, and exercise. And don’t overlook an older dog as a companion for a busy teen, says Howell. “Sweet, lazy old dogs are the most underrated and overlooked adoptable dogs!”

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is “Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades”.