How to Choose and Train a Family-Friendly Dog

Family, Featured Article

Choosing a family dog can be overwhelming. It’s a big choice, after all, to select the right pet for your family and lifestyle. And the adorable little puppy who can’t stop running after squirrels is never as cute once he’s fully grown and can drag you—or the kids—behind the leash whenever you try to walk him. We asked three pet experts to advise on how parents can spot the perfect dog for their family and how to train it to interact well with children.

Meet the experts and find out what they had to say.


Meet the experts:

Brittney Barton is the founder of HEAL Veterinary Hospital, a Dallas, Texas-based facility that provides general pet care and focuses on hard-to-find pet services such as acupuncture. She serves as a member of the American Veterinary Dental Society, American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture and American Veterinary Medical Association, among others.

Robin Bennett is a certified professional dog trainer, author, consultant and expert on dogs. She founded one of the largest dog training companies in Virginia, All About Dogs, and has worked with dogs for many than 20 years. She has also authored or co-authored several dog guides, including All About Dog Daycare.

Joel Silverman is a professional dog trainer with more than 30 years of experience, as well as a published author. His most recent book, What Color Is Your Dog?, details how to train your dog based on his or her unique personality. He is also the former host of “Good Dog U,” a television show that ran on Animal Planet from 1999-2009.


The questions:

1. Are certain breeds more kid-friendly than others? And if so, what are some of the best breeds for families?

Barton: Which breed you choose depends on your family activity level, available interactive time, age of children, anticipated group activities with the pet, and discretionary income for pet supplies, food and medical care. If you want a smaller pet that is sturdy but easy to travel with, consider a French bulldog or a pug. If your family is set on a larger breed pet for a higher-activity lifestyle, look to the English setter, Irish setter, golden retriever or labrador.

Bennett: Some breeds are bred to be more social towards people in general. For instance, labrador retrievers and golden retrievers have a strong history of working well with people. However, within every breed you can find variances in a dog’s temperament.

Silverman: In general, there are a few breeds that I am constantly recommending to families, especially that have small children; they are labrador retrievers and golden Retrievers. One of the biggest reasons is that both these breeds are generally extremely tolerant of a variety of things, one of them being young kids.


2. How do mixed breeds compare to purebreds? Should families look at mixed breeds when trying to choose a kid-friendly dog?

Barton: It all comes down to personal preference. Breeds just give you an idea of what to expect from a pet. Are they short-haired? Do they shed a lot? What kind of grooming will they require? What are the expected personality traits? How big will they be? Mixed breeds adopted as an adult from a shelter holds few surprises. What you see is what you will get.

Bennett: I think you can find very kid-friendly dogs in both mixed breeds and purebreds. The main advantage with a purebred is you have a better expectation of the size, coat type and look of the dog when it grows up. That’s not always easy to determine with a mixed breed. However, if you don’t want a specific “look” in the dog, then a mixed breed may work out fine.

Silverman: There are thousands of mixed-breed dogs out there that might make a great family pet. It really is all about the individual dog and what parts of breed or breeds are in that dog. If you are at an animal shelter or humane society and looking for a dog, always ask one of the workers what breed they think might be in the dog.


3. Where should families look to find a kid-friendly dog (i.e. pet store, private breeder, shelter, etc.)?

Barton: There are approximately 2.7 million pets euthanized in American shelters each year. With a staggering statistic like that we should all be looking to our local shelters first, but do your homework and learn how to evaluate pet behavior to help you choose the right pet for your family. If your heart is set on a specific breed of pet, and medical history and background are important, then look to private breeders. I would recommend you visit the location where the puppies are raised.

Bennett: I would recommend either a reputable breeder or a shelter/rescue organization. If you get a puppy, I would recommend getting one that is at least 8 weeks old and ideally one that has been well-socialized by the breeder even before it goes to a new home. If you go to a shelter/rescue, you should make sure they do some type of assessment with the dog to ensure as much as possible that it is a good match for the family and kids.

Silverman: If you are looking for a pure-bred dog, my recommendation would be to talk to friends, co-workers or family, and check on the Internet to find a good breeder of that specific breed. If you are looking at animal shelters for mixed-breed dogs, you are going to want to bring the whole family, especially young kids. When you see a dog you like, make sure you take the dog out to a separate meeting room or separate area. Many dogs do not show their true personality in the kennel.


4. What is the relative importance of an individual dog’s temperament versus the breed’s overall temperament? What are some signs families can look for that a dog will be kid-friendly?

Barton: To choose a kid-friendly pet, look for the pet who is open and accepting of all individuals. They should seek attention readily and not shy away from contact. Ask to feed the pet treats and play with them using toys. Some pets can be great until food or toys are introduced. Use caution with a pet that cowers in the corner. While there are many wonderful dogs with a higher-than-normal baseline fear, it can be hard to differentiate which ones just cower versus which ones will snap.

Bennett: For me temperament will trump everything … looks, sex, breed, etc. Even among the breeds considered “pet-friendly,” you can find temperaments that are not suitable for a family with children. A dog with a kid-friendly temperament is one that is highly social. That means the dog actively seeks out soft, social interaction with people, and especially with children. A great scenario would be one in which the dog chooses to go visit with the children first.

Silverman: There is a huge importance of the dog’s individual temperament. A great indication of a dog being kid-friendly is a dog that is happy, wagging its tail, pacing around, and that naturally does not want to jump on people.


5. When it comes to having a kid-friendly dog, how much of it is nature vs. nurture (can you train a dog to be kid-friendly)?

Barton: Some pets are born with aggressive or dominant tendencies. This disposition can be identified in almost any breed although some breeds are over-represented. In general, no 12-week-old puppy should growl and snap with handling. It is possible to train a pet to be kid-friendly … pets with food and toy aggression only can be trained out of it with a lot of intensive work. Ultimately, I would not recommend obtaining or retaining a pet that shows any propensity for child aggression; the risk of injury to a child is just too great!

Bennett: I think both nature and nurture come into play. However, you can only nurture or train a dog to a certain extent within the bounds of its genetic make up. The younger you see the dog, the more you are seeing the nature of the dog, and any work you do to train the dog will take place within those boundaries of the dog’s nature. I think you are better off starting with a dog that doesn’t need too much work to enjoy the company of kids.

Silverman: I believe in finding a dog that is naturally good with kids. I never try to “put a square box in a round hole” and try to make a dog like kids.


6. What are some tips for training a dog to interact well with kids?

Barton: Training a puppy should occur in conjunction with training your child. Puppy handling should focus on de-sensitization and positive reinforcement of desired behaviors. Keep the sessions short and frequent, and do not allow the puppy to use his mouth on your child. It may be cute at 6 weeks of age, but it certainly isn’t at 6 years of age.

Bennett: Kids should be taught the proper way to greet a dog. They should be involved with training using positive reinforcement, and they should understand when to leave a dog alone (if the dog is eating, resting, etc). Kids should also be encouraged to treat the animal with respect (no riding, climbing, pulling tails, etc). I would also recommend kid-friendly games the kids can play with the dog so they can build a strong relationship.

Silverman: It is essential that the parents be in total control in teaching their kids how to interact with the dog. One of the biggest problems that I have seen is not necessarily the kids not treating the dog right, but the kids’ friends who come over. The parents need to take a lead role in making sure that all visiting kids treat the dog with the same love and respect that is expected of their own children.


Does your family have a dog? What breed? What tips have you found that have worked to ensure that it’s a long-lasting, harmonious relationship?

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