Dog trainer Mel Ritterman explains how to ensure your kids and your dogs get along.

Mum and qualified dog trainer Mel Ritterman of Cooper and Kids answers parents’ questions about their pets and children. First up, is a question from Rachael.

“Hi Mel,
I saw your article on Mamamia about how to prepare dogs for crawling babies and thought you might be able to help us. Unfortunately, I didn’t do the research I should have when my daughter, Charlotte was little about how to prepare my dog. Now she is nearly two and running around, my dog, Levi (3.5 year old Maltese mix) hates her. As soon as my daughter walks past Levi, even if she is not aiming for him, he gives a warning growl and runs away. He sleeps under our bed as his “safe zone”. Sometimes they play nicely, I try to get them to play fetch and sit on the floor with them to supervise. She doesn’t take his ball or his food from him. I’m worried that one day he’s going to react with a bite and I don’t know how to undo his fear of her. She does chase him around sometimes and we discipline her (send her to her room for a minute and then explain she mustn’t chase him because he might hurt her) every time but while she’s learning is there anything we can do to help Levi?“

Mel’s answer:

Have a professional come and assess the situation.

First off, I must be honest with this one, if you are genuinely worried that your daughter could get bitten, don’t take the risk, get a dog trainer or behaviourist to come and assess the situation as soon as possible. There are so many different factors that could be causing this behaviour. I will give you all my advice and tips today, but I am unable to see your dog’s body language, assess your relationship/attachment with your dog and assess the situation properly. Getting someone in to help you properly, would be my first suggestion and a very wise idea with a young child in the house.

In the meantime, here are some things that you can start implementing and thinking about.

Dog trainer Mel's two children and her dog Cooper. Image: Supplied

Make positive associations for your dog.

Levi needs to know that your daughter = positive things for him. Try your hardest not to create a stressful environment when you’re around Charlotte and Levi. Levi needs to start associating Charlotte as a positive figure in the house and not as something that causes stress, anxiety, chaos and takes all the attention away from him.


Do your best to not let her invade his space, grab him, poke him, anything that will annoy/irritate him. Start getting her involved in more of the fun stuff. Hold her hand and give Levi a treat together. Perhaps each day, she could give him something special (fully under your supervision); a carrot, a cucumber, frozen banana, liver treat, broccoli stem (those are all of Cooper’s favourites), or even a new soft toy, squeaky toy, ball, whatever you know he will love. Just start creating positivity around Charlotte.

Get your dog used to being touched – everywhere!

As mentioned in a few of my other posts, this is a very important one. Toddlers can be unpredictable. This is probably a big reason why Levi is behaving the way he is. So, let’s try and prepare Levi for some of Charlotte’s unpredictability in a more controlled environment.

You need to start getting Levi used to being poked and prodded everywhere by you, someone who he trusts and knows wouldn’t hurt him. Once Charlotte is asleep, sit down with your dog every night and give him a good rub down. Massage him, making it a nice experience but also poke and pull him along the way, touching every part of his body, paw pads, tail, inside the ears, mouth, nose, bum, everywhere.

If he’s a little anxious or uncomfortable with it, have some treats on you so you can reward him when he is calm and relaxed. This is also going to help you down the track when taking Levi to the vet as he will be more used to being touched all over. Win win!

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Make sure your dog understands the boundaries around your daughter.

These can be actual boundaries, like keeping them separated for the time being, until Levi can be more trusted around Charlotte. Or they can be more invisible boundaries. Start off by having Levi on a lead around the house so you can control him a bit better. Just making sure that they both give each other some space. Always rewarding Levi when he is relaxed around Charlotte and giving her space. It would be a good idea to also tell Charlotte what a good girl she is when giving her puppy some space. This takes me to my next two points...

Make sure your dog has a ‘safe’ place.

You also need to ensure that your dog has an escape route, somewhere to feel safe if he needs to escape the chaos of a toddler. (Wouldn’t it be good if we could escape the chaos too!) That way, if Levi is feeling uncomfortable at any stage, he can take himself outside or into a room, where Charlotte can’t get in.

It’s one thing I’ve always said about Cooper. My kids are obsessed with him and he’s incredible with them. But they are now just old enough to know that if he moves away, they must leave him, it’s his sign that he’s had enough.

At our house, we have a doggy door, so Cooper often puts himself outside when he’s had enough (and I often wish I could join him!). Also, make sure that Charlotte doesn’t ever back Levi into a corner where he can’t escape as this is often when dog bites can occur.


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Start educating your daughter about the boundaries around your dog.

This is a great life skill for dealing with all other dogs too. Charlotte is at a good age where she can start to get involved and understand things a bit more. I can’t stress how important it is to start educating your kids as early as possible about how to interact with your dog. Make sure to teach her about being gentle. Show her where and how your dog likes to be patted, but make sure to do it all in a very controlled setting. For example, I would get you or your partner to handle Levi (on the lead so you have full control) and the other to help Charlotte and show her what to do.

Constantly give Levi his favourite treats if he is happy and relaxed while Charlotte pats him. If Levi is stressed, growls or shows any aggression, end the session immediately. Do not take any risks and/or put Levi in a situation where he won’t succeed. We want to set him up for success, so he learns that Charlotte patting him, will equal treats for him and a nice bond (eventually) between them.

You also need to teach Charlotte that she can’t play with the dog’s food or water bowls. Teach her not to watch the dog eat and not to take the dogs food out of his bowl. Teach her not to pull things out of Levi’s mouth. Not to climb on the dog. Not to pull his hair, ears, tail, etc. Setting these rules from the very beginning is SO important. Plus, these are great skills and boundaries to learn when dealing with other people’s dogs too.

You need to learn to read his signals and protect him.

Dogs use body language more than you may realise and it is important for you as Levi’s owner to be able to read his body language and respond to it. He will most likely let you know when and if he is stressed in a situation. It may be as simple as a yawn, his eyes rolling, or a more obvious one, like getting up and moving away or letting out a growl or a bite.


My dog, Cooper, knows me and trusts that I will always be there to look out for him. He loves my kids, but they can drive him a little nutty at times. Make sure that Levi knows that you have his back, that you love him and will always look out for him.

Again, this is something that is hard for me to assess over the internet. Having someone come into your house could really help you learn and understand what is going on with Levi and his body language.

And of course, never leave them unattended. 

At times, you may have to put Levi outside or in a room if you cannot be there to supervise them. I would take zero risks and always have them apart unless you can be 100 per cent watching them.

Rachael, as mentioned above, I strongly advise you to have a trainer or behaviourist come to your house and assess what is going on as soon as possible. Get the help. It will make life with a toddler and a dog much more enjoyable – as it should be. In the meantime, I hope this has answered your question… Good luck! Please get in touch if there is something else I can help you with. I would love to hear how you go, so please keep us up to date with your progress.

Please feel free to comment below with your questions or get in touch via email [email protected] . I would love for you to send me through 3-4 questions you may have about your kids/babies/mumlife/dogs and if you get lucky, I will feature your questions in a blog post on my website!