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How to Teach Your Kids to Approach Strange Dogs

It’s been about a week since we’ve been to the dog park, and I’m predicting that we won’t be heading back for a while till things warm up. But the last time we stopped by for a few minutes, till the chilly wind chased us back home, something interesting happened. Janice and Leroy were out playing in the fenced-in dog area, as they normally do, and a child showed up, alone. More than likely, he walked over from the nearby human park, but he seemed intent on making a beeline for my dogs. Now, with Janice and Leroy, that’s not so much of a problem – they are well socialized and good with kids. But with some dogs, that could be a big problem!

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We’ve talked before on the blog about kids and dogs, pretty extensively. And I’ve mentioned in just about every Breed of the Week post that it’s important to teach kids how to act around dogs, just as much as it is to teach dogs how to act around kids. But what exactly does that mean, “how to act around dogs”? What is it that you should be teaching your kids to keep them and the dogs safe?

I’m glad you asked.

In this article, I’m going to give you every tip I have for what kids need to be taught when it comes to strange or new dogs. While the kid who wanted to pet Janice and Leroy turned out to be friendly, if a little bit forward, that whole situation could have been much more dangerous had my dogs not been so kid-friendly. After all, they were where they were supposed to be – and the child was barging into the dog area without supervision. That all spells disaster in other situations. So here is some common sense to pass along to children, in the hopes that we all get along.

Approaching Strange Dogs

The most important thing to teach your child in this scenario is how to approach – or not approach – strange dogs. These tips apply to unplanned meetings with dogs, where your child will have to make some decisions on the fly. This could mean coming across a stray, meeting a dog that is out for a walk with its owner, or visiting a friend’s house who has a dog that they’ve never met. In any of those cases, there are some very important safety tips that a child should memorize:

  • Always make sure to ask permission before approaching a dog. This means that your child needs to ask your permission, and then the permission of the dog’s owner. And if there isn’t an owner around, a child shouldn’t approach a dog. They should let an adult do it first.
  • If a dog doesn’t look happy and relaxed (ears relaxed, tail upright and wagging, body relaxed), then don’t approach the dog, period. If your child is older, you can help them learn about dog body language, so they have a better idea of what signs a dog will show when they are happy.
  • Always walk very slowly towards the dog. Don’t run towards her, or move without any warning. Make sure the dog can see you first, then start moving towards her calmly.
  • Don’t go all the way to the dog. Your child should stop just inside the dog’s range on their leash, and let them come the rest of the way. This is a very important tip because it allows the dog to decide if they are feeling friendly, should you or your child be having difficulty reading their body language.
  • If a dog approaches you after you’ve followed the above tips, you should not immediately start petting her! Instead, hold out the back of your hand in a lightly closed fist (just a relaxed, closed hand. No need to clench.) Let the dog sniff the back of your hand, and don’t do anything else. If the dog is very small, you may need to squat down to their level, but there’s no need to do anything else yet.
  • Be sure that your child knows never to approach a dog that is either eating, sleeping, or not looking at them. Approaching a dog that is occupied or unaware of your presence could lead to the dog snapping.

So that’s how you approach a dog. At that point, the dog will either want to interact more, or they will back off. If the dog backs away, it’s best to back away yourself. That is generally a sign that the dog didn’t like whatever he smelled of your hand, or isn’t comfortable with anything more.

How to Act Around New Dogs

So the next step is probably to pet the dog or interact with the dog, but before we go that far, let’s make sure that children know how they need to be acting around the dog if she chooses to stick around.

  • Be sure that kids know not to pull on the dog’s tail, ears, or feet. In fact, it’s best to avoid touching the feet at all, as many dogs aren’t fond of that.
  • Kids should always keep their faces away from a dog’s face. Don’t go in for a kiss or try to snuggle or hug the dog in any way unless you are very familiar with the dog. If the dog gets overwhelmed, this means that your child’s face will be right near their teeth.
  • Kids should try not to run away from a dog that is acting very excited. Calmly moving away is better. Dogs do have the instinct to chase, and may see it as a game.
  • Finally, be sure that kids understand that making a lot of loud noise around a dog is a bad idea. It could overexcite the dog, scare the dog, or startle the dog – and all of those are bad when hanging around a new dog.

