The kids have been begging for a dog, and you're getting ready to give in. But what kind of canine companion to get?

You’ve probably heard that some breeds are good with kids and some aren’t. Bury that notion like a bone. Yes, generally speaking some breeds have personalities and tendencies that make them more family-friendly than others. But not all dogs are true to their breed. 

"The variability is so huge,” says Terri Bright, PhD, director of behavior services at the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Boston, that it's impossible to determine the dog’s temperament based on breed. “Each dog is different,” she notes.

Liz Jefferis, executive director at Baypath Humane Society of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, echoes that sentiment. “We have seen aggressive Labs and perfect pit bulls here at the shelter." The bottom line? “It’s not a good idea to choose a dog by its breed.”

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So how can you choose a pooch that will fit in with your pack?

Matching a dog to your family

Collie with a family(Photo: AnikaNes/Shutterstock)

The dog should be in sync with the family’s activity level and lifestyle, Bright says. If you are an active, outdoorsy family, get a dog that likes to be outside chasing balls. If your family tends to cling to the couch for reading or TV, get a laid back dog. Examine your life now, says Bright, and how your family dynamics may change in a few years.

Jefferis says the process of choosing a dog “is not black and white.” There’s a lot to consider. Here are some thoughts from her 10 years of matching dogs and families:

  • Adopt a dog with a history of living with children.
  • Test the dog. Ask a staff member to keep the dog on a leash while your kids play, jump and run around. The ideal pooch should be interested, happy and relaxed, not lunging, overly excited or scared.
  • If your family has an active social life, choose a dog who likes other dogs and is OK with crowds, loud noises and all kinds of kids.
  • Consider whether you really want a puppy. Puppies may be more adaptable and tolerant of children, but they’re a lot of work, and their temperament may change as adults. Also, they may try to bite as they play, get overly excited or jump on kids.
  • Size matters. If your children are small, remember that big dogs may knock down a kid. Small dogs may inadvertently get hurt by kids.

If you have a child under 6, your best choice is what Jefferis calls a “bombproof dog” — the happy-go-lucky dog who will tolerate pretty much everyone and everything. Keep in mind, though, that even the nicest dog might end up biting a child, Bright warns.

No matter how much you love the looks of a labradoodle or how much you’re into the beagle at the shelter, listen to the adoption counselor. “If they tell you that’s not the dog for you, believe them,” says Jefferis.

Be honest with the shelter staff about what you need and can commit to for time and training. Think of how much attention you’ll be able to give the dog. “You don’t want a bored energetic dog,” adds Jefferis. He may start acting out and developing destructive behaviors.

"Family-friendly" breeds by reputation

You can't judge a dog by its breed. But if you're wondering which dogs are said to be kid-friendly, here are a few. 

Golden or Labrador retriever: Labs are the most popular breed in the United States for a reason, says Gina DiNardo, vice president of the American Kennel Club (AKC). “They are intelligent, gentle and very family-friendly.” Patrick Hallisey, DVM, veterinarian at Kindness Animal Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts, may recommend to his clients a Golden retriever, a Labrador retriever, a Shetland sheepdog or a Bichon frise depending on the size of the dog people are looking for. (But he emphasizes “there are exceptions to any breed.”)

Boxer or bulldog: The Boxer has a deep desire for human affection, especially from children, says DiNardo. Bulldogs are sweet, mellow companions that are especially fond of children, she adds.

Cavalier King Charles spaniel: Cavalier King Charles spaniels are friendly, trustworthy companions for kids and thrive when part of a family, says DiNardo.

Newfoundland: The Newfoundland is known for its sweet, devoted nature, says DiNardo. “The breed has a natural affinity for children and take naturally to the role of nanny dog.”

DiNardo recommends talking with breeders to learn what it's really like to live with a breed you are considering. “As breed experts, breeders are a wealth of information, and can help you make the right choice for your family.”

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Training and teaching

No matter what dog you adopt, what you do once you get it home can influence how well it fits in. Jefferis recommends enrolling your dog in training classes. It’s a great bonding experience for the whole family, she says, and it can help you control the pup's behavior. “If you have a dog that listens, you can control little annoyances. You can call your dog, tell him to sit.”

Teach your children to be respectful and consistent with the dog and to pay attention to signs the dog has had enough and wants to be left alone, says Bright. She recommends visiting Doggonesafe.com as a starting point.

Here are the basics to respecting a dog, according to Bright:

  • Don’t grab the dog
  • Don’t pull ears and tails
  • Don’t stare at the dog
  • Don’t bother the dog when he’s sleeping or eating
  • Don’t touch his toys and treats
  • Respect his space

To lower the chances of conflict, have a room for kids that is off-limits to the dog, and a room for the dog that is off-limits to kids. That way, says Bright, everyone “can have a break.”

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Daniela Caride is a freelance writer who has four cats and two dogs. She blogs about being a pet parent at Taildom.com and founded a nonprofit called Phinney's Friends.