Besties for the Restie?

A Canine Expert Reveals How To Tell If Your Dog *Actually* Loves Your Kid

Let’s delve into the minds of our beloved pups.

A little boy sits on a couch with a yellow lab.
Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

Man’s best friend. That’s the term you hear commonly used to describe the relationship between a human and their dog. They can warm your heart with a simple head tilt and leave you in tears at the sound of their whimper. Scientific studies have even proven that the mere act of petting a dog can help lower your stress levels and make you feel happier. In other words, dogs are simply the best and dearly beloved by adults and kids alike. This includes my 3-year-old son, who regularly refers to our dog — a yellow labrador retriever — as his “big sister” and “best friend.” And while these moments make my heart swell with joy, they have occasionally made me ponder: Is the feeling mutual? Does my dog love my child as much as my child loves my dog?

You hear all about the special bonds that can form between a baby or toddler and their canine companion. Social media teems with adorable videos of kids with their dogs. But even though I feel (and certainly hope) that my 5-year-old dog has come to love and care about my rambunctious toddler, how does one ever really know for sure what their doggo is feeling about its littlest member of the pack?

Initially, my son was just this tiny, bald wiggle machine that slept all the time — and yes, perhaps disturbed my dog from a few good naps with an occasional (or not-so-occasional) cry session. On the whole, though, there wasn’t much for my dog to interact with apart from posing for cute photo sessions of them together. Now that my son is a walking, talking human being with a full-blown personality, I’ve enjoyed watching their dynamic change. He wants to play with her and involve her more in his world.

But what does she make of it all, and how do you go about preserving that special connection between your human babies and fur babies? I turned to experts to find out.

What behavioral cues can you look for?

Just like how you can pick up nonverbal cues from your toddler to know how they’re feeling, dogs can exhibit certain behavioral signs to communicate their feelings toward your kiddo as well.

“A dog that seeks out a child (and not just because they are dropping food all over the floor) is a sure sign of interest and possible affection,” CEO and founder of Dog Dynamics, Inc., Bonnie Brown Cali, explains to ScaryMommy. “Dogs exhibit bonding in many ways: a gentle horizontal tail wag, soft eyes, a nuzzle with the nose, a little lean into us.”

With over 30 years of dog training and a background in early preschool development, Brown Cali has helped dogs of all sizes and breeds build strong connections with their tiny humans. But that’s why she knows it’s also imperative to factor your dog’s specific personality into the equation as the two of them begin interacting with each other. Because while seeing your child wrap their arms around the dog may look like the perfect Instagram-worthy moment, your dog may feel a bit differently if it’s something they aren’t used to.

“A hug to a dog can be interpreted as a sign of control,” Brown Cali warns. “Some dogs learn that this is pleasant and may even seek out a hug. But there are dogs that can be quite put off, and even reactive, if they can’t escape the hug.”

Furthermore, if you have a small dog that your child can pick up, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should. “Some dogs will struggle with discomfort when picked up because it is the ultimate loss of control,” Brown Cali continues. “Read your dog’s body language and share what you see with your child. When we teach children how to engage appropriately with our dogs, it strengthens the bond and has the added benefit of teaching respectful interactions with people.”

Can a dog get jealous?

Like many people before us, my husband and I decided to test the waters of parenting by getting a dog first. So, for the first two years of my dog’s life, she was used to being the center of attention. Naturally, that changed a bit once my son came into the picture.

Although my dog has never seemed to hold any noticeable resentment against my child for this shift in priorities, the thought has occasionally crossed my mind. But can dogs even get jealous? “I can’t say if dogs harbor jealousy, but I have seen dogs become bored and seek out attention by exhibiting unwanted behaviors,” says Brown Cali.

These days, it’s also become fairly common to treat your dog almost like a human member of the family. However, Brown Cali advises against blurring those lines too much. “When we muddy the water between ‘you are dog; I am human,’ we put a dog in conflict,” she states. “They can become demanding, pushy, and even territorial because we have not clearly defined that they are part of the family… as a dog.”

The solution? Carve out special time to spend with your pup daily, with the sole focus on them.

“It doesn’t have to be for very long; five to 20 minutes is all it takes,” Brown Cali explains. “Teach obedience games and then weave them into your everyday life with your dog so your dog becomes handy around the house. Play hide-and-seek with your dog. Your pup can use that incredible nose to find you and your child for a fun reward.”

She adds, “These exercises will help to avoid unwanted behaviors and continue to build the bond.”

Does age play a factor?

The older my son gets, the more eager he is to help take care of our dog and assist with her daily needs. While he’s still much too young to take our 60-pound lab for a walk by himself, even simple tasks like filling her water dish or food bowl can help build their budding friendship as time goes on. “Young children love helping, and being part of your dog’s daily needs is a great way to continue the bond,” states Brown Cali.

Not only does it teach my son the responsibility of caring for others, but it lets my dog know she can rely on him, which can, in turn, pave the way to a beautiful, lifelong — and yes, mutually loving — friendship.