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.

Ruff Love (Part II): Meeting Dogs Who are Bashful or Bold

This dog is approaching with soft eyes, a relaxed mouth, floppy ears, and a tail held below spine level. Let's connect!
This dog is approaching with soft eyes, a relaxed mouth, floppy ears, and a tail held below spine level. Let’s connect!

We recently talked about why it is important to let a dog approach you to initiate interactions rather than sticking out your hand. But what if the dog doesn’t approach you? Since we are all grown-ups here, I know you will accept in mature fashion the answer to that question: Tough noogies.

By not approaching you, the dog is saying, “No thank you, I don’t want to get closer to you right now.” As a true dog lover, a person who takes the feelings of others into account, and an all-around sophisticated type with the latest information on dogs, you will no doubt find it easy to respect what the dog is saying. If you think the dog is “fine,” click here to learn many of the signs a dog is uncomfortable with you in their space. If you are very interested in the dog, or if it feels socially awkward not to touch the dog, just talk to the person about the dog instead. Like so:

“How old is your dog?”

“What do you like to do for fun together?”

“Where did you get that cool collar?”

“Oh my goodness, your dog is so adorable!” That’s handy for little dogs being held and therefore unable to make the choice. Obviously the person will say, “Go ahead, you can pet him! Pet him!!!” This means they love their dog, but they are not yet hip to the scene. You can say you’d prefer to pet him when he’s on the ground so he can choose to approach you. 

“Wow, your dog is really beautiful. He reminds me of a dog I once had.” That works nicely for dogs being asked by their person to hold a stay position, or being held back by the collar.

The surprise twist to this is that, when you choose not to encroach on the dog’s space, he or she is likelier to approach you. I have lost count of the times someone has said to me, “Wow! My dog never gets near anyone, he must really like you!” I explain I did not sprinkle magic dog trainer dust on him. I just didn’t mow him down physically and emotionally. It is truly funny to see the look of surprise and curiosity on some dogs’ faces when they encounter their first polite human.

What if your dog never seems to want to approach anyone?DSC_0244

Most dogs are not even given a chance to make the choice. When someone asks permission to pet my dog I like to say, “That is so nice of you to ask! I really appreciate it,” which is true, and also buys my dog time to get comfortable with the person. Then I say, “The best thing to do is to stand where you are, with your hands at your sides, just like you’re doing. Bazooka prefers that. If she wants to be touched, she’ll come to you on her own. Then you can pet her, under her chin, like this.” And I demonstrate.

If at any point the person disregards your advice, just call your dog to you cheerfully, or step away with her a step or two, cue a nose touch to your hand, or, in very close quarters, face the person and step smoothly and suavely between your dog and the person. I do this with a huge smile on my face as I say, “My dog needs much more space than this. Thank you so much, we’re just going to go over here.” If you have a dog who is truly easy-going, consider swooping in and popping a treat in her mouth in the middle of the interaction, so she’ll have an extra pleasant association with the experiencing a close-talker. (It’s a  good insurance policy for future encounters, even if she seems ok in the moment.) Otherwise, skip the treat and create space.

It helps to practice your spiel before you need it in real life, with a friend or in group training class. Have fun with it. Try out different personas and different exit strategies. When practicing the ABC’s of Dog Safety and Respect, with kids or adults, sometimes the dog’s owner or the dog should say “no” so the humans learn accept not being able to pet the dog without any hard feelings.

If your dog is bashful, or worried about being touched, choose from these strategies:

  • A nose touch to your hand. It provides fun, focus and good feelings in the presence of the stranger.
  • A nose touch with the other person, then call your dog to you. First practice with family and friends your dog loves.
  • Favorite tricks (like spin or sit pretty). This keeps your pooch happy and the person is likely to be delighted and keep their hands to themselves.
  • Relax on a mat (using very high value rewards) so that pose becomes a position of safety and security when you need to chat with someone. Be prepared to step between your dog and an incoming Ms. Grabby McGrabbenheimer.
  • Work on body handling exercises with you, friends, and then less familiar people so your dog gains confidence with people’s hands coming at him or her.
  • Watch for common signs of stress (looking away, lip licking, yawning, still or stiff body, closed mouth, furtive glancing) and call your dog to you when you see them building. 
  • You needn’t coax, reassure or apologize for your dog, or tell him or her, “Go say hi, you silly thing.” There is no need to feel embarrassed or try to convince your dog to go up to someone, either with the leash or a bribe (like getting the stranger to hold out a treat, which I do not recommend). Just work on a training plan, ideally with a skilled trainer so it’s customized, and proceed at your dog’s pace.

