I’m going to come right out and say it – managing a baby, a toddler, or a young child with a dog (or many dogs!) can be tricky sometimes. It’s not always easy. Everyone needs attention from you, everyone needs love from you, and everyone needs you to be a referee at times.
Sometimes, it’s your baby who needs your help. Your dog likes to steal her toys and chew all of the hands off of her dolls. Your dog gets over excited and runs through the house like a tornado, sending your child flying like a little squishy bowling pin. Your dog helps himself to the cereal on your baby’s tray when you’re not looking!
Sometimes, it’s your dog who needs your help. Your baby wants to pet him, but is too rough and ends up pulling on sensitive fur and ears. Your baby throws a toy for him to fetch, but bonks him on the head with a hard ball instead. Your little one wants to explore your dog’s food while she’s trying to eat it.
What’s a good solution for the constant balancing of needs and attention? Why, adding a little bit of structure, of course! In this post, I’m sharing with you three simple games and activities that you can teach your toddler and your dog to play together. All of these games have a focus on being gentle with each other, respecting each other’s space, and creating positive associations (for both child and dog!).
Teaching your child and your dog to play structured games will help both of them learn to have fun in a safe and appropriate way. As your little one grows and gets more creative, you’ll see these games naturally evolve. Both your child and your dog will put their own unique twist on these, but the key is to start your baby off with an understanding of respecting your pup’s space and boundaries.
Want to learn a few more ways to get your dog acclimated to a bigger family life? Click here to get access to our FREE article, “7 Great Tips to Prepare Your Dog for Baby!”
1. Take (or Toss) a Treat
This is a particularly great game if either your dog or your baby is nervous around the other. You can play it through a barrier if you need to (through a crate, fence, or baby gate would work perfectly). It definitely helps to build those positive feelings and associations between your dog and your baby. Most dogs love to get food, and most babies love to see a dog take something and enjoy it!
How to play:
- Starting either through a barrier, or with your toddler in your lap, give your little a piece of food that your dog loves.
- Demonstrate either holding out a treat to your dog to take, or tossing the treat onto the ground in front of your dog so that he can get it.
- Show your child a couple of times how to give treats to your pup, until they’re excited to try themselves!
- Try to use treats that your dog LOVES, not just their regular old kibble or some dry milkbones. The stinkier and tastier the treat, the happier your dog will be to engage in this game with your baby!
- Maybe start off with a treat that’s also good for kids to eat, just in case your little one decides to have a few during the game! Hot dogs, deli meat, and thawed meatballs are some favorites that we use around here.
- If your dog doesn’t take treats gently, start off having your baby toss the treats onto the floor in front of your dog until you get the alligator snapping under control!
2. Throw a Toy
This one is especially good for those high energy dogs who love to run and chase toys! Probably it won’t be as much of a hit if your dog is 13 and has arthritis in both hips, but for the young ones it’s a classic. Teaching your toddler to throw or kick a toy for your dog has a couple of great effects: you get to teach cause and effect to your little one, you work on your kiddo’s coordination and motor skills, and you teach your dog how to play a structured game with your little one, rather than wrestling or chase.
How to play:
- Hold your toddler in your lap at first, or have them sitting on a chair or something higher up for the first few times you play.
- Use a favorite toy of your dog’s, and demonstrate throwing the toy for your dog to chase.
- After your baby has seen your pup chase after the toy a couple of times, let your child try to throw the toy.
- Be sure to remind your toddler to throw the toy AWAY from your dog, rather than at his head (this is the voice of experience talking).
- If your dog doesn’t like to bring toys back to you for fetch, bring out several toys that your dog likes. Use the spares to get him to come back (hopefully with the other toy in his mouth)!
- As your baby gets more adept at throwing the toy, go ahead and let him or her be down on the ground to throw it for your pup.
- Make sure that your dog doesn’t try to snatch the toy away before your baby throws it. Remember, we’re teaching respecting personal space for BOTH parties with these games!
3. Gentle Petting
This one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be amazed at the number of people who allow their children to slap, hit, pinch, and otherwise abuse their dogs simply because their dogs will tolerate it. It’s so important to start out on the right foot, and teach your little one how to pet your dog appropriately and gently. If your baby or your dog is nervous about being in such close contact with the other, again, having a barrier between them like a gate, or having your child in your lap while they practice petting is a good way to build comfort.
How to play:
- Hold your baby on your lap or in a chair with you as you call your dog over and demonstrate how to gently stroke your dog’s head, neck, and shoulders.
- Sticking to these parts of the dog’s body (dogs are much less likely to be reactive or defensive about being touched on these areas, rather than their rear end or their feet), encourage your baby to mimic your long, slow strokes.
- If your baby gets excited and starts to hit your dog, or pet too quickly or roughly, stop him or her immediately, calm things down, and start again. Enforce that that sort of touching isn’t allowed.
- Only do this activity for a couple of minutes at a time to start with. Playing with your dog in a quiet, still manner is hard for little kids to do, and they get excited easily!
- Watch for signs of discomfort in your dog (looking away, licking his lips, walking away), and honor them. Let your dog take a break from the interaction if need be!
- Monitor this very closely, especially as your child gets better and more independent with it. Be ready to step in and remind your baby to pet your dog gently, or calm your dog down if things get too excited. You’re the mediator!
Remember, neither dogs nor babies are born with an instinctive knowledge of how to interact appropriately with each other. All of those skills are 100% learned, and as the one in charge, it’s your job to teach them! Patience, structure, and consistent expectations will teach both baby and dog what is an acceptable way to play (games, treats, and gentle petting are a good place to start), and what is not acceptable (chasing, screaming, hitting, and wrestling are not safe or fun for very long). Teaching your baby and your dog to respect each others’ space and boundaries is the perfect first step to getting them started toward an excellent friendship!