I spend a great deal of time advising families on how to best prepare their dog for the arrival of their child. Occasionally people will ask which dog breeds I recommend for families that already have children.
A brief web search for “best dogs for kids” will yield pages upon pages of lists of dog breeds, each sporting a short paragraph explaining what makes it a good choice for a household with small children.
Be warned! I find most of these lists superficial and misleading. They pass off drivel as insightful doggie wisdom when they are nothing but meaningless, unhelpful generalizations. A prime example, “Collies are known to sense negative vibes from people and therefore make good family guardians.”
So when it comes to this question, “What are the best dogs for kids?”, let me first suggest how to think about this question. And then I’ll make some specific recommendations on what particular breeds to consider.
Choosing The Best Dogs for Kids: A Different Perspective
Rather than thinking of breeds as a starting point, I suggest first considering the qualities that would make a dog great with your child and then working from there.
Perhaps the most important qualities to look for in a dog are physical and emotional robustness coupled with sufficient tolerance to handle what small children can dish out.
Therefore physically frail and emotionally sensitive dogs like Chihuahuas probably shouldn’t be near the top of your list.
At the same time you don’t want a dog that is so wild and playful that she’s bouncing off the walls, threatening to knock your child over with her displays of exuberance.
Hyper Labradors bred for fieldwork might be physically and emotionally bullet proof when it comes to dealing with the abuse a young child can dish out. However, that same robustness can make them joyfully oblivious to the dangers of plowing your child over out of sheer enthusiasm.
Generally, I would suggest avoiding such “high drive” dogs because they can drive an ordinary family nuts.
Does Size Matter?
When assessing the best dogs for kids, size may or may not matter, but it’s certainly an important characteristic. A three pound toy Yorkie, even if she is robust and tolerant, may not be a great choice simply because she’s so fragile. The same might go for Italian Greyhounds.
Conversely, a fifteen pound terrier that’s full of life, physically tough and has learned tolerance may derive a great deal of joy from the rough and tumble relationship with a young child.
On the other end of the spectrum things are a bit simpler. Generally massive breeds such as Newfoundlands, Great Danes, St. Bernards and English Mastiffs are “gentle giants.” They tend to be tolerant and, due to their size, impervious to the relentless assaults of playful young children.
What About Ease of Training?
Ease of training is, in my view, an important criterion for a few reasons. First and foremost, if you’re going to have your dog spending a lot of time with your child, it’s important to have solid voice control over her in a variety of challenging circumstances.
But that’s not all.
Dogs that are easy to train can be fun for kids to work with constructively. Simple obedience, tricks and agility are all ways dogs and children can be taught to spend time together in fun and mutually beneficial ways.
How Important is Friendliness with Strangers?
Friendliness with strangers is a key criterion since it’s highly likely that your kids are going to have their friends (and often their parents) over for play dates.
A dog that’s terrified or suspicious of strangers isn’t going to be much fun and can quickly become a source of tension for everyone involved. Always look for social, outgoing and friendly dogs.
Should I look for a Puppy or Adult Dog?
There are arguments to be made for both. Starting with a puppy is a lot of work, but it allows you to have all the important formative influences on the dog’s development and can help you to shape its behavior in the desired directions.
On the other hand, a great deal of problem behaviors are rooted in genetics which means that you can’t really tell, despite the best upbringing, just how your dog will turn out. In other words, you can do all the right things and still end up with a dog unsuited to young children.
Conversely, getting an adult dog allows you to see the full package right up front even though you haven’t had all the formative influences in the dog’s life. In other words, the genetics have already unfolded themselves into an adult dog and you’ll know pretty quickly whether it’s going to work out or not.
Rescue or Purebred?
There are arguments to be made for both. With a purebred dog, you tend to know the basic characteristics of the breed going in. Labs are gentle and tolerant while Pointers and terriers are high strung, neurotic and intense. The list goes on.
If you are planning on getting a purebred dog, I recommend researching the breed and seeing one or both parents if possible. After all, it’s their characteristics that are going to be the most influential factor in the make up of the puppy. More to the point, if one or both of the parents seem like they wouldn’t be great with a kid, it might be well-advised to pass on that puppy.
With mixed breeds it can be more difficult to tell how they’re going to turn out, although generally mixed breed dogs tend to express the characteristics of the breed they look the most like.
However, mixed breeds bring plenty of great characteristics to the table, including their much-vaunted “hybrid vigor” – the fact that mixed breeds tend to be healthier and longer lived than purebred dogs.
And of course if you are getting a mixed breed dog, you are probably rescuing her from a life of uncertainty or worse. And doing so can set a fantastic moral example for your kids. A great source for finding mixed breed rescue dogs is Petfinder. They list dogs by region, size and, among other things, sociability with children.
Not All Kids are Created Equal
A further thing to consider is your child. There will be a huge difference between how a ten-year-old girl handles a dog compared to a five-year-old boy. Consider your child and the type of dog she would best be paired with.
As with all dog/human relationships it’s the right match of personalities and temperaments that’s key to success more than any individual characteristics.
How About Some Specific Suggestions?
Of course anyone searching this topic online is looking for specific breed recommendations. So in order not to disappoint I will make a few with the proviso that the criteria above are far more important than any specific breed suggestions.
The first breeds that come to mind for their general friendliness, robustness and intelligence include Labradoodles (often poo-poo’ed by doggie purists, these dogs are some of sweetest, smartest dogs around), Golden Retrievers, English Labs, Standard Poodles, and Bernese Mt. Dogs.
Many of these breeds are known to be great family companions and have spent many hundreds of generations developing this reputation.
I could go on adding to this list and breaking it down along different criteria. However, there is no sense in reinventing the wheel. Back in 1983 Daniel Tortora wrote a fantastic little book called The Right Dog for You cataloging hundreds of dogs breeds in accordance with specific criteria in order to help people determine the right dog for them.
Do you want to learn more about preparing your dog for the arrival of your baby? Check out my book: Good Dog, Happy Baby