What is the best dog for my kids?


There is enough love to go around. (Photo by Jabrina Robinson.)

Have you decided to add a dog to your family? You may be wondering what the best way is to go about it. To be honest, there is no magic formula to ensure you will get the perfect dog. Much about the outcome is not under your control. Life is interesting that way! I think it’s important to acknowledge that in order to take some pressure off you, your dog, and your family. Having said that, I also think your wise efforts before, and after, you choose your dog can stack things in your favor for happy relationships and safety.

With that in mind, look for the following qualities when you visit with doggie candidates you are considering.


Why it’s so important:

  • A dog who prefers to be close to children is likeliest to be a safe, fun companion.
  • One who voluntarily wants to be in the kids’ space is less likely to take offense when one of them gets on her nerves.
  • You’re likelier to bond with a people-oriented dog and therefore help her with training challenges that crop up.
  • A dog who loves to connect with people will be a joy to include in family activities.

What does friendliness look like? If your doggie candidate enjoys toys, romps with another dog, or has an adorable appearance, it may look like friendliness because those things make us smile. However…

  • The key is to look for a dog who approaches your kids and maintains contact with them.
  • Look for loose, open body language and a tail held at spine level or lower.
  • Pet the dog and then stop, and have your child do the same. A friendly dog will ask for more by stepping closer.

No matter where you get your dog, friendliness should be the top priority.


Ideally your new family dog will be a young adult, about 1-2 years old (or older).

  • Parents with young kids usually find it stressful to housetrain a puppy, teach him or her to accept confinement, learn the right things to chew on, and how to sleep through the night.
  • It is challenging to teach children to interact gently and safely with a teething, energetic puppy.
  • By selecting a more mature dog, you’ll be able to see the dog’s grown-up personality when you meet, making a successful match that much likelier.

Settles down easily

Children have a lot of energy, come and go throughout the day, and have emotional ups and downs. When evaluating a dog, run around, play with a toy, or lavish the dog with excited attention for a couple of minutes. Choose a dog who simmers down when you become quiet.

Attentive to you outside

Interact with the dog outside. If the dog pulls moderately on the leash, training can turn that around. But if the dog fails to check in with you (without you coaxing), tunes you out when you try to get his attention, gets the leash twisted into a spiral, nearly drags you over, or leaps and mouths incessantly, he or she will likely be a challenge to integrate into your family.

Relaxed around other dogs

Picture your new dog walking beside your kids as they tell you about their school day, and imagine how stressful this will be if your dog habitually barks and lunges at other dogs. Arrange a mock leash walk with a helper who will walk one or two different leashed dogs past you to see how your candidate reacts. Whether the barking is out of aggression or frustration, helping a dog overcome this issue takes more time and training than most people wish to invest. Choose from candidates who are more blasé about canine cousins they see coming down the pike.

Not overly possessive of food or toys

Snacks and toys are a normal part of family life, so choose a dog who is not upset by a person approaching or reaching for valued items. While you will coach your child not to do this, it is impossible to always prevent your child and dog from being interested in the same items.

It is risky to assess a dog for possessiveness, since he may escalate quickly from keep-away to a frozen, hunkered body posture, growling, snapping or biting. It is best to get professional assistance with this, or follow the tips in the book Successful Dog Adoption.

Easygoing about everyday situations

An easy going dog will take in stride household routines, play dates and outings. Try to assess how calm or jumpy your candidate is.

  • Drop an item like some keys when the dog is looking away.
  • Have someone knock and enter wearing a hat or holding an open umbrella.
  • Sit quietly and simply hold the dog by the collar for one minute.

Choose a dog who remains nonplussed by these common events.

Consider your children, too.

Are they rough-and-tumble or quiet? Do they typically follow instructions or do they have trouble following through? Try to match the personality of the dog such that he can enjoy your kids. If they are well matched, your job will be so much easier, and their friendship will be much likelier to flourish.

After You Bring Your Dog Home…

No matter which dog you choose, be a kid-canine coach. Successful kid-canine coaching requires that you:

1) Guide your child to respectful, kind behavior. That means no approaching the dog when he’s resting or chewing, and no imposing on his space by following him, sitting on him, or hugging him. Dogs may tolerate hugging, but unlike human family members, they rarely like it. Coach your child to play games like fetch and tricks, to read to the dog, and to show affection (when the dog solicits it) by kissing their palm and petting the dog on the chest. (If you find your dog is great and “will let the kids do anything,” read this.)

2) Monitor your dog’s signs of relaxation and tension. Loose, open body language, a partly open mouth, and choosing to be close to your child are good signs. Stiff body language, a tense mouth, or turning away from your child are signs you should separate them. This is Ruff Love. Otherwise your child may learn it’s okay to touch someone who is saying “no.” Your dog may defend himself when his pleas for space go unheeded.

