Posted by: Madeline Gabriel | January 24, 2011

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

Heads Up!…I’ve moved this blog to my new website:  You can find this post and comments through mid-November here.  If you are subscribing, commenting, linking or sharing, please do so from the new website.

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!


  1. […] Originally Posted by FunkyPuppy Theres a VERY good blog somewhere that discusses this very thing, it was mentioned in a very old post here once about how to train your children to IGNORE the pets rather than crawl all over them. I'll look for it. I posted this blog a while back. I think it makes a lot of sense and it's great advice. I plan on trying this technique when we have a baby. I do remember, however, that when I posted it many people thought it was terrible advice because it "robbed" the child of happy memories of growing up with their pet dog. I don't really see it that way and I prefer to do all that I need to do to make sure my dog is comfortable and content, not to mention help put my own mind at ease. If that means teaching the baby/child to avoid touching the dog that that sounds OK to me. Here it is: Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Get “Magnetized” to Dogs Dogs and Babies…Learni… […]

    • Can’t find a way to respond to the article as a whole so I will respond here-
      Are you serious? I do indeed show my babies the fan, and tell them not to touch. I encourage my children to react with love and touch to dogs I trust, and to not touch other dogs. I teach my children to be affectionate to people, but not to all people. All this training begins immediately, when they are babies.
      I will acknowledge it is dangerous when some children are wreckless and/or abusive to all dogs. It is also dangerous when they are wreckless with almost anything else. I can think of examples of toddlers hurt by just about anything. I can think of many examples where toddlers shouldn’t have gone willingly with a person.
      If dogs are a part of your life, babies are not too young to begin learning to love them (and pet them properly), and learn to recognize when to back the heck off.
      I was “magnetized” to water when I was a baby. I would always try to submerge myself (I am told). I was taught to NOT drown myself, to be careful, and eventually to swim, but I was not kept away from bathing.
      There is nothing wrong with scaring the heck out of a child by reacting angrily and with great concern when they act poorly with an animal, or to express they do not go randomly up to all dogs to “love” on them.
      Babies begin learning immediately. They learn it is ok to crawl up into mommy’s lap, but not on every single stranger. They learn to love their animals nicely, but not every single animal.
      If you can’t deal with dogs, or you can’t deal with babies, don’t have either, or get some help dealing. The idea that it is inherently bad to allow the babies to pet the family dog, or that children cannot learn because they are dangerously curious and often fail to recognize danger, is absurd, and lazy.

  2. Very good article, you make a lot of sense. Thanks.

  3. […] 3. Madeline Gabriel’s blog: Dogs and Babies is awesome. There is a post on how little children become magnetized by dogs… and how to nip this behavior in the bud for everyone’s safety, and more importantly so that  kids learn respect for others’ personal space.  Here is the first in a series of articles . […]

  4. 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!

    • 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.

  5. I taught the invitation line dance to Lucas and my first graders. Spreading the gospel. 🙂

    • 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.

  6. Madeline,

    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.


    • 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.

  7. 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.

    • 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. 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.

    • 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.

  9. 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!

    • Hi Carrie – thanks for sharing your experience! I’ve got a de-magnetizing post in the pipeline. Some of what you’re experiencing is probably due to the novelty of a new dog in the family, too. Since we’re planning to add a puppy in a few months, I’m sure I’ll have a bit more interest from my kids that what we’ve got going with our old dog. For your kids and a new dog in the family, part of it is identifying and teaching your girls what they CAN do with the dog. That’s also something I’ll be writing more about.

      In the meantime, I highly recommend the book, “Happy Kids, Happy Dogs” by Barbara Shumannfang. She includes a bunch of games and activities for different age groups. Here’s a link:

  10. 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

    • 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.

  11. 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.

    • 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?”

  12. 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.

    • 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!”

      • This makes a lot more sense than simply saying a child cannot pet a dog until they are old enough to see the finer points of reading the dog. TEACH THE CHILDREN. It is difficult, taxing, and some kids take it better than others, but allowing them to pet a dog is ok.

  13. 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

    • 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.

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