"As a dog trainer, these are the rules I taught my toddlers about playing with our dogs."

I can’t stress how important it is from an early age to teach your children how to interact correctly with dogs.

As a mum and a dog trainer, I often see people unknowingly doing silly things involving kids and dogs. Being unaware of the danger that these simple things can cause is potentially putting the dog or child at risk.

There have been too many dog attacks on kids in the news lately and it saddens me to think that in many cases with a bit of education, some of these things could have been avoided. Bites are usually a last resort. So, it is likely that the dog has given some kind of warning that they are stressed or unhappy in a situation, but this sign has been missed.

Setting these rules with your children from the very beginning is so important. As soon as your baby is no longer a fragile newborn and starts to see your dog and becomes interested, start teaching them about the rules and boundaries around your dog and other dogs.

Here are the most important rules you can teach your child about interacting with dogs:

Teach them to be gentle.

This is an obvious one… but again, so often I see kids being rough with dogs and their parents just watching them do it. This isn’t good enough.

Teach your child how to be gentle with a dog. Show them how to pat them nicely. Tell them that the dog likes it when we are nice and gentle with them. Show them by example and give your child lots of praise, reward and encouragement when they are doing the right thing.


Teach them to always ask before patting a stranger’s dog.

Don’t just stick your hand in a strange dog’s face for them to have a sniff. Some dogs won’t tolerate this.

As a rule of thumb, always ask before patting a dog and ask where the dog likes to be patted. This is a big one I am teaching my children every day and I can’t stress it enough. My children have no fear of dogs, they love them. But they need to learn that not all dogs are as happy-go-lucky as ours is.

If a dog is tied up at kinder or outside a shop and the owner is not there and we do not know the dog, you should teach your child not to pat them. Even if a dog appears to be friendly, you just don’t know. It may be stressed or anxious because it can’t see its owner.

If the owner hesitates when you ask them and says the dog isn’t always friendly, respect that dog, give it its space and move on, it’s not worth the risk.

Teach them to call the dog over to them, rather than sticking their hand in the dog’s face.

To some dogs, putting your hand out in front of their face to sniff can actually come across as quite threatening.

If you would like to pat a dog, call it over to you instead. If it comes to you, then give it a pat. If it doesn’t come to you, it could be a sign that the dog is uncomfortable and doesn’t want to be patted.

Teach them that not all dogs like to be patted on the head.

Some dogs love being patted on the head, some hate it. Some dogs love being patted on the bum, some hate it.

Our dog Cooper doesn’t like being patted on his head. He won’t do anything to harm you but he will duck his head. It can be quite threatening for a dog if you come straight for the head.

As mentioned above, if asking to pat a stranger’s dog, make sure to always ask where the dog likes to be patted, call the dog over to you and then go for that spot.

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Teach them to read the signs when the dog is uncomfortable or has had enough.

Dogs use body language more than you may realise and it is important for you as a parent and/or dog owner to be able to read a dog’s body language and respond to it, so you can protect him if he is stressed and uncomfortable.

Things to avoid that will potentially aggravate, hurt or stress out a dog.

Make sure your child does not:

  • Climb on the dog
  • Chase the dog
  • Pull hair, ears, tail, etc
  • Stick fingers in the dog’s eyes, mouth, nose ears, bum
  • Play with the dog’s food or water bowls
  • Stand over and watch the dog eat
  • Annoy/wake a sleeping dog
  • Take the dogs food out of a dog’s food bowl
  • Take anything out of a dog’s mouth
  • Tease a dog with a toy or food that you know it wants.

What are the signs to look out for?

A dog will most likely let you know when and if he is stressed in a situation before reacting with a bite. Some of these signs are obvious and sometimes these signs are quite subtle and hard to read if you are not familiar with them.

A few examples of the subtle signs that a dog may be uncomfortable are:

  • A simple yawn
  • Rolling their eyes
  • Licking the lips
  • Turning their head away
  • Quick and shallow breathing.

More obvious signs include:

  • The dog trying to escape or remove itself from the situation (often kids might chase after the dog)
  • A little growl
  • Baring their teeth
  • A bite (the last resort).

Cooper trusts that I will always be there to look out for him around the kids. He loves them, but they can drive him a little nutty at times. Often, when he’s had enough, he’ll just get up and move away. But sometimes, he will just look up at me and give me the eye roll or the yawn.


At that point, I make sure the kids leave him alone or I let him outside for some space. I always make sure to point it out to the kids when it happens, so they can learn to read his signs too. Make sure that your dog knows that you have their back, that you love them and will always look out for them.

How do I know if my dog is happy playing with the kids?

As a general rule, you can tell a dog is OK and feeling comfortable if their body language is loose and relaxed. Dogs that have a loose mouth, tail and eyes are displaying a more relaxed body posture.

Dogs that have a stiff body posture and/or a tight mouth are telling you and your children that they are uncomfortable and you must step in by telling the children to give the dog space or calling the dog away.

Some dogs will let out a little growl as a warning and some may bite. A bite is usually the last sign your dog will give, it’s their last resort. So make sure to watch out for the earlier signs as mentioned above and move your child away from your dog before it’s too late.

Finally, and most importantly, never ever leave your child alone and unattended with a dog. Always make sure to supervise and step in if you feel the dog is uncomfortable or the child is at risk.

Mel Ritterman is a qualified dog trainer and mum-of-two. You can find more information about Mel on her website Cooper and Kids, or follow her on Instagram or Facebook. If you have a question for Mel about kids and dogs you’d like her to write about on Mamamia, email her at [email protected]