Ways to help kids Understand Dog Communication

Teaching kids how to communicate with dogs is VITAL. Understanding animal-talk requires teaching. Dogs make all sorts of different sounds in different situations: growls, barks, yelps. And their body language says a lot, too. It’s difficult for young kids to understand exactly what their dog is “telling” them.

I have seen young children grab a dogs’ tail thinking that it would be fun to play with, only to have the dog give a warning snarl. Thankfully it was not worse than a warning, but we have all heard tales or have seen social media posts of tales that have had worse outcomes. 

Dogs express themselves differently than humans.

It can be frustrating for a little one to understand what a dog is telling them! Not all animals give the same signals. Reviewing common behaviors will help your kids be better prepared around dogs.

Here is a list of signals you can teach children.  You may find it easier to go through these when you see behaviors in real life or find some videos that may point out some of these items to help keep children interested. 

  • Tail wagging – often a wagging tail is seen as a happy dog.  The tail wag though is simply a response to something that aroused the dog, be it good or bad.  It’s important to watch the movement of the wag.  A slow gentle swing from side to side, usually with the tail at mid-height generally happens when a dog sees something that positively excites him.

A faster wag can indicate the dog is more aroused, but it can be positive or negative. 

My dog Shamus used to throw his whole body into the wag when he saw me. It was almost as if  his whole body melted because he was so happy to see me.  If a dog has more of a twitch like wag though and his body is rigid it can signal that the dog is on-guard, unsure or frustrated with a situation. 

  • An erect tail whether stiff or with a twitching wag can indicate agitation or nervousness. If it’s high, the dog may feel more confident in defending himself if the trigger is found to be a threat
  •  A low tucked in tail indicates the dog is fearful or feeling stressed out.  While dogs may be more submissive with this position, they may also become aggressive if they fear the trigger is an imminent threat.
  • Lip Licking or Yawning- Lip licking is often thought of as the dog is expressing hunger, because your dog may show this when he is waiting for a treat or his dog food.  With yawning, you just might feel that your dog is bored. Both these signals however can be a sign that the dog is stressed out and unsure of a situation.  These are both methods a dog uses to help calm himself. 
  • Ears flat back or whale eyes – can signal fear or anxiety.

Teach your kids the unique signals their own dog uses.

Kids need to understand the unique or specific gestures your own dog uses, what they mean and what the child should do (or not) if they see it. 

My current dog Declan is a very reactive dog and will often have an erect tail when he hears a noise or sees a new dog he hasn’t been introduced to.  He is definitely nervous and is not sure how to react.   

Educate kids in on your own dog’s cues

Everyone in the house should be on the same page when it comes to using verbal cues to ask their dog for certain behaviors. If one person asks for a “down” and another says “no” when your dog jumps up, the animal will certainly be confused. Commands help kids develop a healthy bond with your dog and is essential for good communication. 

Explain the rules for dog play

Kids can get confused about dog body language, given their own limited experience with animals.  A dog wagging its tail doesn’t want it grabbed, and wagging tails don’t always mean happy dogs. And most dogs don’t like being hugged close to your child’s face – even though kids are taught this is a gesture of care with other people.

Make sure your child knows how to play appropriately.  Running, screaming, shouting are no-nos. You want kids to approach a dog slowly, or better yet, let the dog approach them when they are ready. You may even need to outright ban some things such as poking, pulling or hugging hard.  

Learn how to play appropriately.

Every animal is different. My dog loves to run in the yard but can get easily overstimulated by children and does not know how to play with them. When my nieces and nephews come, I know it’s best to keep Declan away.  It would have been different with my last two dogs, however.  Shamus or Midnight would have grabbed the nearest ball and given it to the children to play fetch with them.

Kids will learn how to play with dogs by watching you play with them, and by the ways you guide their actions when they play with dogs themselves. Make sure kids are closely monitored around animals, especially if they are young.

Start slow and supervise. 

Safety is the true priority—both your dog’s and the child’s. Besides recognizing signals, it is important to instruct children where they can or can’t touch the dog and how to handle the dog.

If you’re introducing a new dog to a home with children, be even more attentive.

Dogs are great for children because they teach them simple responsibilities and they learn unconditional love. 

With a little caring guidance, your dog will learn to trust, respect and love your child.

Photographing Dogs and children together

Dogs and Kids have their own agenda- PLAY. Combining them in a photo session could be a disaster or a can produce the most beloved images. Knowing how to combine them is key.

Safety First

I will not photograph children and animals together that don’t know each other and have not learned some of the communication signals above.

Leash-The dog will be on leash. This is to help bring a dog out of a situation that we suddenly feel may be a danger to the child or dog. Leashes are generally easy to remove during the post processing.

Posing- Most of the time, the child will be posed first, then we will bring the dog in as long as he appears calm and not displaying any of the trigger behaviors above.

Patience- this is the main key. Allow the dog and the children to get comfortable with each other and be themselves in front of the camera.

Do you have kids in the home? Drop me a line and let me know how you taught them about dog communication!


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Capture your journey with your pet. Nancy Kieffer is a Certified Professional Pet, Equine and Nature Photographer Through Professional Photographers of America (PPA). Nancy serves Central New York, the Adirondacks and Beyond.  Capture how you share your life with your pet! It may be a vacation adventure or curled up on the couch with you. Travel assignments welcomed