The Pitter-Patter of Little Feet: Helping Dogs to Safely Interact with Your Toddler

by Tammy Wunsch

When you brought your new baby home, you probably worked with your dog to make sure that he would accept this new human into the pack. After all, babies have different scents and sounds, and it probably did not escape his notice that dog/human play time was probably reduced as you focused on your new addition.

The peaceful cohabitation of infants and dogs can change in an instant – the moment the baby discovers mobility and becomes a toddler. This transformation can be very confusing to a dog. Dogs are not accustomed to their human pack members crawling around on the floor while grabbing, poking, and prodding them. This is a common issue in growing families so I sat down with Marie Joyner to gather some advice on how people can best build a safe and happy relationship between dogs and toddlers.

Preparing the dog

  1. Attend a positive dog training class. This will strengthen your bond and deepen the trust between you and your dog.
  2. Crate- and/or gate-train the dog. Doing this prior to the baby’s becoming a toddler will ensure that the dog views this private area as a safe place to take a break. The area should be off-limits to the child and should be a secure place for the dog’s toys and treats.
  3. Train your dog to greet people politely. If your dog becomes agitated when new people arrive, use the crate or gate until the dog appears calmer, and then lead the dog in on a leash to meet the visitors.
  4. Dogs need physical and mental exercise every day. Exercise relieves stress, and play time is a great opportunity to practice skills learned in training class.
Mid adult woman with baby daughter petting dog in kitchen

Prepare the toddler
Teach your child to respect the dog, including the dog’s space, food, and toys. Toddlers need to learn that a dog is not a stuffed animal. Poking, prodding, and pulling hair on a real dog can hurt them.

Teach your child how to recognize when to leave the dog alone.

  1. Growl zones are tight areas where a dog can feel trapped. FamilyPaws.com has a free video on growl zones and how to limit them in your home.
  2. Teach your child that dogs are allowed to have their private time and if the dog walks away, they should not follow.
  3. Make sure that dogs are allowed to enjoy their meals in peace.
  4. Let sleeping and resting dogs lie until the dog is ready to engage in play time.
  5. Be aware of subtle signs of stress like a tongue flick, pacing, sweaty paws, excessive shedding, scratching, and panting.

Positive dog and toddler interactions
It may seem overwhelming, but there are plenty of opportunities for your toddler and dog to have fun. Active supervision is important, but these interactions can lead to a deep and lifelong relationship between the dog and child.

Toddlers can:
• Play games like fetch and hide and seek;
• Sing songs, tell stories, and “read” books to the dog while gently petting;
• Draw pictures of the dog;
• Help bake dog treats;
• Bring the dog along while the toddler rides in a stroller; and
• Assist with positive reinforcement by rewarding good behavior with treats.

Include your dog in activities with your toddler so the dog still feels like an important and vital member of the family. This will ease the stress the dog feels with your newly mobile bundle of joy.

Visit OurCompanions.org for a list of affordable dog training classes. For resources and more information on keeping dogs and children safe, contact Marie at Marie@OurCompanions.org, or call 860-242-9999.

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