Pro Tips for Navigating Life with Dogs and Kids

Whether you're adding a dog to your family or trying to bring harmony to an existing kids-and-dogs household, behavior consultant Jennifer Shryock has some advice.


When my clients ask me about adding a dog to a home with children or adding a baby to a home with dogs, I routinely refer them to Family Paws in Cary, N.C., and the programs founded by owner Jennifer Shryock. Whether you are expecting a new family or trying to bring harmony to an existing kids-and-dogs household, Jennifer has the answers readily available.

Jennifer is a certified dog behavior consultant and a recognized expert on child-dog interactions and safety. Recently, I asked her about some of the questions that I receive from clients on a regular basis.

Dogster: Are there certain breeds that are better with kids than others?

Jennifer Shryock: I prefer to look at the traits of a dog and what the family is looking for. Our family has shared our home with many breed types of dogs. Certainly each breed has hereditary traits that play a role in the dog’s activity level, grooming maintenance, size, look and so on, but within each breed are variations of these traits.

It is so important for a family to sit down together and research what it is they are looking for. There are so many rescues with wonderful mixed-breed dogs. Instead of breed of dog, I consider some of these factors:

  1. If there are young children in the home, an adult dog age three to five might be a great option. When our boys were three and two we thought we wanted a German Shepherd puppy. We went to a rescue that shared with us why they did not recommend a puppy with toddlers. They were very wise! We adopted a five-year-old gentle giant, Moose. This was the best decision, and he was the perfect addition to our family. He was mature, had good potty manners and easily fit into our home. Be open to advice!
  2. Include older children in the research process of learning about different types of dogs. What do they like and why?
  3. Finances: Consider the medical and grooming costs. Dog food, toys, training, grooming, and regular veterinary care all adds up. This needs to be a conscious choice and commitment.
  4. Lifestyle: Are you an active family running from soccer practice to swim meets after school? Do you travel a lot as a family? Thinking ahead about the day-to-day is also important.

So while I do consider breeds and their traits, I really like to look at all aspects of the dog and family when it comes to selection of a family dog.

What’s the perfect age for a child to get a dog?

Trick question? There is no perfect age of a child to get a dog, but rather there is a level of readiness of the parents to add a dog to the family. Begging for a pet begins early! Parents must be ready for the responsibility of a dog. Make no mistake, the novelty wears off quickly for most children. Often after the first house soiling or chewed-up cherished toy!

That said, children can be and should be included in the process of researching and selecting a dog. I have included our children in this beginning as young as three. Talking about dogs and their needs. Getting them stuffed dogs to role-play with, etc. Older children, of course, can play more of a role and may be very excited and interested in participating in training and the care of a dog. Parents need to know their children’s ability to empathize with others and be able to set boundaries to help set up a successful relationship.

What should parents know about allowing their kids to approach strange dogs?

I encourage parents to become familiar with dog body language so that they can observe dogs while out and about and make safer decisions about whether to approach. As a mom of a four-year-old, it is rare that I allow her to interact with unfamiliar dogs. We talk about the dog and observe, but many dogs are not comfortable with unfamiliar young children, so we do not encourage her to approach them.

Often dog owners give in to the smiling face of a polite child who has asked nicely to pet their dog … even if think it may not be a good idea. It is hard to say no. So, for toddlers and very enthusiastic young children, I tell parents to be cautious about approaching. Older children and parents should learn together about subtle signals dogs offer, which can help them make safer choices.

What about when resident kids have friends over? Is there special protocol for handling the dog in that situation?

We have four children and three dogs with different needs. When our kids have guests, we allow an initial greeting with our guest-friendly dogs. Then the kids go their way and the dogs stay with an adult. We also have a crate or two handy as well as gates.

Our dog who is not comfortable with guests has a safe place and gets a yummy treat, so he can relax while guests are in our home. We do not allow unsupervised interaction, as we want to be sure that both our dogs and visiting kids are safe and comfortable at all times.

What keeps you motivated to continue your work with families with dogs and kids?

<p”>It is an honor to work with families and be invited into their homes. I love getting calls from families who have attended a Dogs & Storks seminar and want to continue learning to set everyone up for success. Seeing families who make simple changes in expectations based on suggestions, which allows them to keep their family dog instead of rehoming him or giving him up. This is what it is all about. Helping families build and maintain their relationship with their family dog as their family grows!

Here’s a recent webinar Jennifer recently compiled, titled “My Dog Growled at My Baby — Help!”

When should parent/dog owners seek help, and where can they find that help?

Don’t wait for a growl or, worse, a bite. Gut feelings should be checked out. Family Paws Parent Education offers a dog and baby support hotline for parents. We help families get immediate support and then put them in contact with a qualified professional near them. There are many wonderful dog trainers and behavior consultants out there and it is most important that you find the right fit for you and your dog.

Have you adopted a dog when you had young kids? Are you considering it? What are your concerns? Tell us about the experience in the comments.

About Jennifer Shryock: Jennifer is a certified dog behavior consultant (CDBC), owner of Family Paws LLC in Cary, NC, and holds a degree in special education. She is the U.S. VP of Doggone Safe, a nonprofit dedicated to dog bite prevention and victim support. Jennifer is also an instructor for Kenyon Canine Institute. A recognized expert on child-dog interactions and safety, Jennifer writes and speaks extensively about these topics. Her two programs, Dogs & Storks and the Dog & Baby Connection, have been featured in national media such as The Wall Street Journal and Martha Stewart LIVING, along with many TV and radio appearances.

About Cindy Bruckart: Nature-loving Oregonian who isn’t impressed with limits. Always willing to bite off more and worry about the chewing later. Farmer, writer, happy camper, dog trainer, and avid dark, twisty drama-series watcher. Telling stories since she could talk, her childhood nickname was “Windy Cindy.”

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