The age-old question, “What are the best dogs for kids?” deserves to be answered in a complete way that does not rely on labeling some races as no-no or claiming that any particular breed is the perfect choice. It requires a nuanced answer that discusses what is really important and what is nowhere near as important. What really matters: the individual dog that you bring into your home. What is not as important as many think: the breed of dog.
In my work as a dog behaviorist, I specialized in aggression and met thousands of aggressive dogs. Name a breed of dog and I met an aggressive member of that breed. (I also know cute and gregarious members of every breed I’ve met.) I only bring my experience to dissuade someone from the idea that choosing a dog based on their breed is a guarantee that you will end up having the dog you imagine. It is far better to choose a person than a race. You cannot guarantee that you will get a cute, wonderful, non-aggressive dog simply by choosing a “good” breed. It’s just not the way dogs work.
And one caveat: if a child wants a dog, there are plenty of dogs that might make them happy, but if they’re not interested, it is possible that no dog is the right pair. Also, when a child meets and gets to know a dog, they may fall in love, but the chances of a happy ending are always greater if they want a dog at all.
With that in mind, here are some guidelines.
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Choose a dog that is compatible with your life.
When it comes to finding the best dog for children, it is important that the dog fit in well with the family that those children live in. When it comes to choosing a dog that will be loved, valued, and enjoyed by a family with children (or frankly, but that’s not the issue we’re addressing here), here are some things to consider:
• The amount of exercise the dog needs. A bored, under-exercised dog with pent-up energy is more bite-sized with children, jumping up to them, stealing their toys, and doing all sorts of things that can get in the way of the relationship many parents seek. Unless the parents happen to have a lifestyle that naturally lends itself to providing the dog with plenty of exercise (e.g. long-distance runner or rancher), the best dog for children will not require herculean efforts in the physical activity department. In a similar context, while dogs that are way too big for a child to be safe are generally not ideal, a large dog that is very calm on a leash can certainly be easier for a child to handle than a smaller dog that pulls everything time.
• The necessary care. A dog that needs 20 minutes of brushing each day may be perfect if the kid is an aspiring hairdresser, but a nightmare for a family whose members are considering brushing something that “we know probably done should be, but we don’t ”. I only take care of unusual occasions. “A long-haired dog with high needs can be great if the family cares, but if it is likely to become another task and source of conflict it won’t be good for anyone … parent, child, or dog.
• The kind of dog kids want. While the amount of exercise and grooming, and the ease with which to achieve them, are important, other factors also play a role. If kids want a dog to play fetch or run around the yard, a playful dog is for you. If a child prefers the snuggly part of dog ownership, the best dog for them will be to get a dog that has less energy, likes to sit on their lap, and likes to be petted.
The dog’s size, overall shape, coat type, and even the age of the dog can all be factors. Sometimes children have a heart for a puppy or they want an older dog. If children have preferences, they should be taken into account (as long as those preferences also apply to the parents who are ultimately responsible for the dog).
Choose a dog that will suit all of your child’s problems.
Each family must consider their own specifics when choosing a dog.
• Anxiety. If a child is afraid of certain types of dogs – perhaps large dogs, barking dogs, or dogs of a certain breed – choose a dog that does not pose those threats. While some believe that the best way to cure children of dog-related fears is to get a dog that will scare them, I am not a fan of the strategy. I’m not a child psychologist (or any kind of parenting expert), but as a canine behaviorist, I’ve worked with several families who have tried this and when it didn’t work there were lots of tears in my office. Such sad situations can be avoided by assuming that the best dogs for children are those that the children do not fear.
• allergies. This is another problem outside of my area of expertise, but one that comes up while consulting with clients. If a child cannot have the dog in their room because of allergies, it may be more difficult for that child to develop a relationship with the dog. Or the dog can be banned from parts of the house for health reasons, which can make it harder to have a happy, well-adjusted dog. Choosing a dog that is less likely to cause allergic reactions has advantages.
