Learning to Live Happily Ever After

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Get “Magnetized” to Dogs

Posted by on Jan 24, 2011 in dog bite prevention, Magnetized Babies | 38 comments

What Does it Mean to Be “Magnetized?”

I use the term, “magnetized,” to refer to how babies end up where they CANNOT stay away from dogs.  I’m sure you’ve seen it — the kids who make a beeline for dogs in the park or who are always messing with their own dog or wanting to pet other people’s dogs.

I discussed some of this in a previous post about babies that “love” dogs. The main issue is the lack of self-control inherent in a magnetized young child.  If a toddler or preschooler could turn it on and off, maybe, but reliable on/off switches are not what toddlerhood is all about.

Is it Really That Big of a Deal?

Yes.  I think this is a huge deal.  Not everyone agrees with me so you’ll have to think it through yourself and decide how much risk you are willing to have your child assume.  A majority of bites happen in response to a child approaching a dog.  Young children have zero judgment.  If you encourage your baby/toddler to go up to some dogs, he or she will likely want to go up to all dogs – whether or not you’re there to supervise.

It’s tempting to think, “Well, I’m a good parent and I’ll be able to teach the difference to my child.  Besides, I’m going to raise my child to be gentle and respectful with animals so she’s not likely to get bitten.” Maybe you’re right.  Lots of times nothing bad happens.  But lots of people drive drunk, too, and never kill anyone.  Doesn’t make it a good choice.

And that’s what this is – a choice.  As a parent, you get to choose for your baby the habits and behaviors you are going to instill long before your baby can make her own choices.  That’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.

In my experience, encouraging a baby to notice, reach for and touch your dog (or any dog) opens the door to all the other variations a child will come up with through the toddler/preschool years.  Kids aren’t really known for doing the right things at this stage of development.  If you establish the dog within the circle of your baby’s interactions, the dog will be included in the whole range of physical expressions, not just the “nice” ones, but also the tantrums, experimentation, showing off for friends, etc.

Consider this:

“I have a normally very sweet, laid back 13 month old son named Joseph (changed name) who just discovered that smacking is fun two days ago.  Ah, the joys of toddlerhood!  He will pick up a toy (such as a truck) and smack our dogs on the head with it or just pound on them with his hands.  He will try to smack at his dad or me too, but not as often.  I am extremely lucky to have very tolerant dogs so far!  This is what I have learned:  telling Joseph “no!” just stops him for a second, and then he continues to try to hit the dogs.  I have also tried blocking him when I see he is headed towards a dog and distracting him with a book or a toy.  The distraction seems to work, but then he will crawl towards the dogs to smack them later.”

This is a classic scenario of a magnetized child.  It all seemed “fine” when the baby feeling like being gentle.  It’s hard to factor in the unintended consequence for later…when the baby is NOT feeling like being gentle.  Joseph is not a “bad baby” — this is entirely normal.  However, if he were not already “magnetized” to the dogs, he’s more likely to restrict his smacking to Mom and Dad and leave the dogs out of it.

Besides, even if your child doesn’t get as much into the smacking stage and your dog is endlessly tolerant, you still cannot escape The Curse of a Good Dog and the fact that encouraging this magnetized behavior puts your child at a greater risk of a bite when the good dog has a bad day or your child is too forward with someone else’s dog who DOES object. 

“Magnetizing” Starts in Infancy

I completely understand how it starts.  You’re holding your baby, playing goo-goo games and the dog walks by.  Wham!  Your baby drops you like a hot potato to look at the dog:

The baby is usually excited and may even be saying, “Duh, duh, duh, duh!” which makes you think  you have not only a budding Dr. Doolittle but a GENIUS BABY — she’s trying to say, “Dog,” already!  (Of course, that’s all she can say but we’ll put that piece of reality aside for now.)  I’m joking, but I do understand how hard it is to resist an excited, happy baby.  It will feel very natural to encourage this interest:

The next step would be to carry the baby close to the dog and encourage some gentle touching and getting to know the dog.


This is how babies get magnetized.  You think you’re building a relationship and teaching your baby how to be gentle with the dog, but, really, you’re making the early brain connection in your infant that, “Dogs are for touching.”