3) Use a Safety Zone when it’s not a good time to coach their interactions.

Choose your dog wisely and be a kid-canine coach, and the friendship between your child and your new family member will be off to a dreamy start.

To blend a dog of any age into your family, see Puppy Savvy: The Pocket Guide to Raising Your Dog Without Going Bonkers. If it’s not yet time to get a dog, have fun with Don’t Lick the Dog in the meantime!


In good hands. (Photo by Celeste Huntington.)

The Best Dogs for Kids: Myths and Facts

Myth: It’s better to get a puppy.
Fact: You cannot raise a puppy to have a certain personality. Puppies are no more blank slates when they are born than people are.

Myth: Some dogs are hypoallergenic.
Fact: There is no such thing as a dog who poses no allergy risk. All dogs shed hair and dander, so talk with your doctor before getting a dog.

Myth: Certain breeds are better with kids.
Fact: You can’t judge a book by its cover. Certain personalities are better with kids. Get a friendly dog and teach your child the dos and don’ts.

Myth: Shelter dogs have too much baggage.
Fact: It is possible to get a really great or a really difficult dog or puppy from any source. Carefully assess any dog or puppy you’re considering, no matter the source.

Love It or Leave It

“Leave it” is a handy cue to communicate to your dog “it is none of your beeswax, leave it alone, period.” While it is pretty common for people to command, “leave it” at their dog in a threatening tone to get the dog to back off of something he wants, I would venture that those dogs are reacting to the tone of voice and don’t understand the words (try growling “rutabaga” in the same tone next time, and see what happens…).

Does it matter whether the dog understands the concept of leaving something alone on cue, as opposed to being scared into backing off? Maybe, maybe not. You’ll have to assess that for yourself, but here is some food for thought. There are times it is particularly important to get your dog to “leave it” without sounding threatening. For example, if your dog is approaching your baby, or thinking of going up to another dog, you probably wouldn’t want your dog to feel threatened or worried in either of those situations. You’d probably want him feeling relaxed, responsive, and capable of moving away on one, neutral, unemotional cue from you. Or on a “leave it” cue given by anyone in your family, even a child. Furthermore, you may prefer to tell your dog to “leave it” without having to keep after him. Ideally “leave it,” means to leave it alone, period, so that you can turn your back or leave the room, and your dog is not busy sorting out, “Is it safe or dangerous to go for it?” They are just happy to “leave it” without you repeating yourself or trying to catch them at something. That’s a much more reliable, practical state of affairs in my experience. And it means your dog can hang around you when you have guests over, appetizers at nose-level, because just the presence of something tempting can become part of the cue. It is very handy when “leave it” becomes the dog’s default behavior.

There are four steps to teaching “leave it.” This video shows the first two steps (the other two are putting the desirable item in more challenging places like the floor or a coffee table, and, finally, putting the behavior on verbal cue before working up to real-life scenarios). Things to know before you start:

  • In Step I you will present your dog with the temptation of treats held in your fist. The dog will try nudging, licking, pawing, and nibbling to get at the goodies. The object is to pay close attention so you will notice the instant your dog’s nose moves away from the temptation. And his nose will move away, if only an inch, if only for an instant. It is that voluntary withdrawal from the temptation that you will reward by saying ‘yes’ and feeding a treat from the opposite hand. What could be better than your dog volunteering to ignore items of great interest?
  • It goes very quickly. Even if you drop a treat or say ‘yes’ at the wrong time (I do each of those once in the video), it doesn’t matter, just keep going. Your dog will pick this up very fast, so be ready!
  • Use ho-hum treats in your “leave it” hand and super duper, really good treats in your reward hand. (In the video, my right “leave it” hand holds dog biscuits and my left hand holds tiny bits of meat as rewards.)
  • For Step II, you will hold a treat in your open palm, which your dog will go for (be ready!). When he does, say nothing. Do not withdraw your hand, but rather snap it shut like a clam.
  • Do not utter the words “leave it” for these first two steps. (You will not hear me say “leave it” in the video.) You would not want to pair the dog going for the food with the words “leave it,” right? Only when the dog understands that avoiding the desired item brings him rewards should you add the cue.
  • As a bonus, if you can keep the dog from sitting or lying down, that is optimal. In real life, the dog is usually up on all fours, moving about when we need a “leave it” cue. Possible scenarios might be on a walk and there’s something disgusting on the sidewalk, in the kitchen and you’ve just dropped a hunk of chocolate, or in the family room and your toddler is ambling by with a snack in hand. So if the dog sits during your “leave it” training, reward close to your body so he has to get up to get the reward. Or just back up and pat your leg before the next repetition. (In the video, the dog is sitting and even lying down at one point, partly because with such a tight camera angle I would have been out of sight had I backed up.)