One thing I get asked a lot is whether it’s a good idea to carry dog treats for strange dogs if you live in an area where it’s common to come across them. I wouldn’t recommend it, mostly because you never know how a strange dog will react to food, or whether they are on a specific diet. Offering a new dog food could make them lunge aggressively towards the food, for example. If you happen to be walking your own dog with treats and want to offer one to a strange dog, it’s best to give the treat to the owner and let them feed their dog.

Petting New Dogs

Now on to petting dogs, which is usually the first thing children want to do. If your child wants to pet a new dog, make sure that they understand these rules:

  • They are usually safe gently petting a dog’s chest or the side of the body. It is not a good idea to start with the top of the head, or the back if it means you have to reach over the dog’s head. Dogs don’t like not being able to see where your hands are going, and this could frighten them.
  • Always pet the dog in the direction of the fur. For most dogs, this means pet downward. If the dog is tolerating the petting of the chest or side of the body, then you can slowly work your way to the back or the neck. With a new dog, it’s best just to avoid the head.
  • If the dog starts to back away, suddenly stands very still and stiff, starts to growl, flattens his ears, stops wagging his tail, or otherwise changes his friendly demeanor, it’s best to immediately stop petting and slowly move away.

I should note that unless a dog is on a leash or harness so that he can be controlled, it may be best not to try to pet him at all – such as in the case of a dog being loose in an enclosed dog park. Even if the owner is standing right there, it’s hard to tell how a dog will react to a new person sometimes.

Signs You Need to Back Away

Above anything else, you need to be sure that your child understands the signs that a dog will give off that say “back away”. This will keep your child safe, and make the dog feel more comfortable. If your child is too young to learn these signs, then you need to be very aware of them, and be ready to get your child away from the dog quickly if need be.

One thing before we list a few body language signals to know: Teach your child to stand perfectly still and to remain calm if a strange dog ever approaches them. This is especially true if a stray dog wanders into your yard, for example. Your child should simply stand still and let the dog move on. If the dog tries to approach them, they should back away calmly to an adult.

Now, if you have approached a dog, and start to see any of the following signs, it’s time to get away:

  • Flattened ears
  • Tail tucked between legs
  • Hair bristling up on the back or tail
  • Growling, snarling, or curled lips
  • Backing away
  • Refusal to come any closer to you once you stop moving
  • Hiding behind their person
  • Crouching with the whole body close to the ground

Other things to watch out for include dogs that don’t appear to be under control by their owners, and dogs that look like they are a little too excited and preparing to jump. A large dog – or even a medium-sized dog – can easily overpower a child and accidentally hurt them if they jump.

Always remember that dogs that are tied up to something – like a dog that has been left outside a coffee shop while the owner runs inside – should not be approached. Dogs in this situation are more likely to be protective and lash out.

It takes several visits before a dog feels like they know a person, so be sure that your child knows to follow all these rules even if they remember a dog from before. If you regularly meet a dog on your daily walk, you’ll eventually form enough of relationship that your child can simply go pet the dog when they see her. But until that point, it’s best to keep all these tips in mind at every single visit.

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The Final Word

In the case of Janice, Leroy, and the mystery kid at the dog park, nothing terrible happened. I was able to call my dogs over to me and restrain them, and then let the kid approach them and pet them. This is because I’ve trained my dogs well and know that they are very comfortable around kids. If I didn’t know that, I wouldn’t have allowed this to happen.

And while no one in that situation asked me, I can’t help but impart a bit of dog wisdom on anyone I meet in the dog park, so I did tell the kid a few of these tricks for meeting dogs properly. Hopefully, that keeps him safer in the future and prevents any dogs from feeling uncomfortable around him as well.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from fostering a love of dogs in their kids – on the contrary, I love seeing kids who understand how awesome dogs can be! But I do want to make sure that both dogs and kids can be together safely. Even the most well-trained dogs can react unpredictably when a stranger is nearby, and kids are in more danger of getting hurt because they are unpredictable themselves.

So the next time you are out with your kids and you come across a dog, be sure that you’ve got all these tips in mind. You’ll be more comfortable, your kid will be safer, and the dog will be happier. And that all spells a much better meeting for anyone involved.