Dog Safety Guidelines for Kids and Families

A young child sitting on the couch next to her yellow lab

Child Safety Around Dogs

The bond between a kid and their dog is special and something to celebrate. Along with careful supervision, teaching kids the basics of dog behavior gives them the tools to recognize and respect boundaries, helping to ensure their safety and the dog’s comfort.

A family outside in the mountains along with their dog

Teaching Kids About Dog Body Language

Dog language is nonverbal, but dog behavior speaks volumes; you can teach kids how to “listen” to a dog by observing the dog’s body language. Most dog bites are preceded by a warning; learning to recognize the signs of a stressed dog or an impending bite helps kids know when to back off.

Understanding Dog Behavior

  • Dogs are social and active animals, give them regular opportunities for exercise, play, and human interaction to keep them happy, healthy, and ready to socialize
  • Dogs do not instinctively understand sharing but can be taught to share. 
  • Dogs who are exposed to children early are likely to be more tolerant of them. 
  • Dogs need their own safe, quiet place to retreat when they feel the need.

Children can be taught to read this “language,” but a very young child will have difficulty remembering and interpreting its subtleties; focus instead on gentle behavior and close supervision of any interactions. 

A black and white dog walking through the water with the sun setting behind it

1. Signs of Aggression

  • Making themselves look bigger—this can include rising onto the toes and raising the hackles and the fur that runs the length of the spine
  • Barking
  • Bringing the ears forward or pinning them back
  • Stiffening the body, lengthening the tail straight out, or raising it slightly
  • Wrinkling the nose and showing the teeth, with or without snarling
A small, black lab peeking out from behind a backpack

2. Signs of Fear

  • Cowering and trying to look smaller
  • Pinning the ears and averting the gaze
  • Showing teeth
  • Tucking the tail and trying to back away 
Looking up at a small dog with giant upright ears with trees behind it

3. Signs of an Alert Dog

  • Stands tall with or without raising their hackles
  • Closes or slightly opens their mouth, with or without vocalizing
  • Keeps their ears up and pointed forward and eyes open wide 
  • Keeps their tail up and/or wags it slowly as the dog evaluates a situation and decides what to do
Looking down at a happy golden retriever

4. Signs of a Playful Dog

  • Keeps their ears forward and tail wagging 
  • Possesses bright, wide eyes, holds their mouth wide open and may pant excitedly 
  • Bounces around, play bows, and vocalizes or play growls
A brown and white dog asleep on a black furniture protector on a couch

5. Signs of a Relaxed Dog

  • Keeps their tail down or wags it
  • Slackens their mouth and may even appear to smile 
  • Holds their ears neither backward nor forward 
  • Allows their tongue to hang from their mouth 
  • Their hair lies smooth and flat against their back 
A young boy kissing a calm white dog

Introducing Dogs to Children

Practice safe habits from the get-go; lead by example and teach your children. These basic dog safety guidelines can help you get started: 

  • If you have an infant or very young child, never allow a dog into the child’s room without close supervision. 
  • Help your child understand that dogs are sensitive to touch and don’t like to be squeezed tightly or pulled on, focus on emphasizing a gentle touch. 
  • Encourage your child to lower their voice when playing around dogs. 
  • Keep dogs and kids separated at snack time or during meals. 
  • Help your child learn to respect the dog’s quiet time; when the dog retreats to their crate, it’s time to leave the dog alone. 
  • Discourage kids from putting their face close to the dog’s, and from holding the dog’s gaze with direct frontal eye contact—dogs can interpret this as a threat. 
  • Teach kids never to approach the dog from behind. 
  • If the dog is on the sofa or chair and refuses to budge, help your child understand never to push or tug the dog out of the way, but to seek your help instead. 

Teach your child never to attempt to take a toy or treat from the dog, or to bother dogs while they’re eating, drinking, or sleeping. Ask your child to get you if the dog is chewing something prohibited. 

  • Teach kids to ask a trusted adult for help when in doubt and if they feel uncomfortable around a dog. 
A small brown and white dog playing with a yellow ball outside on the green grass

Child’s Play: Safe Games for Kids & Dogs

Encourage healthy, fun socializing between kids and dogs: 

  • Fetch is a classic for good reason—just make sure you stick to the rules and instruct kids to walk away if the dog doesn’t obey the “drop” command you demonstrate; you don’t want fetch to turn into tug-of-war.  
  • Dog tricks are an excellent way to engage kids and dogs and strengthen their bond. Set up an agility course with low jumps, tunnels, and hoops to crawl through. This is also safe, rainy-day fun for dogs and kids indoors. 
  • A kid-friendly favorite, include the dog next time you play hide-and-seek using dog toys and treats

Avoid these activities to keep kids and pups safe: 

  • Allowing a puppy to chew on fingers and clothing 
  • Playing chase 
  • Encouraging a dog to jump up for food, a toy, or a stick 
  • Tug-of-war
  • Wrestling with the dog 
  • Teasing the dog
Two dogs next to each other asleep on the bed

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: Knowing When to Leave Them Be

Teach kids to avoid interacting with dogs in these scenarios: 

  • Avoid petting or otherwise disturbing an unknown dog—always ask for the owner’s permission before petting and do so only in the company of a trusted adult.
  • Avoid bothering a sleeping dog.
  • Avoid bothering a dog who’s eating or drinking. 
  • Avoid trying to take away a toy or a treat from a dog; ask an adult for help.
  • Avoid a mother dog and her pups.
A child, man, and dog all fishing at the bank of a river

Building Confidence & Connection

Whether you have a dog at home or not, teaching kids how to interact safely with dogs is an important skill. Teaching them early and building on their knowledge over time will help kids interact confidently with dogs and give you peace of mind so you can focus on celebrating and building the unique bond they share.

A smiling mother holding a child who is pointing

The Art of the Mini-Adventure

So often, life’s most meaningful adventures lie just beyond the backyard. Orvis’s own Els and Pippa are on the go, exploring the lazy rivers and wild environs of southern Vermont, and celebrating every new discovery together.

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