CHILDREN AND DOGS


“Our kids love dogs, and we’d like to get one. Which breeds are
best with children?”

Dogs and children can be the best of friends, and many people first
decide to get a dog “for the children.” But good relationships be-
tween dogs and children are not automatic. Children are the vic-
tims of about 400,000 serious dog bites (those resulting in a visit
to a doctor) each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention. The rate of dog-bite injuries is highest for children
ages five to nine years old. And a dog that’s acquired to “teach the
children responsibility” may wind up lonely and neglected on a
chain in the backyard, or abandoned at an animal shelter.

Creating a mutually safe and rewarding relationship between
dogs and children requires thought and planning. Here are some
key issues to consider.

Whose dog is it, anyway? Parents often start to think about get-
ting a dog because their children enjoy meeting dogs in the park or
reading books or watching videos about dogs (Blue, Clifford, and
the Disney Dalmatians being popular examples). But in reality, no
child under the age of 12 can take any significant responsibility in
caring for a dog, so if your children are younger than that, the dog
will be yours, not theirs. Be very clear in your own mind that it will
be your choice, your dog, and your responsibility, not your chil-
dren’s.

Size matters. Very large dogs and very small dogs generally are
not good choices for families with preteen children. A child who is
considerably smaller than the family dog is likely to have trouble
earning the dog’s respect and obedience to such safety-based com-
mands as “Off” and “Sit.” A very small dog may be intimidated by
the rambunctious play and less-than-gentle handling of young chil-
dren. Finally, to invoke the worst-case scenario, a large dog who at-
tacks a small child will be able to inflict much more serious dam-
age than a smaller dog could. Conversely, a child can seriously in-
jure a small or fragile dog without meaning to.

Infants are different. Even dogs that are calm and friendly with
children often don’t know what to make of infants, so special vigi-
lance is required when babies and dogs are together.

Attributes of a kid-friendly dog. The dogs that get along best
with children are people-friendly, calm, tolerant of being petted and
handled, easygoing, and not shy or skittish. In many ways, they are
“middle-of-the-road” dogs—neither fearful of children nor overly
self-confident and independent. Fear and overconfidence (i.e.,
dominance) are the two main triggers for aggression in dogs, so
they are qualities to be avoided in a family dog.

Breeds that are good or bad with children. It’s tempting to think
that “breed profiling” provides a foolproof way of choosing a dog
who will be good with children. Breeds were developed for certain
purposes and personality traits as well as for their appearance, so it
seems reasonable to think that dogs of the same breed will have
similar temperaments. But the differences in personality between
two dogs of the same breed can be enormous, as can the dogs’ up-
bringing and training.

Ultimately, you are choosing an individual dog, not a breed.
Focus on the kid-friendly attributes listed above, and ask breeders
and shelters for their advice on selecting an appropriate dog, but
remember that temperament testing will tell you the most about an
individual dog.

Worms and germs. Can children catch diseases from dogs?
Yes, they can, although “dog germs” are neither as numerous nor
as easily contracted as many parents fear. People can catch worms
and other intestinal parasites by ingesting microscopic amounts of
feces from a contaminated animal. Parasites such as fleas, ticks,
and scabies mites can feast on people as well as animals. Fortu-
nately, preventing attacks by these parasites is straightforward. (Note that pinworms and head lice, two banes of the preschool and elementary school set, are not
spread by animals but rather from child to child.)

Of the bacteria and viruses to which both dogs and people are
susceptible, strep throat, parvovirus, and Lyme disease seem to
raise the most parental concerns, but leptospirosis and rabies are
the real bad guys. Vets are sometimes asked by parents, at the be-
hest of their pediatrician, to swab the family dog’s throat and do a
bacterial culture to determine whether the dog is the source of a
child’s recurring strep infection. This is a waste of time. Many dogs naturally carry
Group G strep, but it is not infectious to people.
Many people naturally carry Group A strep, the agent of strep
throat, often without being ill themselves. So the kid is almost cer-
tainly catching strep from another person, not from the dog.

Similarly, the parvovirus responsible for fifth disease, which can
cause miscarriages in pregnant women and a rash, fever, and joint
swelling in children, is completely different from the parvo that
causes severe bloody diarrhea in dogs, and they don’t cross be-
tween the two species. And people can catch Lyme disease only by
being bitten by an infected deer tick, not through contact with an
infected dog.

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