Keeping safe around dogs

Research shows that having a dog is good for children as it increases their attentiveness, decreases anxiety and improves their emotional intelligence. Having a dog gives children a sense of responsibility and helps them grow compassion and understanding of living things.

Animal psychologist Mark Vette has been studying and training dogs for more than 40 years. He has seen - and solved - every behavioural issue imaginable and is known as the star of the TV show 'Purina Pound Pups to Dog Stars'. He shares his tips in order to raise a dog that’s great with kids.

Puppies are ripe for learning and new experiences from eight-weeks-old. Everything your puppy absorbs at this time forms the basis for its future behaviour as an adult dog. The more you socialise your puppy in a positive way with children at this age, the better it will be, so take your pup to meet lots of children in lots of different circumstances.

When you bring your puppy home, expose and de-sensitise them to anything that might happen with children around, such as their tail being pulled or them being accidentally stepped on. It is important to teach children to be kind and respectful to dogs but it’s safest to teach your dog to accept anything children might do so you don’t end up with a child being hurt by a scared dog.

Be careful not to make this a negative experience. If your dog has been involved in a traumatic incident involving a child, it can be hard to fix. Start slowly and gradually expose your pup to increasingly difficult situations with children. You can use a training clicker (small clicking device) to click and reward your dog while it’s being hugged, or its tail is being pulled, or while baby is screaming or scooters are whizzing past. A clicker marks the exact behaviour that you want your dog to do. Think of the clicker as like a camera, where the photo you take when you click is exactly what you are rewarding and therefore helps to create a shared language between you and your dog. The clicker becomes a positive switch that moves your dog into a learning state - a happy, relaxed, focused state - perfect for learning. Using treats can also make even rough handling a good experience.

Teach your children to be kind and respectful to their new pet. Dogs should be left alone when they’re eating, chewing a toy, sleeping or showing signs of distress. Most dogs do not like being hugged, climbed on, having their collar pulled, or shouting, so even if we do train our dog to accept these things - don’t make a habit of doing them.

Make sure children know to always ask a dog’s owner what it does and doesn’t like and how to treat it. It’s also important to ensure children (and you!) always ask a dog’s owner if you can pat their dog, then hold out the back of your hand for the dog to sniff. Dogs are happier if they can approach you. It’s best not to rush right up to them and never stand over them. It is best to pat a dog under the chin or on the chest.

Children need to understand that not all dogs are the same and just because your dog likes hugs and playing, it doesn’t mean that every other dog does too.

Family with dog2

Dog safety

It’s really important that both you and your children know how to read the warning signs that a dog is stressed, scared or aggressive and know how to handle the situation to best avoid getting hurt.

When dogs are feeling stressed, they might pant, shake, have their tail tucked between their legs, lower their body, turn away from you, or they might whine. A dog that is on the verge of being aggressive might stiffen up, stare at you, growl or bark, stand tall, have its ears standing up straight on its head, have its tail high, and its hackles might stand up (these are the hairs along the back of a dog’s neck and back, which can stand up on end if the dog is feeling aggressive or frightened). If you see any of these warning signs, stay quiet and remove yourself from
the dog’s area calmly and quickly.

Children should never approach a dog they don’t know. It’s advisable not to enter a property over a fence or through a back gate, or to reach through a fence to pat a dog. Always call out before entering a property to check if a dog is there and never enter without the owner’s knowledge. Don’t sneak up on sleeping dogs and don’t startle a dog or act in an unexpected way.

If you can see that a dog might be aggressive, don’t try and scare or threaten the dog - it could make things worse. We want to be as non-threatening as possible. Don’t turn your back on the dog or run away. Instead, stay standing with a relaxed posture, arms by your side. Turn slightly sideways so you are not facing the dog head on and don’t stare at the dog. Instead, look off to the side or glimpse at the dog briefly. Back away slowly and calmly without turning around and if you need to talk, speak in high-pitched, friendly tones. If there are other people around, call out for help - but try not to sound scared. Speak calmly with a nice voice. Slowly retreat into a car or building. It may help for you to practise this technique with your children so if the situation ever occurs they know how to handle it best.

There is no need to be scared of dogs - just have some knowledge about their behaviour and remember to treat them with love, care and respect. Give your children some fantastic experiences with dogs, that way they’ll know that a dog can be your best friend and you’ll never have a friend that
loves and cares about you more.

For more information about Mark's online
training program, go to