Why is a sit-stay for petting not a good idea?

Perhaps your dog goes hoppin’ wild when he meets people, either out of happiness or out of nervous energy (very common and often misinterpreted as happy). Someone might have advised you to make the dog hold a stay while people pet him. After all, it’s no good for people to be knocked down or to feel unnerved by a rambunctious pooch. But we need a better solution than taking away the dog’s ability to communicate with his body language. To recap the last blog entry, a dog is not a coffee table. The dog should have a say in who touches him or her. Besides, if your dog is feeling hyped up, making him hold a stay likely adds to his stress. Why do that to him when there are alternatives?  Some ideas:

  • Teach your dog to calmly sit while the humans are chatting, and then be calmly released on cue like “say hello” to approach the person.
  • Teach her to do a nose-touch with strangers’ hands or shoes and then call your pooch back to you before she gets wound up.
  • Sprinkle treats on the ground for your dog to hoover up while you chat with someone.
  • For dogs who truly love to be touched all the live-long day, teach them to stand with all four paws on the ground so at least they can step away or back up if the tides change and they need to create space for themselves.
  • Teach your dog to relax on a mat even under very exciting circumstances, so he or she can hang out while you talk with someone.

There is a lot of stuff in Puppy Savvy about how to do this, including detailed training instructions for a nose touch, calm greetings, sit stays and other games for any age dog who is bold or bashful. Watch this nine second video showing baby Logan in training. You can see him about to launch himself at the person, but when offered a chance to nose touch the person’s hand, he chooses that instead.

What skills do you train to let your dog know he or she can approach without jumping? What maneuvers or phrases do you use to allow your dog space or protection from incoming hands or bodies? What have you discovered doing the five-dog challenge? (All the cool kids are doing it: The next five times you see a dog you’d like to touch, try just standing still, and see if the dog comes up to you.)

Tune in for the final installment of the Ruff Love series in which we address the question, “My job requires I touch dogs whether they approach or not, because I am a veterinary professional/animal control officer/groomer/shelter worker. What am I supposed to do then, Miss Smartypants Very Fetching lady?”

Ruff Love: How to Create a Canine Connection

Ruby is approaching with her ears loosely back, soft eyes, and low, wide-sweeping tail. "Let's connect!"
Ruby is approaching with her ears loosely back, soft eyes, and low, wide-sweeping tail. “Let’s connect!”

Alrighty, before I start today’s topic I have got to tell you about a ginormous, bonus offering on dog training books. (Just skip this sentence if you are eager to get to the blog post. I mean, who has time for chit chat in this zany, fast-paced world?) Until midnight tonight, Monday, November 4th, you can get 40% off Puppy Savvy and Happy Kids, Happy Dogs (and all other books) at Lulu.com. Just enter coupon code FALLSALE40 at checkout.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I was recently asked how a person, especially a child, should approach a dog. Naturally that is a trick question. Anyone who wants to interact with a dog should be waiting for the dog to approach them. This begs the following six questions:

1. What the heck are you talking about?
2. What if the dog doesn’t approach me?
3. What if the dog is prevented from approaching me because the owner has asked the dog to hold a position like a sit-stay, or is holding the dog by the collar or in their arms?
4. What if my dog goes bananas around people and therefore I purposefully prevent the dog from approaching others by having the dog hold a stay?
5. What if I have a dog who never voluntarily approaches people?
6. What if people don’t give my dog a chance to approach before reaching toward him or her?

I think it might be fun and useful to take on each of these questions in a blog series. What better timing than right before the holidays, when people and dogs are packed so tightly in each other’s space they might as well be stuffed into one of those little clown cars.

Let’s jump right in and start with the first question…

What the heck are you talking about?

