Kids & K-9s: Interpreting an Animal’s Body Language

Queen Anne is a popular neighborhood in Seattle for dog owners and many QACP families count a pet as at least one of their family members.  Co-op parent and certified professional dog trainer/behavior consultant, Lisa McCluskey, offers the following tips on canine body language to help parents feel confident in addressing this important safety topic with their children.

We hear what dogs are telling us with our eyes.  Consider how as a parent you would describe to your children the skill of observing animal body language.  Picture in your own “mind’s eye” what you feel a friendly, safe, well-behaved dog looks like when he/she is wanting to interact with small children.  

Ask yourself questions about energy level, attentiveness to the owner (versus environment) and the level of relaxation you feel the dog should be displaying at that moment in time.  What would a dog need to be doing (or not doing) in order for you to feel fine about allowing your children to pet him/her?  Realize this would be the dog of a complete stranger and take into account that you may never see the dog or human under consideration ever again.

Next, mentally list various nonverbal cues demonstrated by the “safe” dog you are envisioning in your mind.  What could any caretaker of your child point out to kids for consideration/education in a situation including a possible dog interaction?  These should be notes an adult is easily able to store as talking points before any attempt is made by the children to touch an animal owned by someone else.  

After you feel that you have a solid vision in mind for what you hope would be a good dog experience for your children, personally test your hypothesis out in your community without children being present.  Then, disseminate your results.  Were you correct on which dogs ended up being “friendly”?  

Additionally, how would the dogs you met have done if you were also accompanied by one or more children at the same time?  Best practices would dictate troubleshooting the common problems you encountered when out alone meeting the dogs of others BEFORE adding children you are caring for into the mix.

Many misconceptions exist in our culture when interpreting an animal’s behavior towards encountering humans (adults and children).  At the very least, a dog that you introduce to your children should have the wholehearted permission of the person holding the animal’s leash to do so.  Children should wait until their caretaker gives an “all clear” to meet a dog.  Permission to interact with a pet must include simple, age-appropriate instructions for the child/children to carry out at the beginning, middle and end of the interaction.  

Generally speaking, professional dog trainers and behavior consultants recommend when putting kids and dogs together, “If in doubt, don’t.”  There are a lot dogs in Seattle.  Consider the fact that in the course of one day, there will be innumerable humans that may not be in a position to stop and interact with you.  Therefore, we could also estimate that there would be a similar magnitude of dogs out being walked in the same position and of identical persuasion.  

Observe safety and implement best practices when allowing your children to interact with animals.  Learning to understand and process information about body language is an invaluable tool for building empathetic and powerful adult communication skills.  Dogs are able to be phenomenal teachers both up close and at a distance for our children.  Encourage the power of observation (before action) when introducing animal awareness education every day to kids and the benefits will be immeasurable.  For more information on fostering healthy relationships between children and dogs, please visit


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