The age-old question, “What are the best dogs for kids?” deserves to be answered in a complete way that doesn’t rely on calling out some breeds as no-no’s or claiming that a particular breed is the perfect choice. It requires a nuanced response that discusses what really matters and what doesn’t matter nearly as much. What really matters: the individual dog you bring into your home. What doesn’t matter quite as much as many think: the dog’s breed.
In my work as a canine behaviorist, I specialize in aggression, and have met thousands of aggressive dogs. Name any breed of dog and I have met an aggressive member of that breed. (I’ve also known sweet and sociable members of every breed I’ve met.) I only bring up my experience to disabuse anyone of the notion that choosing a dog because of its breed is a guarantee that you’ll end up with the dog you envision. It’s far better to choose an individual than a breed. You can’t guarantee that you’ll get a sweet, wonderful, non-aggressive dog simply by picking a “good” breed. It’s just not how dogs work.
And a caveat: If a kid wants a dog, there are many dogs who might make them happy, but if they aren’t interested, it’s possible no dog will be the right match. It’s also the case that once a child meets and gets to know a dog, they may fall in love, but the odds of a happy ending are always greater if they want a dog in the first place.
So, with all that in mind, here are some guidelines.
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Choose a dog who’s compatible with your lives.
A lot of what matters when considering the best dog for kids is that the dog is a good fit for the family in which those kids live. When it comes to selecting a dog who will be loved and cherished as well as enjoyed by a family with children (or without, frankly, but that’s not the issue we are addressing here), consider the following:
• The amount of exercise the dog needs. A bored, under-exercised dog with pent-up energy is more likely to be mouthy with kids, to leap up on them, to steal their toys and do all kinds 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 a ton of exercise (long-distance runner or livestock farmer, for example), the best dog for kids will not require herculean efforts in the physical-activity department. On a related note: While dogs who are way too big for a child to walk safely are not generally ideal, a big dog who is super-calm on leash can certainly be easier for a child to handle than a smaller dog who pulls all the time.
• The amount of grooming required. A dog who needs to be brushed for 20 minutes each day might be perfect if the child is an aspiring hair stylist but could be a nightmare for a family whose members considering hair brushing something that “we know should probably be done, but we don’t really bother with except for fancy occasions.” A long-haired dog with high grooming needs can be great if the family is into that, but if it’s likely to become yet another chore and a source of conflict, it’s not going to be good for anyone … parents, kids or dog.
• The type of dog kids want. While the amount of exercise and grooming and the ease of accomplishing them matter, so do other factors. If kids want a dog to play fetch or run around in the yard with, then a playful dog will fit the bill. If a child prefers the snuggling part of dog ownership, acquiring a dog who is lower in energy, is happy to sit on their lap and loves being petted is going to be the best dog for them.
The dog’s size, overall shape, fur type, even age can be factors. Sometimes, kids have their heart set on a puppy, or they want an older dog. If children have preferences, they should be taken into account (as long as those preferences also work for the parents, who are ultimately responsible for the dog).
Choose a dog who’s a good fit with any issues your child may have.
Each family must consider its own specifics when choosing a dog.
• Fear. If a child is afraid of certain types of dogs—perhaps big dogs, barking dogs or dogs of a particular breed—choose a dog who doesn’t pose those threats. While some feel that the best way to cure children of dog-related fears is to get a dog of the type that scares them, I’m 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 multiple families who tried this, and when it didn’t work, there were a lot of tears in my office. Such sad situations can be avoided by assuming that the best dogs for kids are those the kids don’t fear.
• Allergies. This is another issue outside my area of expertise but one that’s come up during consultations with clients. If one child can’t have the dog in their room because of allergies, that child may have a harder time building a relationship with the dog. Or, the dog may be banished from parts of the house for the sake of the child’s health, and that can make it harder to have a happy, well-adjusted dog. There are advantages to choosing a dog who is less likely to cause allergic reactions.
Choose a dog who’s a good fit with your child’s age.
