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.

Housetraining in Horrible Weather: A Tip to Help Your Dog Go Outside in the Snow

Little Ruby models her super-deluxe winter potty area.

Snow, ice and slush are not the most helpful ground covers if you’ve got a puppy to house train, or a diva dog who recoils at the thought of her tiny feet getting cold and wet. I can understand our dogs being too distracted to do their business, on our schedule, especially in extreme weather. But what to do?

One solution is to teach your pooch to go potty on cue. That helps when you want to take them out, get it over with, and return to the cozy indoors. (See Chapter 9 in Puppy Savvy for easy instructions on how to do this. Through 1/25 it’s 15% off with code JANSAVE15 at Lulu.com checkout.)

If you don’t have cardboard handy, a tarp or large trash bag will work.

A simple trick that you can start using today is to keep a preferred potty area dry by covering it with a sheet of cardboard before the frozen stuff accumulates. When it’s time to go out, just lift the cardboard and offer your dog a familiar, inviting spot to go. Clean up afterwards so your dog will continue to want to eliminate there.

Puppies form strong substrate preferences (surfaces that they seek out to pee or poop on) by about 9 weeks of age, so be sure to give your pup opportunities to eliminate in snowier areas, too. This is particularly important if you live in a climate where snow is a sure thing each winter.

Stay warm, and happy housetraining!

What to do with a Kong

(This puppy is licking goodies out of her Kong instead of fussing during down-time at puppy class.)

If you have a new dog, especially a puppy or teenage dog, I bet everyone is telling you to get a Kong. Dog trainers are wild about Kongs, your veterinarian may even sell them in the waiting room, and every pet store stocks them in all sizes.

But let’s be honest, you have looked at a Kong and wondered what the big deal is. Maybe you even purchased one and brought it home. You put it in front of your pooch expecting a small miracle to occur. But your dog just sniffed it and walked away. You can’t help thinking, “Now what? Why all the hype?”

The truth is, the Kong is just a hunk of hollow rubber, unless you start thinking like a dog. Dogs like games and puzzles that engage their amazing brains. They need to use their powerful sniffers, their paws, and their jaws to scavenge and extract food from tricky places. The Kong is designed to make all of this physical and mental challenge happen in a way that does not involve your furniture, rugs, shoes, undies or other potential objects of fascination.

If your dog could talk, he or she would ask you to please stuff the Kong parfait-style: some smelly, gooey stuff in the tip (like cheese or peanut butter), layered with some kibble, then something globby like part of a banana, layered with a few dog biscuits or leftovers from last night’s supper (veggies are great, no cooked bones or toxic stuff, please), topped off with something easy to get started, like more peanut butter.

Now you’re on to something!

That should keep your dog quiet in the crate, or occupied while you prepare dinner or watch Dancing With the Stars (in which case you obviously cannot lower your eyes from the TV, even for a moment). You also get Good Dog Owner points for providing an outlet for your dog’s daily behavioral needs.

Fancy versions of this (because I know your dog is above-average smart):

  • Jam everything in as tight as possible by using the back of a knife
  • Prepare the Kong, then freeze it
  • Prepare the Kong, then nuke it for 15 seconds or so
  • Feed all regular meals as stuffed Kongs (use just a dab of PB mixed in to hold everything together)
  • Make multiple Kongs ahead of time (refrigerate) and hide them around the room/house before you leave

Yes, it’s gross, but your dog really will get every last morsel out (if not, adjust the difficulty by stuffing looser and using less goo). I put mine in the top rack of my dishwasher and, voila, they are sterilized and ready for another round. And I’ve had the same bloomin’ Kongs for 15 years.

If your dog has mack daddy chewing power, get the black Kong. If your dog is a girl, or boy, and color-coding is important to you, get the pink or blue Kong. But please, get a Kong. Your dog will love you for it. While your dog is munching away, please share your recipes, success stories and questions and comments below. There is likely another dog owner out there who would learn from your experience.

Should you get a new dog?

As the school year winds down, this is the time of year when many families think about adding a dog to their homes. Fortunately this works out most of the time, especially for those who know what they are getting into and have asked themselves a few important questions as they begin their search (for a complete list of questions and information on what to do next, see Open Paw). Sometimes, however, it doesn’t turn out so well. It ends up being the wrong fit, or the dog has serious behavior problems, or the family was not really prepared to get a dog. Here are some things to avoid and some things you can smilingdogdo to stack things in your favor:

Common pitfalls:

1. Rushing into it. The new dog could ideally be part of your family for 10-15 years, which is a huge commitment. Make sure you have the most up-to-date information on what to do. Slow down. Take your time. Use your mind as well as your heart. You won’t regret it if you do.

