Do Dogs Know Children Are Children?

Dogs Can Distinguish Children from Adults

Dogs tend to respond differently to the voices, smells, and behaviors of children compared to adults. According to research, dogs can distinguish the higher-pitched voices and small size of children versus adults ( They are also able to detect the unique scent of children. Dogs may exhibit protective behaviors like staying close, guarding, and gently nudging children away from perceived dangers.

In play, dogs seem to instinctively know to be more gentle with children. They will moderate their strength and may bow down to get on a child’s level. Rather than wrestling or chasing, dogs often engage in gentler play by bringing toys to children. Their play style with children involves more licking and soft mouthing compared to rougher play with adult humans or other dogs.

Overall, scientific studies and dog owner accounts show dogs recognize children as younger family members needing care and protection. Their behaviors demonstrate an ability to distinguish children from fully grown adults.

Dogs View Children as Family

Dogs form extremely close bonds with their human families and often treat human children as part of their pack. According to the AKC, “When a dog has a strong pack drive and is tightly bonded with his family, it’s only natural that he becomes protective of a new baby when he or she arrives.”1 Dogs will often sniff, lick, and watch over a new baby as a way to include them as part of their pack.

Because dogs are so social, they tend to be extremely affectionate and patient with human children. Dogs will gently play with kids, adjust their energy levels to match a child’s, and often become a child’s closest companion. According to the AKC, “The relationship between dogs and babies can be mutually beneficial.”1 The bond between a dog and child in the same household can be profoundly loving and loyal on the dog’s part.

Children’s Voices and Smells

Dogs are very attentive to the voices and smells of children. Research shows that dogs pay more attention when they hear higher pitch voices, like those of children and babies, as compared to lower pitch adult voices (AKC, 2018). This is likely because higher pitch voices and “baby talk” resemble the yelps and whines of puppies. Dogs associate the sounds of children’s voices with small size and vulnerability.

In terms of smell, young children have a very distinct scent that dogs recognize. A child’s natural smell likely triggers dogs’ protective instincts and draws their attention. Dogs know that human babies and young children require more caretaking and supervision. Their cues, smells, and sounds all signal to a dog that a child is present and needs monitoring or gentle care.

Reading Children’s Behaviors

Dogs are very adept at reading human body language and emotions. They are attentive to our facial expressions, gestures, gaze, and tone of voice.[1] This helps them understand our moods and intentions. Dogs may perceive children differently because children’s body language and behaviors tend to be more exaggerated, unpredictable and erratic compared to adults.[2] A child’s movements can seem sudden and hyper to us, but dogs can actually interpret the meaning behind those behaviors. They understand a child’s exaggerated expressions of excitement, anger, or sadness. Dogs also read subtle cues that we might miss, so they comprehend when children need gentle affection.

While an adult’s behaviors may appear more rational and composed, a dog can struggle to understand unpredictable adult mood swings. In contrast, a dog can usually make better sense of a child’s open emotional outbursts and unfiltered behaviors. Children also play with more animation and physicality. Dogs seem to enjoy and reciprocate that style of play through gentle wrestling, chasing, and fetch games.

Gentle Play Style

Dogs naturally tend to adapt their play style when interacting with children. Studies have shown that dogs self-handicap and inhibit their strength and speed when playing with young children compared to when playing with adults. They allow children to win play fights and will often let themselves be “dominated” during play without retaliating. Dogs seem to innately understand that children are more fragile. This pattern of gentler play is especially noticeable in dogs who live with children long-term.

For example, one study observed dog behavior during play with both adults and children. It found that dogs were significantly less likely to bite or physically dominate when playing with a child versus an adult partner [1]. The dogs inhibited the full use of their physical capacities when interacting with children who were less able to withstand their normal strength and speed.

Overall, research indicates dogs deliberately change their style of play and level of gentleness when engaging with toddlers and young children compared to adults. They tend to adapt a more careful, handicapped and cooperative play style when playing with kids.

Protective Instincts

Dogs often exhibit strong guarding behaviors around children in order to keep them safe from harm. This protective instinct comes from dogs viewing human children as part of their pack. According to the AKC, dogs will keep watch over babies and young children, intervening if they hear the child making noises of distress (AKC). Dogs can pick up on cues that a child is in danger before humans recognize them. Their protective behaviors towards children range from simply staying close by their side to physically placing themselves between the child and a perceived threat. Mother dogs especially demonstrate protective behaviors around human babies, as their maternal instincts kick in.

There are many stories of dogs putting themselves at risk to guard children. Dogs will often bark to alert parents if a child is in distress or danger. Some dogs have even been known to fight off wild animals or intruders to protect a child. However, while dogs can be counted on to keep watch, they still should not be fully trusted alone with young children. Supervision by an adult human is always important.

Supervision Still Needed

While most dogs have an instinct to be gentle with children, direct supervision is still required when dogs and kids interact. Dogs can misinterpret a child’s actions, like sudden movements or shrill noises, as threatening or an invitation to play roughly. According to Safe Kid & Dog Interactions, children under 5 should not be left alone with any dog.

Parents should teach children how to properly and safely interact with dogs. Children can be taught to move slowly, avoid staring into a dog’s eyes, pet gently on the shoulders rather than the head, and not disturb a dog while eating or sleeping. With guidance, kids and dogs can develop wonderful bonds and coexist safely.

Bonding From a Young Age

Early socialization helps dogs bond with children. According to the American Kennel Club, puppies that are introduced to children between 3-12 weeks old while still with their mother and littermates tend to be more comfortable around kids later in life[1]. This early exposure allows them to become accustomed to the sights, sounds, and smells of children during the critical socialization period.

Positive interactions also reinforce the child-dog relationship. Letting children engage in supervised play, give treats, or walk on leash teaches the dog to associate kids with pleasant experiences[2]. Consistent positive reinforcement helps form a lifelong bond. However, dogs still require training on appropriate behavior around children regardless of socialization history.

Breed Differences

Certain breeds tend to do better with children than others based on their inherent traits and personalities. Herding breeds like Collies and Shetard Sheepdogs often have a very patient and gentle nature ideal for interacting with kids. According to the AKC, their watchful attitude makes them attuned to children’s behaviors and activities (AKC, 2023).

Some breeds also have stronger protective instincts when it comes to children. Newfoundlands are known as “nanny dogs” for their loyalty and protectiveness over kids. Their large size and tolerant attitude serve them well in family settings. Bulldogs also tend to be very attached to human families and are devoted companions for children (Chewy, 2023). However, proper supervision is still essential when matching any breed with young kids.

Signs of a Child-Loving Dog

There are certain behaviors that can indicate if a dog enjoys and tolerates being around children. Some signs to look for include:

• Tolerates tail pulls/ear tugs from kids – A dog that allows children to gently tug on their tail or ears without reacting negatively is showing tolerance for typical child behaviors. This is an important trait in a child-friendly dog. However, children should still be taught to be gentle and not hurt the dog.Training Your Dog to Be Kid Friendly

• Seeks out child’s company or plays gently – A dog that initiates play and interaction with children in a gentle, appropriate way enjoys their company. Look for a dog that matches the child’s energy level and wants to engage with them.Is Your Dog Great with Kids? Be Sure.

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