Is Baby Safe in Daycare With Dogs?

I need help baaaadly! My wife and I have a 9mo. old and my inlaws are our everyday babysitter. They have four dogs.  Two of them,  I don’t worry about. The other two however are a different story; these dogs are in there teen years energy wise. One is a Louisiana catahoula and the other is a mutt of some sort. They play rough and fast and we are worried because my mother in law does not think they will harm her (on purpose).

The mutt has already accidentally severely scratched my babies back by stepping on her back. Shrugged it off and went on with life. Last week my daughter is in the I like to pull on things stage. 9mo old and was tugging on the mutts leg or beard (not sure which as I’m getting different stories) then he growled once or twice apparently as a warning. Then he snapped at her. Didn’t hurt her but not cool.

So what should we do, pull her out and into a different daycare? Dogs are wonderful but are animals. They will defend themselves just like any other species. So aside from staying right next to my daughter and making sure 24/7 she doesn’t touch them, what can we do to assure she is truly safe?

Thank you!!


I’m sorry, Matt, for your family’s distress.

There is a lot tangled up in this situation.  First, how to manage different expectations among family members and, second, under what conditions might it be safe to have dogs intermingled with children in a daycare situation?  And, of course, the big question that haunts all of us through every stage of parenthood, “How can I assure my child’s safety?”  I wish I had a fail safe answer to that third question, but I can tackle the other two.

The main thing is to be clear in your own head when you, or others, are choosing to rely on hope as a method of bite prevention.   Another measure I use is, would I say, “I knew it!” if something bad happened?


Baby + Extended Family’s Dogs

Two factors at play here:

  1. Hardly anyone has constructive conversations with family about what you think they are doing wrong
  2. It’s kind of a “beggars can’t be choosers” situation if family is watching your child for little or no pay

Other people’s dogs and how they are managed is a touchy conversation – no two ways about it! When you say, “I have concerns about the dogs,” they hear some variation of, “I think you are a bad person” or “I know better than you.”  You and I can agree that the dogs should be better managed around your baby, but the trick is to find common ground with your mother-in-law and build from what you both can agree on.

A dog trainer (!) cannot be your only source for learning how to do that, but I can recommend two books that I think will be very helpful.

If all you can see is, “Grandma is crazy and won’t listen to me!,” I don’t think you’ll be able to get the situation to change.  Even if Grandma gives lip service to your concerns, you are not there to see that the changes are being made.  Grandma has to truly understand and agree and the solution has to be manageable for her. Other readers may have good suggestions for how they handled similar situations or you may benefit from discussion with a competent family counselor.

Your obvious point of agreement is the safety and well-being of the child.  Start from there and build common ground.


Baby + Dog at Daycare

Even without it being Grandma watching the kids, any other in-home daycare situation may involve dogs in the home and every family has to evaluate the situation to make sure it fits their acceptable risk profile.

Sometimes it helps to substitute different scenarios and see where you draw your lines.

For example, here are some situations which would surely prompt further questioning before just hoping for the best:

  1. Daycare provider has guns in the house
  2. Daycare provider smokes
  3. Daycare provider has a swimming pool

Pets should certainly be on that list, don’t you think?

Some people may cross off any of those situations right off the bat.  Other times, your choices may be limited or there are other wonderful things about the situation that make you willing to discuss how the risks are managed:

  1. Loaded guns lying around the play areas (NOOO!) vs. “Yes, we have guns and they are kept in this locked, inaccessible safe” (Maybe)
  2. Daycare provider smokes around the children (NO) vs. “I limit my smoking to outside and never when I have children here” (Maybe)
  3. Pool is unfenced right by where the children play (NO) vs. “Here is the pool fencing and the locked gate and alarm system” (Maybe)

I used to be a CPA and an internal auditor.  The focus of an audit is not so much on catching what was done wrong as it is on evaluating internal controls — what procedures and safeguards are in place to prevent errors and bad things from happening? Because you are absolutely right that you cannot be there 24/7 to keep your child safe.

Your peace of mind needs more than assurances that nothing bad has happened in the past or trusting that someone is nice and means well and will “watch the kids.”  It’s nothing personal to expect procedures to be well-thought out and implemented in a daycare situation.


How Does this Apply to Dogs in Daycare?

