Dog safety for kids: What parents need to know

Here's what parents should teach their kids about dog safety. (Getty Images)
Here's what parents should teach their kids about dog safety. (Getty Images) (© Monika Halinowska via Getty Images)

Maybe your family has a dog, or you visit friends and relatives who do. But even if you aren't pet owners or around animals on a regular basis, your child is bound to cross paths with a dog — leashed, unleashed, service animals and so on — while out on a walk, at the park or even while shopping or dining. It's hard to predict how your child or the dog in question will feel or react in the moment — frightened? eager to play? — which is why it's crucial for parents to do their part by teaching basic safety guidelines.

“Even if your family does not have a dog, it would not be unusual for a child to encounter a dog at some point,” Aimee Hoflander, a staff educator and facility dog handler at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, tells Yahoo Life.

Depending on their size, dogs may feel threatened by young kids who are at eye level, and toddlers can be especially scary and unpredictable for animals. What's the best way to keep everyone safe? Ahead, experts share the rules of basic boundaries around dogs and tips for teaching even the smallest of kids safe behavior.

Learn basic dog safety boundaries

First and foremost, parents and caretakers need to understand basic dog safety boundaries themselves, says Hoflander. These include:

  • Always ask the handler if you may pet or approach their dog

  • Pet a dog in the direction from their shoulder toward their tail

  • Do not pet the top of the dog's head

  • Speak in a low voice and move gently to help dogs feel safe

  • Never approach a dog if you have food in your hand or pocket

A fundamental dog safety boundary for children to know is, “If the dog says ‘no,’ we go play with something else,” Amanda Farah, a national training and behavior coordinator at Best Friends Animal Society, tells Yahoo Life. “Trying to move away, leaning away and turning their head away from something are all ways they say ‘no, thank you.’ A safer way to interact with dogs is to invite a dog to come into our space rather than going into theirs.”

Start teaching these skills to babies

Teaching your child boundaries around dogs can begin “as early as 6 months old, when babies start to model our interactions,” Jennifer Shryock, the founder and director of Family Paws Parent Education, tells Yahoo Life. “We can teach them to wave or blow a kiss to the dog, but not approach.” She recommends narrating what a dog is doing to help children learn why we cannot approach strange dogs.

And watch your baby’s hands, adds Hoflander. “Babies often grab hair, so the adult should keep a close eye on the baby’s hands and keep them from grabbing the dog’s hair.”

Model dog safety as a parent

“Modeling and continually reinforcing [safe] behavior is very important,” says Farah. “If I see a dog in public with my child, I might say, ‘We’re strangers to that dog. I wouldn’t like it if a stranger ran up and hugged me. I’d be scared. How about you?’”

Narrating and dictating what’s OK is essential too. “Instead of allowing our child to toddle up to an unfamiliar dog, we can stay close to them and dictate what we should do,” Elysia Ostrander, a Family Paws parent educator, says. Parents should role-play safe and good interactions with a stuffed dog by teaching children to “blow a kiss, ask for a trick or offer a wave to the doggy, but not approach.”

Be a 'doggy detective' together

Shryock recommends families play “doggie detectives” to teach growing kids to observe a dog’s body language. Help kids look at the ears, eyes, tail and muzzle to detect how the dog feels. For example, say things like, “I see Fido is licking his lips and turning away from us; I think he’s telling us he doesn’t want us to approach him. Let's give him a wave and some space.”

“If the dog is loose, wiggly, approaches on their own and we know they are interested in interacting, we may try ‘Pet, Pet, Pause’ where the pause gives the dog an option to move away and end the interaction,” she recommends. “If they stay, we can do another round, always giving them a choice to remain in the interaction or to opt out of it. The dog should always be invited over to interact and always have a moment to be able to end the interaction if they do not feel comfortable.”

If you see that the dog wants to interact, children should only pet with one hand, she adds. “Tell them, ‘One hand enough, two hands too rough.’”

Special rules for service dogs

Many people with disabilities, including those that are not apparent, rely on service dogs to help them move through the world, which is why giving them space and respect is paramount. “The best rule for service dogs is to completely leave them to their work,” says Farah.

“Talk to your kids about service dogs and how they have very special jobs that help their people,” adds Ostrander. Though they aren't required to do so by the Americans with Disabilities Act, many service dogs wear a vest, patch, tag or special harness indicating their role. Parents can use these signals to help kids recognize service dogs: “This one has a neat vest on and says he is working hard. We don't want to disturb them.”

Parents must supervise before age 4

Around age 4, most children develop the two critical skills necessary when interacting with dogs: self-control and empathy, says Farah. “Before that time, there is no substitute for supervising and monitoring interactions for everyone’s safety. Around 4, we can start talking to them about how the dog might feel when we do certain things, much in the same way that we’d teach lessons about being kind to people.”

You don’t want babies and toddlers interacting with unfamiliar dogs, says Shryock. “Toddlers are very unpredictable, and most dogs find that uncomfortable. Guiding any interactions is recommended until a child is at an age where they can reliably and consistently follow directions.”

What NOT to do when it comes to dog safety

One major thing to avoid: "Don’t chase dogs who are moving away from you,” says Farah.

Additionally, Hoflander says that children must learn that most dogs do not enjoy hugs. “It can be tempting for humans to hug a dog because it is a common way to show affection, but this is very uncomfortable for many dogs," she notes. Kids (and adults) should also take care to not scream loudly around dogs they don't know, and to lower their voice if a dog owner says the noise (or any other behavior) is upsetting their pet.

And if parents feel uncomfortable in a situation — like walking past the house down the street with the snarling dog out front, or visiting a playground where owners are letting their dogs roam without leashes — it's OK to avoid the area. Trust your instincts!

The takeaway

Ultimately, keeping kids safe around dogs (and vice versa) requires participation from both dog owners and parents. “It’s everyone’s responsibility,” says Shryock. “As a dog owner, it is your job to advocate for your dog, know their thresholds and tolerances and do not hesitate to say no, walk away or put yourself between your dog and the child if necessary.”

But the burden doesn't fall on them. Shryock adds, "Just as it’s a parent's responsibility to make sure their kids don’t run into traffic, it's our responsibility to teach them how to be safe around dogs.”