Really think about that.

Consider other things infants are entranced by.  Exhibit A – The Ceiling Fan:

Babies often show the same excited behavior with the ceiling fan as they do with the dog.  (Even the “duh, duh, duh” part!)  However, no matter how much you want to foster your baby’s interest and curiosity, does it ever occur to you to bring your baby closer and try to tell her, “Careful, honey, now keep your hands down…”

Why not? Are you thinking, “Well, duh, I’d never do that because the fan could hurt my baby and I know my baby won’t understand what I’m saying or be able to follow my instructions.  That would be crazy!!  I’d definitely get a ‘Bad Parent Award’ for that.”

Tell me why it’s different with a dog. I ask people that all the time because I’d like to be wrong.  I don’t like being the wet blanket at every event where very young kids and dogs are mixing, and I do have lots of other dog training interests I’d like to pursue.  I stick with my Dogs and Babies work because of all the families I meet after an incident who say, “If only I knew this, I would have done things differently…”

I think parents and dog trainers alike have a natural blind spot when it comes to dogs and young children.  We all want the storybook tale of best friends forever.  This makes us assume that dogs understand good intentions (“He was only trying to love the dog!”) and that toddlers will always be compliant.  Once you’re an experienced parent, you know that toddlers and “compliant” do not go together.  It’s hard to imagine that when you’re a new parent and you have a baby that seems so sweet and easy.  That’s why I focus so much on not starting a “relationship” with a baby towards a dog — because it’s a can of worms that’s a lot harder to put back once you open it than it is to just leave on the shelf a little longer.

Don’t be in a rush!  Let your baby just coexist peacefully with your dog.  So much of the “magnetizing” happens not just because babies are interested in dogs, but because parents feed that interest disproportionately more than they do other interests a baby clearly isn’t ready to pursue.

For example, why is THIS OK…

But not THIS

Yes, children need to learn how to be careful with knives and dogs alike, but does it really make sense to introduce the idea before they are developmentally prepared to be successful?  People expect to keep knives out of the reach of children but, at the same point, they do not expect to still cut their child’s meat when he’s twenty-one years old.  It should go the same way with dogs.

More to come about how to keep from magnetizing your baby, how to de-magnetize a toddler and why babies are really OK with loving dogs without touching them.  Unless, of course, someone can convince me that I’m off base. Let’s discuss!


Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Cathy Baier

    What a good article! NOW I wish I could implant that info into the minds of all the parents who come to the shelter looking for a dog. Thank you so much for the service you are providing. Great stuff!

    Cathy B

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Hello Cathy – I have worked with a couple of shelters to teach staff members ways of doing exactly that — influencing the mindset of the parents and families so you can all work together in identifying and preparing properly for the right pet. I think there’s a huge potential to improve the adopter pool through education so shelter workers don’t have to cross their fingers and hope for the best when a family come in to adopt. Because, really, a family coming to a shelter to adopt is a HUGE opportunity all around. Once I finish my book project, I hope to do a lot more of that work.

  2. Ani

    I agree with you! I have a 4 year old and I have taught her from the very beginning not to run up to dogs. She’s not afraid of them but she won’t go running to them either. She knows she has to be given permission, 1st by her Mother and 2nd by the dog owner, BEFORE she can approach or touch any dog. You just never know how a dog will react to a child, especially when they are not used to children.

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Hi Ani – that’s a nice balance the way you put it — not being afraid but not running up to them either. All kids need to start from that point of balance. You’ll see in a future post that I’ll add a third point of permission: Ask the Dog. Another trainer friend summarizes it as: Ask 3 Times: Ask your parent, Ask the owner, Ask the dog. Ask the dog is the missing piece that will prevent bites/scares AND help dogs feel a lot more comfortable with kids. Reinforce your daughter’s great behavior! Tell her, “Dogs feel safe with you because you let them have their space. You stand still and let them decide. That’s being a good friend!”

