5 Subtle Signs Your Dog Dislikes Children

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

why do some dogs dislike children

Story at-a-glance

  • Some dogs are uncomfortable around children, and the cause can include a bad experience in the past, “kids being kids” behavior that can feel threatening and/or lack of socialization to youngsters during puppyhood
  • It’s important to know the subtle signs of canine stress so that you can take preemptive action if your dog is reacting negatively to a child
  • You may or may not be able to manage your dog’s reactivity to kids on your own; depending on the situation, your best bet may be to enlist the help of a fear-free dog trainer
  • It’s equally important to teach children how to interact responsibly with dogs

Not every dog enjoys being around children, and often when pet parents are surprised (and embarrassed as well) by this discovery, they assume it’s their fault. While it might actually be something they inadvertently did (or didn’t do), much of the time — especially with dogs who were acquired as adults — it’s the result of an unpleasant experience in the animal’s “former life.”

If you’ve ever adopted a canine companion from a reputable animal shelter or rescue organization, you’re probably aware that every effort is made by shelter and rescue staff to test each dog’s temperament to determine the best rehoming situation for both the animals and adoptive families.

That’s why there are often information cards attached to shelter kennels that list not only the dogs’ names and ages, but also whether or not they’re comfortable around other dogs, cats, men, women, and children. If a particular dog seems to have issues with kids, it’s obviously best to place him in a home with no children.

Depending on the situation, it may also be possible to place him with an experienced owner who is committed to working with him to alleviate his fear or distrust of youngsters.

How Some Dogs Learn to Dislike Kids

Unfortunately, sometimes a dog’s negative behavior around children appears out of the blue — or at least it seems that way. However, it’s more likely that something has occurred in her past that has made her wary of kids. Whenever a dog and a child interact, it’s important to view the exchange from the dog’s point of view, which requires some effort on our part, since it doesn’t come naturally to us.

For example, just because your large breed dog is normally laidback and gentle doesn’t mean she’ll enjoy a child playing “keep away” with her favorite chew toy or taking “pony rides” on her back. What seems like innocent fun to humans isn’t necessarily interpreted the same way by dogs. Especially if your dog has little or no experience with kids, this type of interaction can be tremendously stressful for her and create a negative association with all small humans.

In addition, unless a child has learned how to behave safely around dogs, he’ll naturally engage in kidlike behavior — the type of behavior that to a dog who hasn’t been around youngsters, can seem unpredictable and potentially threatening.

Children move quickly and unexpectedly. They run, yell, scream, scuffle, wrestle, fall, roll, tug and tease. To an uninitiated dog, all this noise and movement can be overstimulating and downright frightening and cause her to adopt a fight-or-flight response in the presence of any child.

Puppies who weren’t adequately socialized at the ideal time (typically between the ages of 5 and 16 weeks) often grow into dogs who develop fear-based responses to people, places and things that are unfamiliar to them. Puppies who didn’t encounter any kiddos along their journey to adulthood will be more likely to view youngsters with considerable skepticism.

Signs Your Dog Is Experiencing Kid-Related Stress

It’s actually rare that a dog who feels threatened gives overt signals like growling, snarling or snapping right off the bat. Typically, he’s starts out signaling his distress in more subtle ways, such as:

  • Licking his lips or nose
  • Yawning or panting
  • Lowered or tucked tail
  • Ears pulled or pinned back
  • Whining

More obvious signs including cowering or a crouched posture, trembling or shaking and hiding. It’s extremely important to watch for these signals with a dog who is new to your family or is meeting new people for the first time, especially children. When you recognize the signs of subtle-but-building canine stress, you can take action before your dog does.

How to Help Your Dog Learn to Relax Around Children

“Taking action” doesn’t mean ignoring your dog’s signals, as that will do nothing to alleviate his discomfort and it might make things worse. On the flip side, it’s also a very bad idea to try to forcefully “desensitize” or “socialize” him by deliberately putting him in situations he can’t escape from, such as restraining him while a child pets him.

Again, this can make things worse. The very best thing you can do in the moment is prevent kids from approaching your dog and remove him from the area.

If there are children in your life with whom your dog will be interacting regularly or even occasionally, you’ll need to help him learn not to fear them (and hopefully, he’ll grow to enjoy them). You can start by giving him treats whenever he sees a child, even off in the distance, which will help him begin to associate kids with something positive — delicious treats.

Unless your dog is only very mildly anxious around children, or you’re very experienced with positive reinforcement behavior training, your safest bet is to enlist the help of a fear free experienced dog trainer who can create a customized program for your pet. You can find directories of credentialed dog professionals at the following sites:

Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (C.C.P.D.T.)

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (I.A.A.B.C.)

Karen Pryor Academy

Academy for Dog Trainers

Pet Professional Guild

Fear Free Pets

How to Help Kids Learn to Interact Responsibly With Dogs

I think we can all agree that just as important as teaching dogs how to be comfortable around children, is teaching kids how to interact responsibly with dogs.

In 2011, the European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) launched an initiative to help teach its youngest citizens about responsible pet ownership. The program includes some excellent teaching materials for grade school-aged children, including a program titled "Fascinating Dogs”. There’s also information for younger children (ages 3 to 6) titled "Dogs and young children."

"Fascinating Dogs" is a downloadable PDF, and in a note to those who will be teaching the material, the goal is explained:

“The teaching materials in 'Fascinating Dogs' offer an interesting, basic understanding of these popular pets. The information and materials in this booklet provide practical knowledge and appropriate information about dogs, which will help school children aged 8 to 12 to foster an understand­ing, respect and sensitivity towards the specific dogs and their needs.

Our aim is for school children to learn to handle dogs safely, to develop their own sense of responsibility, along with knowledge and understanding of the biology, behaviour and 'language' of dogs.

This resource will help school children see how they can modify their behaviour around dogs so they can interact safely and happily. Understanding a dog's needs and instinctive behaviours is essential in developing a safe and rewarding relationship.”1

The content includes information on such topics as:

  • The wolf pack
  • The dog's family
  • The dog's human family
  • How to behave when you meet a strange dog
  • Caring for your dog

If you have or know children who might benefit from this material, you can download “Fascinating Dogs” here, and “Dogs and young children” here.