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.

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…

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

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.


What kind of dog is right for you?

True or false: a Labrador retriever makes a better family pet than a pit bull terrier. True or false: it’s better to start with a puppy than with an adult dog. True or false: a dog not raised in a loving home from the start probably has too much baggage to be adoptable.

Despite all the folklore and media hype, answering “true” to any of the above questions can result in adopting a dog who has serious behavior problems. Making blanket generalizations about a dog’s breed, background or age can be risky. Why? Because nature and nurture are both part of the formula for a dog’s personality, trainability and friendliness.sociablebodylanguage

I do a lot of behavior assessments at Top Notch Dog and of shelter dogs through my volunteer work at Saving Grace. I have assessed little, cute-looking puppies who nevertheless were already aggressive with humans, other dogs, and unsafe to place in a home. I have seen Labrador retrievers who threaten children and pit bulls whose worst fault is that they give too many kisses. The truth is that troubled dogs can come from conscientious homes or breeders. And a truly wonderful dog from tough circumstances is still a wonderful dog (even if they are from a shelter, a puppy mill raid, or an abandonment). 

Since stereotypes are not the best way to avoid disaster, what should the average person look for in their next canine companion? The key is not to make assumptions, but rather to evaluate each dog as an individual. Fortunately there are temperament tests developed for this purpose. Just like human personality tests, they have their strengths and limitations, but the one I use is especially helpful and the results tend to be predictive. It is called Assess-a-Pet® and helps match the right dog with the right family by focusing on the most important quality in a safe, trainable family companion: sociability.

A dog who is generally highly sociable with people, that is, one who is most interested in sustained, gentle, connections with people, is less likely to bite. After all, at some point people and dogs who live together will get on each other’s nerves. The kids may bug the dog, or the dog may test the patience of the adults. But if you have a truly sociable dog who prefers people over all else, the chance of a disagreement resulting in a dog bite are much slimmer.  A dog who is truly affiliative towards people is easier to train, easier to take care of, easier at veterinary appointments, and more fun to have around in general. This concept was first recognized, studied and understood by Sue Sternberg, a dog trainer and innovator in the field of animal sheltering who developed the Assess-a-Pet test (which itself has now been studied).

I remember assessing an adorable puppy who was being considered by a family for adoption. I recommended my clients not adopt the dog because the test revealed that he showed almost no signs of true sociability. Even the three year old daughter noticed his aloof behavior, and asked her mother why the dog didn’t like her. That is the sort of dog who is much more likely to bite.

Of course it’s important to consider breed and breed mix. After all, humans have created dog breeds because they wanted to create predictable traits. Just make sure you judge individual dogs not primarily on what they look like, what color or breed they are, who their parents were, or where they came from, but rather based on their degree of sociability with humans and other dogs, and you’ll be much more likely to end up with a loving, fun, safe companion.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, in my experience over the last 10 years, it is getting harder and harder to find such dogs. This is probably for a variety of reasons, including population density of humans, spay-neuter campaigns, shelter transfer programs, dynamics that drive purebred dog breeding, and the huge variety of reasons that people keep dogs in their lives and the preferences they have. Your best bet is to know what to look for, regardless of where you get your next dog. To learn how to identify sociability  and behaviors that may point to aggression down the line, read Successful Dog Adoption by Sue Sternberg. Happy Kids, Happy Dogs also has advice and photos of what to look for in your next family companion. Finally, you may find helpful the Links page of my website, which has a section called Choose the Right Dog. Good luck in your search!

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.