  3. Dawn

    wow.. very interesting article. I am interested in hearing how you de-magnatize. We have worked very hard on instilling gentle petting with our 2 year old, but as a toddler he of course finds our dogs very interesting. it is contstant work to reinforce good behavior with him and the way he interacts. When we are out he is actually very good at not rushing or going towards other animals without asking, but our own dogs there certainly isn’t as much boundry. I work with my dogs and they meet hundreds of people each month and it does amaze me how so many parents teach kids to hug or kiss or grab dogs they do not know! Great article and I can’t wait to read more.

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Thank you, Dawn. I’ll be interested to hear your feedback when I write more about gentle petting and why I don’t recommend it. (I’m not saying it’s EVIL or anything but just some magnetizing thoughts to consider. I know I’m not mainstream with the gentle petting so that’s why it’s good for discussion and why parents have to make their own choices.) I hear a lot about young kids who are more reserved with other people’s dogs but less of a boundary with the family dog. It makes sense how that would evolve, but, really, the family dog deserves to be asked every time, too. A lot of my posts will revolve around similar themes but presented in different chunks. I’ve got some artwork and info to present from the perspective of “Why don’t we ask our own dog before touching him/her?”

  4. Esther

    Wauw, a confrontational article but so true. I try to do it the right way (I’m a mom with 2 childs; 2 years and 2 months), but there is so much to learn for me and for all of us. Thanks Emily for recommending this article.


    Esther, Holland

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Hello from across the world! Thank you for writing, Esther. You explain beautifully that you “try to do it the right way” and the question for all of us is, “What is the right way?” It can’t be the status quo. What “everyone” knows and repeats as fact can’t be right if so many children are getting bitten.

  5. carrie

    My daughters are ‘preschool’ age and I taught them from the very beginning to never touch a dog without owner approval, and then to not pet on the head, legs or tail/lower back. They were perfect, and I was so proud – excellent dog manners.

    However, when we got our own dog a few months ago, they became instantly magnatized. They feed off each other, so if one goes to the dog, they all do. So, I’m very interested in hearing more about demagnatizing!

  6. Toy Lady

    Very interesting article – thank you. Question – do you have any suggestions for the owner of the strange dog? While I don’t have small children (mine is 22), I do have a big, fairly friendly dog – and I can’t tell you how nervous it makes me when strange children run up to him, pet him, even try to hug him – all without even looking for permission! He’s good-natured, yes, but not used to children, and I’ve had to stop more than one little one from just throwing her arms around him.

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Hi! YES! I do have information to share for dog owners who want to discourage, or at least slow down, small children who rush up. That will be within the next few posts. In the meantime, I think it’s perfectly fine to be very directive with other people’s children. Understand that they are just doing what’s been encouraged in the past so there’s no need to be mean about it. They don’t know any different. And, because people before you have so often said it’s OK, kids are not expecting/listening to hear if you say, “no.” So, expect to use a clear hand signal – like a “stop” from a police officer directing traffic. “Wait” is a good signal for getting kids’ attention. I also use the wording, “My dog needs more space” or sometimes I’ll say, “My dog doesn’t feel well today.” Kids and parents seem to understand this better than trying to explain that the kids shouldn’t be rushing up. For your dog, practice backing away with you as a game where you make a kissy sound and encourage your dog to follow. Give a treat after several steps. Practice this many times outside of that situation so it’s smooth, easy and fun for your dog to be “busy” with you while you tell the kids your dog needs more space. Check back in a few weeks for more to come, with photos and video.

      • Heather Staas

        Even with my dogs that LIKE children I will step in front of a rushing child, hold up a hand in a STOP gesture and say calmly “No Touching.”

        Usually the parent, if they are close enough, will swoop in at that point (too late imo) and redirect the child. I try not to feel badly at the stunned look of surprise on the child’s face (what do you mean dogs are not for touching??!) but I hope I’ve introduced a brief thought of caution that might prevent a bite at the NEXT dog that may not be good with children.

  7. Liz Black Dog

    I’m amused because that was me as a baby. My mother spent YEARS trying to get into my head that you ask before grabbing dogs and I completely failed to get it till someone’s Cavalier (that I wandered up to and randomly grabbed on the beach) bit me in the face when I was about five.

    I’m lucky, it was a small annoyed dog and not a large terrified one. Great article.