Guns, smoking, pools – these seem objectively reasonable to ask about and for a daycare provider to have already thought through. (You’d think, right?!)

But, what about dogs or other pets?  People may assume it’s okay because they believe their dog is “good with kids.”  What does that really mean?  Usually, the statement is backed up by giving a number of examples of inappropriate things kids have done in the past with the evidence that the dog has not (yet) bitten.  Not good enough!

What can you learn by meeting the dog yourself?  I don’t know if you can learn anything other than what would be clear “no ways” in my book (remember, you are writing your own book!):

  1. Dog is regularly kept on a chain or otherwise isolated from family life.  The term used is “resident dog” to refer to dogs that are not really what we could consider pets more than dogs that happen to live on the property.  Fatal attacks and maulings are often attributed to resident dogs.  Here is a nice summary of the difference.
  2. Dog is showing fearful body language or avoidance around you or any children present (See Body Language post here and research more!)
  3. Owner displays rough handling of the dog and/or yells at the dog
  4. Dog displays any growling or biting/nipping/chasing
  5. Dog is new to the family
  6. A strong, powerful dog requires a clear-eyed assessment

So, while you might uncover some reasons not to leave your child in that situation, there is nothing you can see in a single evaluation that would assure the dog would not react in the future.  Good dogs have bad days.  Good dogs get ear infections or don’t feel well one day or maybe we should all be paying more mind to the old adage about the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Plus, you have to always keep in mind that your child’s experience with this “good dog” may cause your child to acquire behaviors that put him or her at risk of a bite from someone else’s dog that will not be as tolerant.

For me, I wouldn’t want to hear anything about the good nature of the dog.  What I want to hear are the internal controls in place to prevent an incident.  For example,

  • Just like you’d assign something to serve as the lifeguard around a pool, an adult should be “assigned” to the dog whenever the dog is around the children.  This person should be well-versed in how to guide interactions where appropriate, how to redirect younger children and how to reinforce calm responses from the dog.  Practical?  Probably not.  Beside, if you had an “extra” person in a daycare situation, wouldn’t you rather that person was working with the kids than babysitting the dog?
  • So that means there needs to be some sort of effective physical separation between the dog and the kids during times when the adults are giving their full attention to the children.  This means that there is no way a child could inadvertently access the dog when an adult’s attention was diverted.  Supervision is overrated as the only safety measure.  As parents, we all know that there are times we are distracted or caught up with another child’s urgent situation to 100% control what young children are doing 24/7.  So, the access to the dog needs to be child-proof.
  • Consider, too, your own child’s level of magnetization to dogs.  Is your child likely to try to pet a dog that comes close?  Will he or she go in search of the doggie?  Want to hug the dog?  Retaliate if the dog takes her food or toy?  You can build better “internal controls” by helping your child build safe, respectful behavior around all animals.


Final Thoughts

Regardless of whether it’s family or paid caregivers, your ultimate responsibility as the parent does not change.  Evaluate your caregiver situations for safety and make your best guess as to the probability of something bad happening given your review of internal controls and your knowledge of your own child’s likely behavior.  (Which, by the way, is a crapshoot when it comes to toddlers so do not assume the best and be left saying, “I told him to leave the dog alone!,” as if instructions to a two-year-old absolve adults of responsibility.)

In my own time with toddlers, I traded babysitting one half day a week with a friend.  Thinking back, we both had dogs.  Why did I think that was okay vs. the seeming strictness of the advice above?  I’m pondering that now.  The child-adult ratio surely plays a part.  One parent present with two children engaged in the same activity seems reasonable.  The low number of children meant it wasn’t likely to put a strain on the dogs’ patience (meaning, it wasn’t much different than normal).  I think, too, that her two dogs were mostly kept on the patio for the few hours she watched the kids and my son was not interested in dogs.

But look at this picture below.  It’s of my friend’s son and my dog.  He wasn’t feeling well so he’s lying on my couch with our dog for company.  Super cute but how do you know when this is a nice experience for both of them vs. a desire for the fantasy that asks too much?  Do you want someone else making that call?

Here is my dog and my friend’s son. Under what conditions would this be okay or not okay?