Choose a dog that is a good match for your child’s age.
Age plays an important role in choosing a dog. While all children are different and age guidelines aren’t too strict, some generalizations come in handy.
• Up to seven: Young children do best with the gentlest, calmest dogs. You need constant monitoring with every dog, both for your own safety and the dog’s safety. The gentler the dog, the easier it is to keep everything under control. This is especially true for toddlers and preschoolers, who can upset even the most relaxed dogs with their unpredictable movements, unexpected noises, and funny smells.
• 8 to 13: There are all kinds of interactions between dogs and children here. Dogs that tolerate noise, touch, surprise, and unpredictability are still very desirable for children of this age.
• 14 to 17: Children of this age generally interact with dogs in a similar way to adults, but that too can be very different. So the best dogs for teenagers, especially older teenagers, aren’t all that different from the best dogs for a family. The problems mainly concern compatibility and preference.
Pick a dog that doesn’t have any of these red flags.
There are some deal-breakers out there dealing with dogs and children.
• High drive. Dogs that would make great working dogs or exceptional canine sports dogs aren’t the best candidates for kids, especially younger kids. Far too often, the result is games that go bad: bad breath, jumping, slamming, tipping over, or even sipping and biting. Keeping dogs and children apart can affect the quality of life for everyone, and it doesn’t work well for anyone (including the dog).
• Sensitive to sound or touch. These dogs are usually happier in homes without children, and children are likely to be happier with a dog that doesn’t have these problems.
• Lined up high. This can include dogs who have a tendency to be alert and constantly nervous, and dogs with a history of aggression – not only biting, of course, but growling or falling – and possessing toys, food, or bones. A dog with a history of bites or other types of aggression can be rehabilitated in the correct home, but homes with children are not on this list.
Choose a person, not a race.
This has to be repeated. It is common to assume that all members of a race are the same, or at least very similar in temperament and personality, but it is not true. Yes, race can affect behavior, but studies have repeatedly shown that the variation between individuals is greater than the variation between races. Most of us have met retrievers who are not interested in balls, herding dogs who are afraid of sheep, and dogs bred to guard cattle or property who are only too happy to curl up on the sofa to doze off when visitors (intruders!) show up.
Choose a dog who is cute.
A dog that is patient with being around new people and new dogs, being friendly, and relaxed is best with children (including dogs that are friendly to people of all ages). Dogs with good bite resistance are treasures. This is an important quality in deciding which dogs are best for children. Neither of these traits is race specific; Some people have them and some don’t. How do we know if a dog has these characteristics? While there are ways to increase the likelihood that the dog you choose will have these traits, there are no guarantees.
• For puppiesFind out about the behavior of the parents. Many of these properties are passed on to the next generation. So if you know what the parents are like, you can know what the puppy is likely to be like. Puppies raised by people who take great care that they breed for good temperament, get in touch with them early and well and not allow them to be taken before they are around eight weeks old are better bets than puppies, to which this attention is not paid.
• For young and adult dogsAsk the previous owner (or rescue, shelter, or keeper) about the dog. Ask specific questions such as, “If a child tried to remove a bone from this dog, what would you expect?” “How does this dog react to people walking around?” “Does this dog like to sit in people’s lap?” and “How does this dog’s behavior change if he doesn’t get a lot of exercise on a given day?”
To answer the question, “What are the best dogs for kids?” We have to acknowledge that this is a bit like asking, “What are the best spouses for people?” Of course, there are some general answers that apply to almost everyone (being pleasant, upright citizens) and answers that apply to the majority of people (smart, kind, funny, hardworking). After that, however, a lot depends on personal preference and compatibility.
Trying to pick the best dog for a family with kids can be nerve-wracking. But the good news is that there are many wonderful dogs out there. You are probably among the millions of people who answer the question, “What’s the best dog for kids?” by saying: “Our dog! Our dog is the best dog for children. “