    • Madeline Gabriel

      I love your observation, “I’m lucky it was a small annoyed dog and not a large terrified one,” because that really is a matter of luck vs. the stellar judgment and acute body language observation skills of a five year old child. I was a magnetized kid, too, so I totally get the attraction.

  8. Alexis Ahrens


    Terrific article, filled with unconventional wisdom and your signature humor. Love it!

    I just voted for your Canis Film Festival film. I especially loved the part about asking the dog for permission and the all-too-brief invitation line dance! You are brilliant.

    I hope your video wins and you get an avalanche of attention for your unique and thoughtful approach to fostering healthy dog/child relationships.


    • Madeline Gabriel

      Hi Alexis!! Thank you! I took a quick peek at your blog last night and I love that you’re writing and are so fully alive in your life with all that you do! I’m glad you liked the line dance, too — I definitely had to work that scene in b/c it’s so funny. The outtakes, of course, are much funnier with everyone doing it wrong numerous times.

  9. Alexis Ahrens

    I taught the invitation line dance to Lucas and my first graders. Spreading the gospel. :)

    • Madeline Gabriel

      I love this, Alexis!! It makes me so happy to have put that segment into the film. Partway through, I realized that the kids were stuck on a “pat pat, turn” sequence that didn’t really seem encouraging to dogs. Because the film was almost a documentary in that it was shot live and in-progress, I couldn’t go back and redo some of the earlier segments but I definitely wanted to show how to move *away* from the dog to encourage him to come along. The line dance was endlessly amusing to me.

  10. Emily

    This is great! My girl is 5 months and we try and keep the dog from her (to avoid him licking her face!) but have noticed she is just starting to become interested in him when he walks by. I have been taking her to him but will definitely change the way I allow them to interact!!! My nephew is ‘magnetized’ to dogs and our dog hides when he comes over because he chases him relentlessly (nephew is 3). I have been paranoid about what might happen since before our baby was born the dog had not had much exposure to kids. Any tips on how to gently encourage the in-laws to not force our babe to interact with their dog and ours?! Haha!

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Good for you, Emily! Wow, you’re really seeing it all right before your eyes. When your baby shows interest in your dog, acknowledge her interest, “Yes, that’s our dog! He watches over our family. We like to have him with us,” and then engage your daughter in something else to do. Sing a song about your dog if you want – just don’t have all this lead to going over to him. You’ll be able to keep your daughter from being magnetized. (Remember, “magnetized” means no control around the dog – just because you’re interested in the dog doesn’t mean you’re magnetized.) Regarding your nephew’s behavior with dogs, I have to say that it is very dangerous. Perhaps share my earlier post about “Good Dogs Don’t Bite Children, Do They?” so your other family members can think about the Curse of a Good Dog and how your nephew is rehearsing unsafe behaviors and they are becoming habits that will be hard to break. Read also the one about “Does Your Baby Love Dogs?” and really talk with your family about everyone’s expectations and willingness to take risks with this little boy. If no one else sees it the same way, you will have to resist the social pressure to just go along. Instead, you will have to risk hurt feelings to stand your ground and protect your child, your nephew and your dog. Better to have hurt feelings than a hurt child.

  11. Hannah

    Never, ever thought of baby/dog relationships like this … What a huge eye opener. We are expecting in September and this is the exact opposite of how I would’ve introduced our baby to our 3 dogs: So glad I stumbled upon your blog and will be following your advise. And I always thought of myself as pretty dog savvy! Thanks!

  12. Robyn

    Just received this link from a friend and we also have an almost 6-month-old who is starting to become more interested in our very friendly dog. I would have never thought that those simple interactions of us “introducing” the baby to the dog could be the introduction to magnetizing children but I see it so often and I think it’s just as bad as children who fear dogs.I will definitely be taking these thoughts into consideration as our baby and dog grow up together.

  13. Caron

    Thanks for the article. I have 4 huskies and a 7 month old daughter. They are indoors and always with her. When she plays with her toys they are nearby. She doesn’t activity reach for them just smiles at them and giggles. And if they come up close she smiles and pushes them away. They just want to see what she is doing. I am training them all to have calm energy around each other as far as possible as I believe excessive excitement is asking for trouble. She is also being taught not to go up to dogs without me as dog bites and accidents happen so quickly and then the dogs are blamed when its the parents fault largely.

