As a dog behaviorist, I have worked with hundreds of families with young children who do all kinds of things that cause problems with their dog. Pulling its tail, playing too rough, teasing and hitting are among the most common irritations.

I also have read many case studies of dogs that were considered by everyone to be friendly, with no bite history, who “suddenly changed and bit the child for no reason.”

But upon investigation, it turns out there were warnings and a good reason. Often the dog was overtired and tried to move away, only to have the child follow it and pull it back to play or continue to engage it. In these scenarios, the dog communicates in several ways that it wants to be left alone. Signs include yawning, tongue flicking, dry panting, frantic sniffing, refusal to follow or move forward, wrinkling its forehead, deliberately looking away, etc.

When the child ignores the cues and continues, the dog moves toward more aggressive ways to get the child to back off. Bearing teeth, growling, barking, nipping and eventually biting are commom. This is when people take notice, often labeling the dog as mean or aggressive.

But this isn’t a case of a bad dog. It's an example of parents who didn’t establish good boundaries or teach the kids how to behave with the dog. As dog guardians, it's our job to look out for our furry friends so they don’t have to protect themselves.

Here are some steps to help children behave better with your dog:

1. Explain to the kids that petting a dog is our way of saying thank you. I often ask children if they would say thank you before or after I give them a piece of candy. When they say after, I confirm they are right and hand them the piece of candy.

2. Help the kids decorate a mug or jar with their name on it.

3. Tell the kids that each time they pet the dog to thank them and then tell you they did so, you will place an M&M (or whatever candy they prefer) into their jar.

4. You can add in other dog-related things to the M&M acquisition such as asking the dog to sit before letting it out a door, washing the dog, picking up poop, etc. Just be sure the kids earn M&Ms only for dog-related tasks. Every one of my clients who tried to add non-dog related tasks has said it ruined the whole thing.

5. If you catch the child doing something against the rules, take them and the dog to the jar, take a piece of candy out and say, “Oh no, I have to take a piece away for that. Would you like to do something to earn this back?” Bringing the dog and child back to the jar allows the child to ask for a quick sit so you don’t have to actually take any candy away.

6. At dinner or the end of the day, have the kids sit and empty their jar’s contents onto a plate. Count the candy pieces and the child with the most gets a special piece of cake, doesn’t have to do chores or gets a special privilege such as sleeping with the dog that night. Then let them have the candy pieces for desert or at lunch the following day.

7. If you really want to take this to the next level, chart the kids' progress, then offer a more prestigious reward at the end of the week and an even bigger reward at the end of the month (a movie night, a pizza party sleepover for the child and three friends). If you have kids ages 13 and older, candy isn’t quite as motivating as it is to younger kids. But you can simply tell the child they need to earn a certain number of M&Ms to sleep at a friend's house or go on a ski trip. By providing an incentive to engage with the dog in a positive way, kids help train your dog while also helping it develop respect for the kids.

Everyone wins.

Clients who use this method are impressed at how well it works and how much the dog’s behavior improves, too.

Good luck and remember; everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.


David Codr is a dog behavior expert based in Omaha. He answers dog behavior questions in an occasional blog on