Parents with Toddlers

Parents With Toddlers Who Currently Own a Pet

Parents of toddlers know how greatly things change when a child becomes mobile. Suddenly, what was once harmless can pose a real danger to your child's safety. Even the friendliest family pet can be a danger if parents don't take the right precautions and teach their children as early as possible how to safely interact with pets.

Most problems that arise between a dog and a child occur when the child reaches the crawling and walking stages. When the child starts to toddle, the pet might feel threatened. What was previously a little being that mom or dad carried around is now living and moving in the dog's floor-level realm. Pets often don't know how to read the new little human's strange behavior—flailing arms, invading the dog's space and sometimes accidentally falling on the pet.

Child-pet interaction

Toddlers and young children who are learning to walk and talk can learn a lot from very closely supervised interaction with the family pet. Try to involve your children in very simple dog care and training activities. It makes your pet a more well-mannered family member and teaches your child humane treatment and effective communication. Often, just the presence of your child in the same room while your dog is receiving his favorite things or activities can help build positive associations with children.

Here are some easy ways to involve your toddler in your dog's care:

  • Have your child help you feed the dog—children that have mastered some language skills can learn to give the dog the "sit" command before you put the bowl down. Small children can be taught to scoop food into the dog's food dish.
  • Let your child help brush the dog—as you hold the collar and feed him a few treats.
  • If the dog is small enough, teach your child how to properly pick him up.


A great way for a toddler to interact with pets in a positive way is through play. Allow your child to play supervised games that foster cooperation and control—games such as fetch with a football or Frisbee, blowing bubbles, hide and seek (with your dog finding the kids for a toy or treat), kicking a soccer ball around or learning fun tricks.

Many pets adore children and will withstand vast amounts of roughhousing, but it is best to begin setting limits on play. Avoid tug of war, wrestling, ear pulling, pony riding, toy hitting, fur grabbing, chasing and any rough play. All of these activities teach your dog to be rough with humans and to grab and bite. Do not allow any family member, including adults, to engage in rough play with your dog. Your dog will attempt to play those games with your children and the results will not be harmonious. Don't allow or train your dog to do anything that you would not want him to do with your own toddler.

If your dog is high-energy, exercise him yourself through jogging, biking or a hard game of fetch before he interacts with your children. If your dog becomes too excited during play, end the game immediately and try again later when your dog is calmer. Some dogs get excited and may even become more dangerous when children scream and run.  Teach your child appropriate safety behaviors around dogs.

Ensuring the safety of your children and pets

One to three years of age is a time of exploration and for putting things in the mouth. A pet who is possessive about his toys and food can be potentially dangerous to a child, so set ground rules from the beginning. Teach your toddler basic dog safety rules and never allow the dog and child to interact in an unsupervised environment. Work with your dog regularly until he understands and obeys signal words. For example, repeat "Easy, Easy, Easy" to your dog so he will know when it's time to be calm.

Teach your children not to take a toy out of a dog's mouth or to be near an animal when it is eating. Toddlers and crawling babies don't recognize the imaginary special boundaries that adults see. A child 6 months to one year old will grab at whatever is in his or her path, so ears and tails are targets. Children have to be carefully supervised around animals to avert any unexpected reactions. For the pet's sake and your child's safety, keep pet food and feeding areas away from crawling and toddling children. It's easy to maintain child-pet harmony by simply minimizing the chances of your pet's feeding time being unpleasantly interrupted.

Teach your children the possum stance. Children are small, move erratically, yell and generally act crazy. Most dogs either would like to chase them or become fearful of them. Teach your children that if a dog is chasing them, and possibly even barking, growling or nipping, to immediately stand still. Arms should be folded across their chest or over their face. Their voice should become soft or completely quiet. By doing this, your child instantly becomes a lot less interesting to the dog. Odds are the dog will calm down and go off to do something else in a matter of moments.

Teach your children to report to you whenever they hear the dog growling and it is clearly not during play. A growl is a warning that your pet is not okay with the immediate situation at hand. Unless your child understands to back away immediately, they could be bitten. If you hear your dog growling at any time other than playtime, consult a professional immediately. Aggression problems, unless addressed quickly, tend to get worse.

To ensure the safety of your children and your pet, hire babysitters that have experience with pets and carefully instruct them on how the child and the pet are allowed to interact.

Teaching your children to treat a pet respectfully

Teaching your toddler to respect animals, and your pets in particular, is a valuable lesson that will serve him across many aspects of his life. To toddlers, treating a pet with respect is as simple as the Golden Rule, but there are many ways to approach this.

Here's what you can do:

  • Read books about animals to your toddler to help him understand that pets have feelings too.
  • While your child is watching, rub your dog behind the ears, talking in a low soothing voice to your pet.
  • Demonstrate for your child how to approach a pet—slowly from the side.
  • Communicate off-limits behavior. Teach toddlers that tail- or ear-pulling, poking eyes or feeding a pet is not acceptable behavior and that a gentle touch is needed for petting.
  • However, teaching toddlers to "play gentle" can be challenging. Choose key words to communicate gentle behavior, like "Easy," "Gentle," or "Nice." Practice using the words with a toddler while demonstrating gentle behavior on a stuffed animal. Stroke the stuffed animal with the toddler's hand as you repeat the words.
  • Lead by example. The best way you can teach respect is to show respect for your dog yourself. Give your dog a place to retreat to when he has had enough human interaction or you cannot provide supervision. Your dog will need some daily time off from the children. Use an indoor crate that is off limits to the children or baby gate your dog into a safe room such as a kitchen or bedroom.


Children need to learn the rules.

Children need to learn the rules. Children should be taught to pet softly, stay away from food dishes, toys and bones and not to startle the pet when he is sleeping. All of these things can and should be done with the pet but only while you are there to supervise and once you have first trained your pet to enjoy and tolerate all of the above, using positive methods.

Child-pet respect is a two-way street. As much as your child is being taught to give respect, the pet must be taught to give it as well. The best way to ensure that your pet respects the family hierarchy (with the pet at the bottom) is to give your dog his own bed, on the floor and out of your child's bedroom. Letting your dog sleep with your children is not only unsanitary—it increases the risk of zoonosis—but it also relays a message to the dog that your child is a littermate. Littermates sleep together. Littermates get bossed around by being jumped on, pushed over, growled at, snapped at and finally bitten. You can protect your child by preventing your pet from viewing them as an equal. If your child insists on having the dog in their room, crate train your pet and put the crate in your child's room for sleeping only.

The importance of parental supervision

The normal sudden movements and high-pitched noises of a toddler may cause your pet to become overly excited or agitated. It is important to continue monitoring interactions carefully. Never leave a child, no matter what age, alone with a dog. Every dog bites under the right circumstances. Make adult supervision a strict rule in your household.

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