  14. Ericka

    Interesting article. My two year old is very interested in dogs, and will run up to them! We don’t have a dog at home and he’s never been “introduced” to one! Thoughts?

  15. MotherHeart

    I had a houseful of children and a dog for many years. While I did teach all my children to be gentle when touching I did not really encourage it either. I watched for signs that both our dog and my young one was ready for interaction. I was always taught that you ask an owner for permission and then let the dog snell your hand and then if the dog shows signs of being interested in interaction than and only then do you attempt to pet them. I encouraged the same with our own pet.

    I guess for me the dog was like a member of our family. I never gave the idea that the kids could do whatever they wanted and the dog would get in trouble for reacting as I think that is stupid. If you are going to raise children with animals then children need to know that the animal has rights too.

    There was only one incident in my home. We had a new dog. Someone had abandoned the dog in front of our home and took off. After getting the dog in the home I was amazed at what a great dog she was. She would not touch food even if it was in her reach without permission and already knew many commands. We decided to keep her. She was great with the kids. However, as we all do she needed a break on occasion and would camp out under the table in kitchen to “get away from it all”.
    One day my then 7yr old son decided to go bug her in her get away spot. She lightly growled. Not a menacing one just one of those small leave me alone ones. I told him he needed to leave her alone and give her her space. and that she would come out when she was ready to interact. He continued. She nipped him. Not a bite just a light nip. My son demanded I spank the dog for it. I said “No, she told you nicely to leave her alone, I told you to leave her alone. She spanked you.” He was shocked and a bit peeved that I wouldn’t discipline the dog. He had no marks whatsoever and she never nipped any of the kids ever again. Though my son learned healthy respect for her and her boundaries from that point on.

    I think it is important to teach children to be gentle with animals; however, we do not have to put the animal in a spotlight constantly to over-encourage interaction. It is just as important to teach children to read animals cues as well and to respect the animals rights and boundaries. It all goes hand in hand. Just my opinon.

  16. BEL

    This is a great resource for clients! I would take the 3 questions a step further with some families, though. I have been approached by young children who have been taught that they need to ask if they can pet before touching the dog. However, none of those children had ever been told ‘no’ before apparently. I have an older papillon who doesn’t like his space invaded, no matter the intention. I respect that and never put him in a situation where he feels the need to defend himself because I haven’t done my job. Luckily he’s small enough to scoop into my arms because when I said (very nicely, I might add), “sorry, no, he doesn’t feel good and doesn’t want anyone to touch him today) the children had already as you so aptly say “magnetized” and were bee-lining for us regardless of what I might have said. So, parents, role play with your children, it’s not enough just to teach them to say “may I pet your dog?”.

  17. Sasha Hoffmann

    This was such a lovely article to read. I often feel like I am the bad guy in cnversation when I ask parents to please take my dog into concideration or tell their kids not to yell at/try to smack/ or run screaming up to my dog. He is a very well trained gentle boy and I attend agility, tracking and obedience with him. He even has a good canine ceritficate for crying out loud. But as a young student I don’t have a lot of friends with small chidlren and even the dog parks I frequent don’t have very many small children running about. Needless to say he doesn’t know that the small well meaning human is just that. To him they are very intimidating things with loud squeeky voices that grab and hurt him. Yet I am often made out to feel like me and my dog are the problem because he doesn’t let children grab his ears or he’ll try to move away from children who just assume they can pet any strange dog they meet. I think it is important that parents take some responsibility for teaching their kids how to approach and treat dogs properly, especially dogs they do not know.

  18. Jenn

    Even when the kids get older, there is so much they don’t understand. I acted as a protector for someone else’s dog at an event recently. The kids were playing, the dog was playing, the kids were playing, the dog was falling asleep on it’s feet and fighting it… I suggested that it was time for the dog’s nap, and reminded them that after all, most of what a dog does all day when they weren’t around was sleep.