What Do You Think?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m way over the top on dog/baby/toddler safety but I don’t see anyway around it if we do not want to simply hope for the best.  With bite statistics indicating that 50% of our children will be bitten by a dog before turning twelve years old and dogs losing their homes and even their lives in return, surely the status quo isn’t working.  What do you think is a ideal daycare set-up for dogs and children?


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  1. What a thorough response to a difficult problem. Thank-you so much for writing such a well-thought out post on this issue. Particular kudos for addressing the difficulty that can exist between families and dog management.

    I do not think you are being too ‘over the top’ at all. There are numerous examples of a dog that has bitten a child just once, and the child has died. This shows that just one bite, just one unfortunate situation, just one lapse of concentration from adult guardians, is enough to result in a child’s death. There is a huge level of risk.

    Personally, if I had a child in a day care situation where a dog was also present, I would want to witness the devices that will be used to separate the child from a dog. Baby gate, the dog outside, the dog in crates, whatever it may be. Homes that don’t have barriers between children and dogs, at least some of the time, worry me! How can they separate if there is no means to separate? It means that the household is relying solely on supervision – and no adult is perfect enough to supervise constantly.

  2. I have been a breeder and dog owner for all of my life. I raise and own Beaucerons, which share lineage with the Catahoula, and while my dogs are remarkably tolerant and loving with children, still they are DOGS and I do not put them at risk this way, much less the child. My dogs are my family and live in my home, on my furniture and in my bed. I have a small spaniel in my lap as I type this. I am also a grandmother and I can tell you, at NO time are my dogs, well behaved as they are, family members as they are, left unattended with children, not mine and not others. Why, because I do not trust them? No. Because they are DOGS and things can happen despite everyone’s best intentions. Baby falls on the dog, startling it out of a sound sleep. Baby pinches the dog, pulls its fur or tail, so many scenarios that are easily imaginable… A ‘snap’ from a dog meant as a warning, that would hardly faze another dog, is capable of bruising or even breaking tender skin on a child, when the dog certainly meant no such harshness, it just was tired of having it’s whiskers bitten off. (Yes, I had a friend whose child actually bit off her dog’s whiskers.) When my own son was tiny, even though the dogs were often right there with him, it was NEVER EVER when I was not right there; if I had to leave the room even for a moment, my son went in the crib or play pen. I view this the same way as leaving a toddler for a moment to answer the phone, while your mop bucket sits on the floor close to them. The mop bucket certainly does not have any intention to harm the child but children die every year of drowning in just such a fashion. Dogs are living creatures, they are wonderful, loyal and loving, but they can react out of pain, fear, or anger as any other living creature can, and it is unfair both to them AND to the child, to put them in harm’s way. The child may end up with a permanent scar, but the dog will end up being put down over a moment’s inattention. I would rather just prevent the tragedy in the first place. If Grandma cannot understand that it is inappropriate to leave a dog like a Catahoula at face level with a toddler, then she should not be entrusted to care for the child, no matter how much they are ‘saving’ by using her for day care. It is not a matter of not loving the dog, or not loving the child; it is a matter of realizing how quickly an avoidable tragedy can occur, and all the recitations of “I didn’t mean for this to happen” will not fix it once it happens.

    1. Wow, Lenna, I should have just let you write the post – what a great response! It’s good to hear from the voice of experience and kind of you to take the time to speak “Grandma to Grandma.”

  3. What a thoughtful , caring, and thorough article. It is a tangled situation, as you said, and I thought you untangled it gently and with empathy. My best wishes to Matt and his family as well.

  4. Hi Madeline,

    Glad to see you write about this -it definitely is a touchy subject and something parents need to consider. The presence of dogs definitely factored in to my decisions on where my daughter would go to daycare and once was the deciding factor in not pursuing an option. Just curious where does your reference to “With bite statistics indicating that 50% of our children will be bitten by a dog before turning twelve years old” come from? I’d be interested in reading the study that you are referring to.


    Tamara McFarland
    Unleashed Pawsabilities

    1. Hi Tamara – thanks for reading! Like everything, the presence of dogs has to be combined with the other factors that play into a bite situation (how the dog is treated, where the dog is maintained, what the children are encouraged to do with/around the dog, etc.). The biggest factor, of course, is how to control for what might seem like a good idea to a toddler. That’s the problem I can never manage to get around no matter how much I would like the dog+child=love fantasy to be true.

