Toddlers and Dogs: Realistic Strategies for Their Safety and Your Sanity

My toddler and one of our dogs.

Toddlers and dogs. There are few things more adorable, especially when they're snuggled up together or romping around the yard. There is a plethora of information out there about how to keep toddlers safe around dogs, and vice versa, but I haven't found much information that was written by a dog training professional who actually has a toddler and a dog.

As a professional dog trainer and the mother of an almost-2-year-old (and another baby due soon!) and two dogs, my goal here is to provide safety strategies for toddlers and dogs that are realistic, maximize safety for your family, and also preserve what's left of your sanity.

Learn to read your dog.

As a toddler parent, this might just be the most important information you learn about dogs.

While we often think of growling, snapping, and biting as the biggest signs of a dog being uncomfortable around a toddler, they actually give us so many other signals. Some of them are so subtle that you'd absolutely never notice them if you weren't looking for them.

Here are some of those low-level stress signals you may see when toddlers and dogs are together:

  • Lip licking. It looks like a very quick flick of a dog's tongue, and it's one of the most common, but most subtle, stress signals you may see from your dog. You'll typically see it during a toddler/dog interactions like hugging, kissing, or bumping into one another.
  • Yawning. Believe it or not, yawning is a very common sign of a dog being uncomfortable! It's a subtle way that a dog may attempt to diffuse a stressful situation, but it's commonly mistaken for a dog being tired. Watch for this during interactions.
  • Avoidance Behaviors. If your dog is trying to walk or turn away from your toddler repeatedly, allow them that space, and redirect your toddler onto another activity. You may have to physically separate the two if your toddler is extra-persistent!
  • Whale Eye. This is a fancy term for a very specific look you'll see in the eyes of an uncomfortable dog. They'll typically be turned away from the child, but still staring back at them with a tense body. You'll notice that you see a significant portion of the whites of the dog's eye, hence the name.
  • You can find some excellent visual representations of these body language cues below, courtesy of Lilli Chin.
dog body language

Don't fall into the blind trust trap with toddlers and dogs.

The worst bite to a child I've ever seen was delivered by a golden retriever. The child was badly bitten in the face, to the point of requiring surgery. His mom told me that she didn't think it could happen because of the dog's breed.

Put simply, there is no dog of any shape, size, breed, or temperament that is not capable of biting under the right circumstances.

Trust the body language you're seeing from the dog in front of you, and use that objective information instead of the inherent bias you might have towards your dog's friendly demeanor. You just cannot blindly trust any dog to never, ever show an aggressive response.

And most importantly: you simply cannot, under and circumstances, leave a dog and toddler unattended. It is especially critical that dogs not have access to a room with a sleeping infant or child.

"My dog would never…" is a mindset that could really backfire on you and your child.

Set consistent boundaries with your toddler.

While a big part of safety with toddlers and dogs falls on management of the dog, there's also a toddler-teaching component that I don't think gets talked about enough.

Toddlers, especially those under 2 years of age, require extra monitoring around dogs. They're often mobile, loud, and may grab, slap, squeeze, and hug dogs if given the opportunity. They also don't have the physical or emotional level of development to understand what's appropriate behavior around a dog, and what isn't. If you're struggling with your toddler's emotional regulation, Big Little Feelings is an excellent resource to check out.

So as the parent, it's your (exhausting) job to monitor every dog interaction as your toddler develops, redirecting your little one right as (or ideally, right before) they begin to get too rough with the dog.

Model gentle petting for them, and help redirect any hard pats into softer, gentler strokes. Praise them big time when they get it right! Pair this with a word or phrase like "gentle" or "gentle pets" and make it a fun game for your toddler.

Any rough petting, hitting, slapping, face or tail-grabbing, or other not-so-appropriate behavior should be immediately interrupted and redirected into something else, even if you need to separate the child and dog. There's no need to punish your child, and doing so can actually exacerbate the issue.

Remain calm, consistent, and use phrasing like "I won't let you hit Rover. Hitting hurts. Let's go play with your toys instead."

Give yourself, and your dog, a break.

I can't emphasize enough how important this is. As both human and dog parents, we all simply need a break from time to time. Think about that first time you got to enjoy a quiet dinner without your kids, or took a hot shower without anyone interrupting you.

We love our children, but we all need a break from the rigorous demands of toddlerhood.

Our dogs need those same breaks.

As toddlers start walking, they may bump or fall into a dog in the home. They may become louder, will start to experience different emotions, and will become an overall bolder presence in your home.

Despite our child having two professional dog trainers as parents, even we could not always perfectly manage the interactions between our toddler and dogs. So please, don't expect perfection from yourself!

Instead, consider some of these options to give your dog a break, and to give yourself a break from constant management:

  • If you have a family member that can give your dog a "vacation" away from your home for a week or two, this can be hugely refreshing for a dog that's struggling with a toddler! (Especially if your kiddo is going through an extra-grabby phase or starting to throw things)
  • Social dogs may benefit from 1-2 days a week of doggie daycare.
  • Create a decompression area for your dog that can't be accessed by your toddler. Fill it with favorite toys, chews, a comfy bed, and consider feeding their meals in there as well. All you need is a baby gate or a play pen for this!
  • Try to find a way to give your dog some one-on-one time when your toddler is sleeping; even just a 5-minute training session or a game of fetch can provide a bit of relief.

Provide safe opportunities for toddlers and dogs to spend time together.

When toddlers and dogs are together, we want these interactions to be fun for everyone! Depending on the size and temperament of your dog and the age of your toddler, here are a few things to try:

  • Let your toddler "help" with feeding time. This might mean just holding a food scoop, dropping a few pieces of food in the bowl, or holding the bowl while you scoop the food. Then be sure to help them understand that dogs must be left alone while eating!
  • Have your toddler feed your pup a special treat that only they are allowed to give him or her.
  • Older toddlers can make great buddies for playtime, especially throwing a ball!
  • We love teaching the "touch" cue to toddlers and dogs – this is an easy and fun way to get even young kids involved in the training process.

Recognize when to seek help.

Dog aggression towards children of any age warrants immediate professional guidance. There is simply no room for error, especially when infants and toddlers are involved, as even a mild-to-moderate bite can be both physically and emotionally devastating to a young child.

If your dog appears to stalk or stare at your child (not in play), has growled, snapped, or bitten, or if you are seeing a concerning amount of stress signals from your dog, please seek one-on-one professional guidance!

We offer both virtual and in-person dog training, and are happy to help with any toddler/dog issues you're experiencing, or can direct you to a referral in your area. Contact us for help.

For more training guidance, check out the rest of our blog here.

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