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Dogs and children

The words 'Mummy, can we have a puppy?' can often be heard echoing around many a home in the UK. While dogs can make phenomenal family pets, many parents are concerned that their children may come to harm if a dog is introduced to the home. This fear has been fuelled somewhat by media horror stories about children being mauled by dogs.

According to NHS statistics obtained by the Liberal Democrats in February 2007, the number of people attending A&E with dog bites is on the rise - with around 3,800 a year seeking treatment. Of these, the majority are children and teenagers. When you consider that, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), there are roughly 6.1 million dogs as pets in the UK, this may seem like a very low figure.

But no parent wants to put their child at risk, so if you are thinking of getting a dog for your family, what do you need to keep in mind?

Perfect breeds for children

Many people looking to buy a dog for their family can make a fundamental mistake by going along with the assumption that certain dogs have certain temperaments and therefore make better pets for families with children. However, it's not as cut and dried as that.

The best breed of dog is the one that suits your family the best. Put a Rottweiler in a home that suits it and it can be a perfect pet. Put a Labrador with the wrong family and it can turn into a nightmare. Likewise, big dogs can be gentle and small dogs can be snappy, so don't be guided by size.

The important thing to remember is that no breed is 100% safe, so here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing a dog for your home.

  • The age and temperament of your children. Are they old enough to be taught how to treat the puppy/dog? If not, they may 'mishandle' it, which can lead to problems, such as a dog nipping at a child tugging on its ears. Also, some big dogs can be energetic and clumsy and knock a small child over. Are your children quiet or boisterous? You need a breed that will complement their nature.
  • Should you get a puppy or an older dog? A puppy requires a lot of energy as well as toilet training, an older dog (six months or up) should already know what is and isn't good behaviour.
  • Amount of exercise required - are you and/or your children going to be able to provide the right level of exercise for your dog? If not, they may not settle well and become a problem.
  • Look for a good breeder - they will be able to tell you about any historical problems with temperament.

That said, there are some breeds that have reputations as being good with children, so you may well want to consider these, keeping the above in mind - Shih-Tzu, Pug, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Border Terrier, Beagle, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Cocker Spaniel and Labrador/Golden Retriever.

What your children should know

Just as finding the 'right' dog is important, it's also vital that you teach your children how to treat your pet and how to behave around it. Here are some practical tips that can help and are useful whether or not you have a dog at home:

  • Teach children to be gentle and respectful around dogs. Show them how to stroke a dog gently on the head or chest.
  • Explain that they mustn't pull the dog's tail or ears, poke it in the eye, tease it or be rough with it or hug it - generally speaking dogs find hugging threatening.
  • Don't let your children be too loud around your dog, such as running around, screaming and shouting, this can startle dogs and they can react instinctively.
  • Tell them not to stare a dog in the eye as this can be threatening.
  • If your dog is sleeping or eating, your children should leave it alone.
  • Teach your children to recognise the danger signs - such as growling, stiffening of the body, raising of the hackles, and so on - and to leave the dog alone immediately

If you want to educate your children in dog safety, the UK Kennel Club operates a Safe And Sound Award Scheme to promote safe interaction between children and dogs.

Related information:

Rescue cats and dogs – find out more about the process of introducing a rescue animal to your family home
Training your dog – We’ve got some useful tips on training your dog.