      Regarding the bite statistics, keep in mind that all bite statistics are “squirrely,” with some sort of problem in any study or survey. See an earlier post called “Dog Bite Statistics: Do the Math Before You Freak Out” and this article cautioning against drawing causality conclusions from limited factors: http://www.nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com/dogbites/the-problems-with-dog-bite-studies/.

      Here is a small study coming to the 50% of children will be bitten conclusion: http://www.pediatricsdigest.mobi/content/117/3/e374.full

      What I did, though, is take the generally accepted (but squirrely) bite statistics of 4.7 million bites per year, 50% to children (see http://www.americanhumane.org/animals/stop-animal-abuse/fact-sheets/dog-bites.html for a summary), and divided by the # of children under 12 to get the % of children who are bitten each year (5%). Assuming it’s not the same kids being bitten each year, you’d add that approx. 5% over 12 years to get to “about 50%” chance. No one knows if any of this is based on accurate numbers to begin with and what counts as a dog bite is such a huge range of severity as to make practically no sense. I explain a lot of this in my class to help people not be so freaked out. However, because the implications to the DOG and to the families are so severe these days, even for a small/inhibited bite, it’s important for families to realize that they can’t just do what everyone does and expect better than a 50/50 chance of a bite they then have to unravel.

  5. This could be correct but assuming they are different kids each year is an error. I would look at how many children were bitten in a given year, then find out how many kids under 12 there were that year.

  6. I would never put my child in the care of anyone with 4 dogs allowed to interact with the child at all. This is a dangerous situation because it sounds like the Grandma thinks her dogs are “fine”, possibly thinking stepping on the back of a child causing scratching was a fluke. It is difficult to monitor the interaction of one child and one dog, let alone 4 dogs and multiple small children.
    I love dogs and kids too much to risk anyone’s safety.

  7. Madeline – you’re a CPA? No wonder I’ve enjoyed your site so much! I’m a CPA too.

    No dogs at our home; only kiddos. In fact, I stopped by your site only to pick up a few tips on how to help our kidlet respect our friends’ dogs.

    But now, eighteen articles later, I’ve kept on reading because I like your clear style and your focus on specific, positive guidelines. You’re a credit (or rather a DEBIT) to the dog-training profession. Keep up the good work!

  8. I really wanted to commend you on all the pieces you’ve written on this topic. Amazing! I am a huge proponent of more balanced methods but I’m on board with your content 100%!

    My baby’s father is a very zealous R+ trainer. He was a bachelor for years with his two dogs, a spitz and a mastiff. His spitz is very hyper, jumps CONSTANTLY, gets overexcited at any sort of movement and wants to be the center of attention all the time. The mastiff is obsessed with food (steals right from your plate, steals from the baby’s high chair, bites food out of your hand, etc.)

    Both dogs are super leash reactive. They pull like crazy, mow anything down that’s in their path and turn into barking, lunging monsters any time they see another dog or person, in the car, on a walk, sometimes even out the window. The mastiff barks incessantly and neither have any concept of personal space. They are rarely exercised and they both get jealous and pushy when the baby is shown attention. They wrestle in the house, jump all over the furniture, climb in people’s lap when they are holding the baby…

    Essentially, they have no boundaries and no concept of personal space whatsoever. One dog charges up to the baby EVERY. DAY. and licks his face until you physically move him. He also thinks it’s mean to “exclude them” by crating or putting them in the other room, such as when the baby is trying to eat.

    I really feel as if they are a threat to my infant but my child’s father does not take my concerns seriously. How could this best be addressed? In a childcare situation, it’s easy to walk away and find someone else but it isn’t so easy when the dog owner is the child’s parent. I really do appreciate if it you read this much and especially if you take the time to answer!

    1. Thank you for commenting, Shelby. Ugh, I’m sorry for your distress! I will give you my perspective with the caveat that this situation deserves as much of a communication/teamwork solution as a dog training solution. The dogs can definitely learn more appropriate behaviors and be easier to live with. As the mom of an infant, you are not in the position to easily make all of this happen. If your baby’s father truly does not care about his baby’s safety or your distress, that’s a relationship issue I don’t have expertise for. Perhaps he has a different perspective or the dogs behave differently when he is home and he does not see what you are seeing? Sometimes, I see families where one person is physically stronger and does not realize that is is untenable to expect other family members to live with dogs who, for example, pull as hard as they can until someone makes them stop. If it’s easy for one person to hold them back, it does not seem like much of a problem, but, fact is, the dog is not trained to walk on a leash and is unmanageable.