As you can tell by my ABC’s of Dog Safety and Respect I am not only an advocate (as are other modern dog trainers) of asking the dog’s person whether it is okay to touch their dog, but I’m also an advocate of asking the dog. If you see a dog you’d like to greet, here is the way to do it: 

Ask permission of the person.

Be a tree in order to ask permission of the dog: With hands at your side, stand and wait for the dog to approach you.

Chin or chest is where you should pet.

Fight the urge to stick out your hand (presumably in an effort to allow the dog to sniff you). That is outdated advice. As in, using-leeches-to-treat-a-fever outdated. The dog has already smelled you. He or she can smell you from Coney Island, trust me. When you stick out your hand, you are making a rude gesture to the dog. “Rude in what way?” you may be thinking.

Rude like so: Imagine I just introduced you to a pal of mine, and she said hi and then went right in toward your neck with both hands and straightened out your crumpled collar. “Whoa! Easy there, well-meaning new friend!” you’d be thinking. On one hand, she has kind intentions, but on the other hand, she doesn’t pause to imagine how you would feel about her actions. Think how differently you would feel if she said, “It’s so nice to meet you. I notice your collar is rumpled; would you like me to fix it?” She has just invited you to be an active participant in the interaction. If you want to make a connection with her that is more on the intimate side, you might well take her up on it. If you’d rather wait to get to know her a bit before having her adjust your clothes, you will appreciate how thoughtful she is and just fix it yourself. By asking you first, she may well have earned your trust right off the bat, instead of alienating you by coming on too strong. Maybe, just maybe, she will become one of those rare you’ve-got-parsely-stuck-between-your-teeth friends.

If you’ve always extended your hand toward dogs and swear you’ve made zillions of dog buddies this way, please consider this: When you choose to reach toward the dog’s nose you are proving that there is a gap between you wide enough to allow a reach. That means the dog has not come up to you voluntarily. What might the dog be saying by hanging back a bit? (Dramatic pause for reflection.) Are you willing to listen?

It is polite, respectful, safer, and compassionate to wait for the dog to approach you, and here’s why (here comes the rough love portion of the post). Wanting to show your affection for dogs is a wonderful, wonderful thing. You may want to touch a dog because that makes you happy. Or maybe you are taken with a particular pooch. Or you want your child to feel comfortable with animals, or your child is desperate to touch the dog in front of you. These reasons are all perfectly understandable. However, and this may be difficult to acknowledge at first, none of those reasons is more important than the dog’s feelings. Remember, the dog has few options due to being on a leash, tethered, in a small space, or otherwise confined. If you fail to ask the dog, but instead just move in using old timey moves like sticking out your hand or patting the dog on the top of the head, you are invading the dog’s space and starting off your encounter with a fairly rude (and also potentially unsafe) maneuver.

Ask yourself: Would you want someone touching you (or your child) just because they feel like it, or because your child is (or you are) super cute? How about if you were saying, “No, I need my space,” loud and clear to the grabby person, and they touched you anyway? Even worse! And then there’s the awful ripple effect you could create: Do you want your child to learn that “I wanna!” is a good enough reason to touch others who are saying “no?” That thought should give you the heebie jeebies. No person should get to touch someone just because they really, really want to.

Dogs have their reasons for sometimes not wanting us to get close and touch them. And that should count. We should listen. And we should show our love in ways that take the other’s feelings into account. We should also teach kids to listen and to care about how others feel. We are all connected, and the more we practice paying attention to that, the better off we will be. This “ask and listen” practice may seem like no big deal at first glance, yet thinking of others this way is so powerful that it can change our world.

What do you think about doing an experiment the next five times you see a dog you’d like to touch? Would you be willing to try just standing still, and seeing if the dog comes up to you? If you’re even the least bit curious, give it a try! I would love to hear what you experience.

Tune in next time when we see grown adults have massive meltdowns on the sidewalk, trying to cope when dogs do not approach them, and we answer the question, “What if the dog doesn’t approach me?

“What if a dog pees on you?”