Age is an important consideration when deciding on a dog. While all kids are different and age guidelines are not to be taken too strictly, some generalizations are useful.
• Up to about seven: Young children do best with the gentlest and calmest of dogs. They need constant supervision with any dog, both for their own safety and for the safety of the dog, and the more mellow the dog, the easier it is to keep everything under control. That’s especially true for toddlers and preschool-age kids who may upset even the most laid-back of dogs with their unpredictable movements, unexpected sounds and funny smells.
• 8 to 13: This is where there is the most variation in the ways dogs interact with kids. Dogs who are tolerant of noise, touching, surprises and unpredictability are still highly desirable for kids of these ages.
• 14 to 17: Kids of this age generally interact with dogs much the same way adults do, but that can vary a lot, too. So, the best dogs for teenagers, especially older teenagers, are not all that different than the best dogs for any family. The issues are mainly about compatibility and preference.
Choose a dog who doesn’t exhibit one of these red flags.
There are some deal-breakers related to dogs and kids.
• High-drive. Dogs who would make great working dogs or exceptional canine-sports dogs are not the best candidates for kids, especially younger kids. The results are far too often games that go bad: mouthiness, leaping up, slamming, knocking over, or even nipping and biting. Keeping dogs and kids apart can compromise the quality of life for all, and that doesn’t work out well for anyone (including the dog).
• Sound- or touch-sensitive. These dogs are usually happier in homes without children, and children will likely be happier with a dog who does not have these issues.
• High-strung. This can include dogs who tend to be vigilant and constantly on edge and dogs with any history of aggression—not only biting, of course, but also growling or lunging as well as being possessive of toys, food or bones. A dog with a bite history or history of other types of aggression can be rehabbed in the right home, but homes with kids are not on that list.
Choose an individual, not a breed.
This bears repeating. It’s common to assume that all members of a breed are alike, or at least very similar in temperament and personality, but it’s not true. Yes, breed can influence behavior, but studies have repeatedly shown that the variation between individuals is greater than the variation between breeds. Most of us have met retrievers with no interest in balls, herding dogs who are scared of sheep, and dogs bred to guard livestock or property who are all too happy to curl up on the sofa for a snooze when visitors (invaders!) show up.
Choose a dog who’s kind.
A dog who’s patient with being handled, friendly and relaxed around new people and new dogs is best for children (that includes dogs who are friendly to people of all ages). Dogs who have good bite inhibition are treasures, so that’s a key trait when deciding which dogs are best for kids. Not one of these qualities is breed-specific; some individuals have them and some don’t. How do we know if a dog has these qualities? While there are ways to make it more likely that the dog you choose has these attributes, there are no guarantees.
• For puppies, find out about the parents’ behavior. Many of these qualities are passed on to the next generation, so knowing what the parents are like gives you a leg up on knowing what the puppy is likely to be like. Puppies raised by people who take great care to breed for good temperament, begin socializing them early and well, and don’t allow them to be taken before the age of around eight weeks are better bets than puppies who are not given this attention.
• For adolescent and adult dogs, ask previous owners (or the rescue, shelter or fosterer) about the dog. Ask specific questions, such as, “If a child tried to take a bone from this dog, what would you expect to happen?” “How does this dog react to people running around?” “Does this dog like to sit in people’s laps?” and “How does this dog’s behavior change if she doesn’t get much exercise on a particular day?”
To answer the question, “What are the best dogs for kids?” we need to acknowledge that this is a bit like asking, “What are the best spouses for people?” Of course, there are some general answers that are true for nearly everyone (pleasant to be around, upstanding citizens) and answers that apply to the majority of people (smart, kind, funny, hard-working). After that, though, much depends on personal preference and compatibility.
Trying to choose the best dog for a family with kids can be nerve-racking. But the great news is, there are many wonderful dogs out there. You’re likely to find yourself among the millions of people who respond to the question, “What’s the best dog for kids?” by saying, “Our dog! Our dog is the best dog for kids.”