2. Letting pressure from someone else drive the process. A dog takes a lot of time, energy, money, and emotion to care for properly. Getting one for the wrong reasons, like guilt or pressure from a family member, the dog’s owner, or others, is no way to start off a successful relationship. (Note that children cannot be the dog’s primary caretakers, for reasons adults are not aware of until it is too late and they are up to their eyeballs in stress.)

3. Pity. Getting a dog mainly because you feel sorry for him is not the right way to start a healthy relationship. The dog or puppy you are considering might be the right dog for you, but it’s crucial to be sensible in evaluating him or her, or you could both end up regretting it. Learn what to look for, what to ask, and adopt the dog who would truly be the best fit for both of you.

Resources to help you succeed: 

Paws to Consider: Choosing the Right Dog for You and Your Family by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson. Honest descriptions of many breeds, mixed breeds and what you should know before you start looking. You might be surprised!

Successful Dog Adoption by Sue Sternberg. What to know before looking for a dog online or at a shelter, step-by-step instructions on what to do when you meet dogs and puppies, how to smoothly integrate the dog or puppy into your household, including housetraining and basic obedience instructions. A great resource regardless of where you plan to adopt or buy your dog.

Both of these books are very popular and available at most libraries. The Open Paw link above has free training advice, videos, and information on what to do before and after you get your new dog. For specific advice on how to find the right dog for children, see Happy Kids, Happy Dogs: Building a Friendship Right from the Start, also available at libraries. Happy searching!

Crate Training

Today is one of those days I’m glad my dog loves her crate. She is not a puppy, she has been house trained for years, and she doesn’t destroy anything in the house. But  boy am I glad I taught her to love her crate years ago, because today she needs to be in her crate. She injured herself while playing yesterday, and I have made an appointment for her to see her veterinarian today. In the meantime, she needs to rest comfortably and not move around.

Depending on what treatment she may need, she may have to spend time in a small cage at the vet clinic. safetyzone0004When you think about it, that’s very much like a crate. Yet another reason I am glad she feels relaxed about being confined to a small space like that; it will make her experience at the clinic that much more pleasant.

Finally, depending on what may be wrong, she may have to avoid activity for some number of days to come. And that means lots of time in her crate. But it won’t be a struggle and she won’t go stir crazy, because her crate is one of her favorite places. 

My dog is also used to riding in the crate in the car. This is safest for her (even a small fender bender could send her sailing through the windshield) and for me as the driver. For those with a baby or small children, the crate is the best place for your dog when you’re riding together in the car.

The crate also comes in handy when we visit friends and relatives, and we we stay in a hotel that accepts dogs. Because my dog likes her crate so much, I know she’ll be relaxed and at ease in the new environment because she can stay in her portable “room.” And I can avoid her getting into trouble or the embarrassment of her having chewed something up.

A crate can also double as a Safety Zone if you are have kids, if you are expecting visitors to your home who have kids, or if you are going to visit a household with children. Kids and their own dogs are in the highest risk group for dog bites (yes, they are at higher risk than postal workers or animal control officers), and a Safety Zone is an essential tool for decreasing the chances of a dog bite in your family.

Nowadays most people use a crate to house train a puppy or new dog, and to keep their pooch out of trouble when they can’t supervise. Crates are wonderful tools for both. Occasionally I encounter people who want to crate their dogs for hours on end, or who try to solve a serious problem like separation anxiety by keeping their dog in a crate. Those, of course, are ill advised and can border on abuse. 

How long can a dog reasonably be left in a crate (large enough to stand, turn around and lie down in)? The standard formula is hours = age in months plus one for puppies, with no dog spending more than about 5 hours at a time in their crate. (Picture being in a tiny coat closet for that long, with no way to relieve yourself, and you’ll see things from your dog’s point of view.)

Associate the crate with meals, treats, and feelings of calm (by building up the time gradually). Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re having trouble, since bad habits form quickly. I also think it’s helpful to put going into the crate on cue, so that you don’t have to push, carry or place your dog there. You can just say “crate”‘ and your dog will hop right in. To do that, hold your dog by the collar, facing the open crate. Toss a tidbit into the back of the crate. Pause. Say, “Crate,” and then (not at the same time) release the collar. Do that 6 or 7 times in a row. Then hold the collar, dog facing crate, say, “crate,” now watch your dog hop in and then toss the treat in to the back. Works like a charm. Be generous with rewards for a couple of weeks at least, and intermittently thereafter, and your “crate” cue will remain strong.

Provide a safe, edible chewy for your dog (see Busy Buddy toys in the links column to the right) when he’s relaxing in the crate. That prevents whining, keeps him occupied, and teaches him that wonderful things happen when he’s in his crate. You’ll be glad you put the effort into teaching your dog to love this valuable training and management tool. And long after he’s house trained, you will likely find all sorts of other uses for it.