That should be what you need to get started. Happy training!

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Despite the photo to the right, I have faith in humankind. It is time, though, to start collecting photos of kids and dogs engaging in happy, respectful interactions with each other. Anything from the “dos” list would do the trick. I also happen to have a few copies of Happy Kids, Happy Dogs: Building a Friendship Right from the Start that I got when the book first came out. I’ll send a signed copy to the first five people that submit photos that I can use for my collection. I’ll post your photoschildallowedtostandondog on the Top Notch Dog Facebook page, here on the blog, and as an email so as many people can see them as they see photos like the one to the right. Please email your photo to me and let me know the ages of both child and dog, and any other info you’d like to share about the photo. Dogs or puppies of any age welcome, pictured with babies or kids. (Hint: photos taken outdoors, and in which the child and dog take up most of the photo, are usually best.)

If there is anything about the photo to the right that bothers you, you may well already be coaching your child and dog through lots of appropriate interactions. But here are some ideas to get you started. These are all ways that are great for kids to interact with dogs; they encourage respect and empathy and allow adults to make sure things are going well. 

  • Watch adults interact with, touch and greet dogs in the safe, correct way 
  • Help an adult teach or show off the dog’s tricks (high five, spin, roll over, take a bow, go night-night, the list is endless!)
  • Help an adult teach or show off the dog’s obedience cues (sit, down, come, etc.)
  • Under adult supervision, offer gentle, slow petting on the side of the dog’s face and under the chin
  • Kiss their hand and then slowly pet the side of the dog’s face to “give” the kiss
  • Play find-it games under adult supervision
  • Help adult bake dog cookies
  • Help adult groom the dog
  • Help adult feed the dog
  • Help adult fill the dog’s water dish
  • Feed treats while adult grooms the dog
  • Help adult play fetch with the dog
  • Help adult take the dog for walks (adult holds the leash)
  • Sing quietly to the dog 
  • Count the dog’s spots, feet, ears, tail, eyes, and legs
  • Draw pictures of the dog

Why did the dog chase his tail?

Because he was trying to make ends meet.

Sorry, a little recession humor there. But in these times, besides trying to keep an optimistic outlook, it’s also good to come across a discount or two. So I am now offering a Friends and Neighbors service. Here’s how it works:

Buddy-up with someone you know for an hour of customized dog training at Top Notch Dog, LLC. You and your friend split the cost of the session, plus receive a 10% discount, so that each of you pays $45/hr instead of $100/hr. You, your friend, and your dogs will get a lot out of learning and practicing together. Give it a try! 

 Some of the common things people like to work on together include:TopNotchDogPupilsShowingOffTheirManners

  • walking politely on leash
  • coming when called
  • greeting visitors without jumping up
  • teaching “leave it” or “go to your place”
  • basic training (sit, down, stay, come)
  • advanced training (preparing for therapy dog work, or attention, motivation, or control work for dog sports)
  • all things puppy (biting, indoor accidents, chewing on your things, crate training)
  • tricks! (especially fun for kids)
  • preparing your dog for your new baby
  • paying attention to you even around another dog
  • other goals you may have that lend themselves to sharing an appointment (your goals do not have to be exactly the same)

Call 493-4560 or visit Top Notch Dog for more information.  

Please pass this on to anyone you think would enjoy a better behaved dog. Thanks!

Kids and Dogs (and their well-meaning parents)


You’ve probably seen the emails with photos of kids and dogs that make the rounds from time to time. The photos are supposed to be cute, but honestly, most of them make me shudder. If parents knew that children are those most often bitten, and that the dogs most often doing the biting are their own dogs, they might not put them both at risk for the sake of a photo. (For more information see the CDC information about dog bite statistics.) 

You may say, “But my dog would never bite my child. And he didn’t bite him when we took the picture.” You are not alone; nearly everyone whose child has been bitten has uttered those words. No one thinks their dog would bite their child. But just because you’d like to think it won’t happen, does not mean it won’t. In fact, your child and dog may be at greater risk because you are leaving things to chance instead of being proactive. (I tell the participants in my Baby Meets Bowser classes that I suspect they are less likely to have a bite event in their families just by signing up for the class; their awareness that they must be proactive and their willingness to learn what do do to help their child and dog put them ahead of the game.) See if you can identify what the dog above may not like about the situation he’s been put in, and how he is showing he is tense.dogscentmarkingbabycropped

unsafe1I have three objections to these sorts of photos. One is that the child is being allowed (sometimes encouraged) to engage in the wrong behaviors towards their dog. The  parents reward the child with attention, laughter, and even praise. The more the child gets in the habit of behaving toward the dog in these risky ways, the more comfortable she becomes, and the more likely it is she’ll repeat these behaviors. She is learning the wrong way to behave around dogs, and she will then behave that way not just with your dog, but with other dogs.