    I can see a different situation playing out with an exhausted dog. The dog might not even know what it was doing, just reacting entirely from the back brain reflexes…

    • Ericka

      My 3 year old is obsessed with dogs. He is the kid that will run up to any dog to make friends! It scares me! We don’t own a dog or any pets.

  19. BLake

    Based on what I can understand is this article saying that the babies and dogs shouldn’t have any physical interaction and playtime? Like the ones all over youtube?

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Thank you for writing, Blake. Every family makes their own choices. What I am saying here is that if parents encourage physical interaction and contact with their babies and dogs, then it will be harder to manage life together as the baby gets more mobile, especially if more children are added and parental attention is divided. There may be a price to pay later for what seems funny and cute in the moment – not necessarily a “price” like, “Oooh, the baby is going to get mauled,” but a price in terms of aggravating to parents to deal with or maybe a growl or snap or bite that distresses the family/causes dog to be rehomed or child acquiring behaviors that may not be well-received by someone else’s dog. Look at Part 4 for examples of children from baby – preschool enjoying the company of dogs without being magnetized to them. It’s a different path than the YouTube examples but one that I think is is easier to manage and more peaceful for everyone, without losing the benefits of a nice friendship “happily ever after.”

  20. Chris Hansen

    This is great information presented in a terribly condescending way. Ceiling fans and steak knives are not members of the family. There is no instinct to bond with the cutlery. There is no desire for a child and a ceiling fan to have a loving relationship. It is not obvious that the family pet has potential to be dangerous regardless of how true that may be. You would not employ shame as a training technique for a dog. Is there reason to believe shaming a parent is the very best way to impart your knowledge on to them? Holding an infant up into a ceiling fan because they find it mesmerizing is an insane analogy for thinking it’s okay to allow your child to pet the family dog. I was pointed in the direction of this blog by a concerned trainer friend that urged me to be wary of my infant becoming magnetized to our dog. I am grateful the concern, but I wish she would have just explained it to me so I could have avoided this insolent blog post.

    • Madeline Gabriel

      I truly do appreciate you taking the time to write, Chris. The blog post was written to be a humorous juxtaposition and it’s good for me to know that some kinds of humor are going to be a total miss with some people. I want very much for parents to think differently about what they choose to do with their babies and dogs and I will ponder how things may come across differently in writing than how the discussion is received in my classes where there is more opportunity to establish rapport and trust. The gist of the article is not to say that parents who allow babies to pet dogs are doing the equivalent of letting their children play with knives or the ceiling fan and thus are “bad” – it is to suggest to parents that they are already successfully having their child in proximity to things like that because they do not call their child’s attention to those things and prompt interaction and thus the child is not “magnetized” and so they have the power/skill to do the same with the dog. There is lots and lots of time to foster friendship as a baby develops and acquires emotional and physical self-control. You do not lose anything by making your first goal peaceful, companionable co-existence vs. physical exploration. That path starts with neutral acknowledgement of interest in the dog and engagement in doing something else. I know your feelings are hurt so I don’t expect you to engage in further discussion. I do wish the best for your family – both humane and canine. Thank you for the feedback.

      • Denise

        I think that one important thing to remember is that kids really want to learn how to be better friends with dogs. They want this information, and they want to form friendly, safe habits with dogs. I wish someone had given me this info when I was young.

  21. Alleah

    This is a very insightful and well written article. I will definitely be sharing this knowledge with others :)

  22. ali

    Great article! I deal so often with patents who allow their v young children to crawl all over their dogs, hug them etc.
    As we have large dogs, one of whom especially is generally anxious, we have always used baby gates to great effect. People are often surprised that our 2 year son doesn’t have much direct interaction with the dogs (and always heavily supervised when does- ie he’s on our lap with dog sat by us) and assume this will affect his relationship with them.
    Not at all – He adores the dogs, is not frightened by them at all and describes them as his best “friends”.
    When we are out he always comments when he sees a dog and talks about it but doesn’t need to run up to it. He is however only two so we always supervise of course.
    We also taught him to be gentle with the cats and calm when around them. He’s not perfect of course but that’s where we make sure we are there to monitor and act accordingly. Its not fair on the animals or the child to expect them to be able to handle the relationship by themselves.
    Really well written article, thank you


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