“What if a dog pees on you?” that is one of the questions an audience member posed to me during the Q&A portion of a presentation I gave yesterday.IMG_1660 In fact, all of the audience members, the first graders at Rashkis Elementary School, were attentive and asked me a lot of great questions. I was part of a speaker series featuring community helpers. I described my job by saying that dogs have feelings and thoughts, but they don’t have words; my job is to help people teach dogs some words, and to help people understand better what dogs are trying to say to us. I told them how important it is to be gentle and safe with dogs. For example, they should never touch a dog who is eating out of a bowl, who is lying down, or who has something in his or her mouth. What if the dog has your homework in his mouth? “Ask a grown-up for help.”

We talked about our dogs at home, at our friend’s house, and in our neighborhood, and how to be respectful of dogs so they don’t become frightened or upset, which can lead to a bite. We covered the ABC’s of Dog Safety, and Buddy the Dog helped demonstrate the right way to pet a dog. Several of the children had been previously taught to extend a hand for a dog to sniff.I explained that this is outdated, old-timey advice. And that’s ok, we learn new and better ways to do things all the time. I asked the children if it’s ok to cough into our hands. (You would have thought I had asked them whether it was ok to start a forest fire!) “No!” they exclaimed, and showed me how to cough into my elbow. So I compared that old advice about preventing the spread of germs to the old advice about sticking our IMG_1651hands in a dog’s face. Now we know better; the dog can already smell us, it is better to just stand still, and if the dog approaches us, pet him under the chin or on the chest. If he doesn’t approach, don’t touch.

One little boy asked me, “How do you train a dog?” (Some of the teachers really perked up for that one.) I told him we make a list of all the things the dog really likes. Then we show the dog what we want him to do. When he does what we want, he gets surprised with something he really likes, so that he will soon do the thing we want any time we ask. Buddy demonstrated (sort of, he’s not very bendy) how we would train a dog to sit by rewarding him with a treat. I then asked the little boy what his favorite thing was. “Pepperoni!” was the reply. And then he agreed he would be happy to clean his room if he got pepperoni as a reward for doing so. I can’t help wondering what his parents must have thought when he reported about his day: “The community helper said if I clean my room you will give me pepperoni.” Of course I would not want to bribe a dog to train him; rewards are what effective dog training is all about. But I may have to wait for the kids to hit second grade before I explain the difference.

I think little kids ask the most profound questions. It was so much fun to spend time with all of them, to see their art work on the walls, to hear about their dogs at home, and to think back to how much I enjoyed learning as a kid, and still do every day. I swear I have the best job in the world.

Oh, and if a dog pees on you, you will need a new pair of shoes.IMG_1664

ABCs of Dog Safety at Fox 50 Family Fest

What a fun crowd! Dozens and dozens of kids and their parents visited the Durham Regional Hospital booth, where Buddy the Dog and I taught them the right way to meet a dog. Each time a child was able to state the ABCs of Dog Safety and role playIMG_1632 them with me and Buddy, they earned a sticker, a hand stamp, or a toy for their dog at home. And I got to hear stories from kids about how they had been bitten by dogs, about their favorite dogs, and about their dog friends at home, like China the red nosed pitbull and the blue heeler rescued from the shelter. I even learned how to ask, “May I pet your dog?”  in Chinese. One of the babies pictured in Happy Kids, Happy Dogs visited the booth with his parents and younger brother; how time flies. Older kids and their parents got a kick out of reading Don’t Lick the Dog, and soon I will contact the winner of the raffle of Happy Kids, Happy Dogs.

If you didn’t have a chance to stop by the booth, here are the ABCs of Dog Safety:

Ask permission.

Ask, “May I pet your dog?” before you touch a dog. Always ask, even if you know the dog and even if you think the dog looks friendly.

Be a tree.IMG_1635

Stand still with arms at your side. If the dog does not come closer, do not touch. If the dog comes close to you, then the safest place to pet is the chin or chest.

Chin or chest is where you should pet.

Do not hug or kiss a dog or hold your hand out toward his nose (the dog can already smell you). Those motions can scare a dog and lead to a bite. If the dog comes close to you, stroke under the chin or on the chest. If he doesn’t come close, count his spots or admire his collar, but don’t touch.

It was an all-around great day. Next year I hope to make it over to the face painting booth…