Second, the fact that the dog did not bite during the photo does not mean the dog likes to be touched or approached in the way captured in the picture. He may just be tolerating it. He may even be tense (often the dog has been commanded to lie down in an effort to pose the child and dog for the camera). He may give off warning signs, and then perceive that these are being ignored. Over time, as these  annoying or frightening encounters add up, the dog escalates his warning, and one day there is a bite. If you are not sure what things may frighten or annoy your dog, please see the list of dos and don’ts. Dogs also sometimes perceive infants as prey objects, so please don’t ever put your baby down on the floor with your dog as in the photos left and below. (The child below is also being allowed to crawl directly toward the dog at face-level, which is not a fair thing to do to the dog.) 


Finally, just because your child feels like touching a dog a certain way is not a good enough reason for allowing it. Most parents do not want to teach their child to ignore how his actions affect others. They want to teach their children lessons about empathy and about respecting others. Yesterday I was with a couple who had read Happy Kids, Happy Dogs, who knew the dog warning signs to look for and even what things their kids should not do to their dog. Yet I witnessed one child throw the leash at the dog when he was asked not to sit on the bed with the dog. Then the other child climbed into the dog’s bed, while the dog was resting there, and put his face up to the dog’s face. The parents lamented that they had explained the rules repeatedly to the children. I don’t doubt that, it’s just that they need a more effective approach. After all, parents find a way to make boundaries very clear to their children when it comes to touching a hot stove, hitting another child, throwing a rock at a cat, or running out into traffic. I am hopeful that these parents will no longer allow their children to engage in the “don’ts” with their dog and begin to encourage only the “dos.” Otherwise the dog’s warnings (turning away, yawning, stiffness, growling, and snapping) may soon give way to biting.


For your baby’s sake, learn to speak dog

I am just amazed at what well-meaning people allow their babies to do with their dogs. I really can’t blame them, they just haven’t yet learned the dos and don’ts. And they have no idea the dog has been stressed out by the child’s behavior all along. Until a bite happens.

At last night’s Baby Meets Bowser presentation, we spent a good portion of the evening learning what is a bad idea for babies and children to do with dogs. For example, despite what you may see on YouTube, please do not put your dog into a stay, and then allow your baby to crawl right up to them. That is putting them both in a vulnerable position, teaching the dog that the baby is a source of stress from which he cannot escape, and teaching the child bad habits that can lead to a bite. Is this fair to the dog or to the baby?

We also learned what some of the signs of stress are in dogs. When we humansstresssigns expect our dogs to tolerate anything we or our children do to them, dogs show warning signs that stress is building. The good news is that you can learn to “read” these early signs of stress. Then when you see the signs, you can get your dog out of the situation, coach your child more carefully next time, and therefore avoid being one of those 4.7 million people each year who really believes “the bite came out of the blue.”

The dog in this photo is showing some of the warning signs that come long before the obvious signs like a growl, a snarl or a snap occur. (I count six.) What is the human doing from the “don’ts” list that may be causing the dog to become stressed?

Baby Meets Bowser

I am looking forward to another Baby Meets Bowser presentation at Duke’s Teer House. We talk all about what to do to get your dog ready for a new baby, and how to help the growing baby and dog become friends.

I am always so amazed at the parents-to-be in the audience. They work hard, they’re probably tired, and they have a lot on their minds. But they love their dogs so much, and they already love the baby on the way, such that they are super motivated to get things started off on the right foot. I’ve also noticed over the last few years that people have gotten pretty savvy about dog behavior things that would not have been common knowledge just a few years ago. Pretty neat. I like to think it means people are starting to listen more to what their dogs are trying to tell them.

Besides lecture and Q&A, we use photos and video to learn about dog body language and how to see a bite looong before it happens. If you are interested or know someone who is, see below for the skinny. Can’t make it? Everything from the presentation, including the FAQ’s I’ve gotten over the years, is in Happy Kids, Happy Dogs: Building a Friendship Right from the Start.9781411672123_frontcover

Baby Meets Bowser

Learn how to prepare your dog for the arrival of your baby. 
Where: Duke Health’s Teer House (4019 N. Roxboro Road Durham, NC 27704) 
When: Tuesday, March 3, 2009 from 6:30-8 p.m. 
Cost: free 
To register: (919) 416-DUKE or www.dukehealth.org

If you plan to attend, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll keep your concerns in mind as I prepare the March presentation.