      Are you living together where you are concerned about managing the dogs in addition to the baby? Or, does the baby go to the father’s house without you and you are concerned about how the father is managing the baby with the dogs? If it’s a safety issue at the father’s house, consider what your options would be with any other welfare/safety issue – unattended pool access, guns, knives, poor nutrition, etc. You may need to consult with a Child Protective Services expert if you believe the baby to be in danger.

      If you are sharing a home, it’s a matter of first agreeing on what is actually happening. You did a good job of describing several clear, observable behaviors – that’s the example you want to follow vs. ascribing motives or labels that can be argued from a different perspective. What can you both SEE happening? Write these problem situations down to look at together. For example, “climbs in lap when people hold baby.” That’s objective and everyone can, see yes or no, when is it happening. Each of you answer for yourselves, “Do I want more of this behavior in my life?” for each situation. If you don’t like it, it’s either look to training to teach what is an appropriate alternative or prevent the dog from being able to perform that behavior.

      People with different perspectives can often find a good middle ground when you focus on identifying an appropriate alternative behavior. Take climbing in lap when people hold baby. When the dog learns to relax calmly on a mat (towel) at your feet, he is neither climbing in your lap nor “excluded.” Training is best focused on what you want the dog to do in the first place so you do not spend all day telling him to stop. The book “Chill Out Fido” by Nan Arthur is +R based AND focused on teaching dogs to calm down. These are not mutually exclusive! Here is a link to the Relax on a Mat excerpt. All problem behaviors can be looked at one by one: what is the dog doing, what do you want him to do instead, how can we help him learn to do that given his current skill level?

      I do understand that you are not looking for a training project! An in-home trainer can be a big help in setting up a good plan for your family. Family Paws is an organization with trainers/consultants nationwide, including a hotline for support.

      My recommendation is to acclimate the dogs to an acceptable form of physical separation for times when no one is able to work on reinforcing the desired behaviors. Teaching dogs to be comfortable and relaxed with separation is pretty universal in dog training regardless of training approach. It can be a relief to the dogs to be “off duty” and free to sleep, especially with the chaos of a new baby. People have success with baby gates, crates large enough to stretch out in, long lasting chew items (like stuffed Kongs), etc. Here is a link to a good summary why and how-to: http://www.deesdogs.com/documents/TheSafetyZoneHandout.pdf. If the dogs are not capable of handing this right away, consider barriers around you and the baby instead. Exercise pen gates like you see at dog shows (often available used) can be clipped together and extended to split a room or make a large dog-free zone.

      Try to talk this through with your baby’s father so you can understand each other’s perspectives and find a safe, appropriate way to manage the dogs and baby, as well as your own needs. If he’s just a big jerk, I can’t help with that. But, maybe you are both stressed out and sleep-deprived and are not that far from agreement if you can make some space for a calm, objective discussion. There is a LOT of room between “I don’t want the dogs jumping on me and the baby” and “I don’t want the dogs excluded.” Those are not the only two choices!

      I wish you the best. This is a really hard time for many families.

  9. Thank you for this post. We have a small dog and a one-year-old son. As a result, our son is very confident around dogs and will approach them without question (hence I especially appreciated your comment about training appropriate child/pet behavior in the home). Just today, after a month of dropping our son at a wonderful daycare, my husband noticed two large dogs in the daycare’s backyard. They were barking at him, so he approached and reached into the fence to pet one of them. The dog proceeded to jump up and nip my husband, breaking and dragging the skin and drawing blood. Not especially deep, but painful nonetheless. I’ve spent the rest of the evening since worrying about sending my child back to the state care, knowing that there is a dog willing to buy i i’ve spent the rest of the evening since worrying about sending my child back to the state care, knowing that there is a dog willing to bite right outside. This article gave me the courage to reach out to the daycare operator and specifically request that the dog never be around my child. They agreed, and my heart is far more settled now. Thank you again!

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