My parents had a German Shepherd named Butch before I was born.
He was my constant companion and protector as a child and I (semi) jokingly say I imprinted on him rather than people. But contrary to the popular thought that kids and dogs are natural companions, it takes some work to make sure this companionship is safe for both the dog and your child.
When a child and canine relationship goes bad, the child can be bitten (sometimes severely or fatally) and the dog could be potentially killed. To protect both your child and the dog, it's important that your child learns how to interact with the dog to reduce tension.
Dogs, Kids and the Dog's Food
The family dog should be able to eat in peace. Feed him in a quiet spot where there isn't too much havoc and where your child won't bother him. Teach your child that just as they wouldn't interrupt an adult's meal, put their hands in their parent's food or take something off a parent's plate without permission, they are not allowed to interrupt the dog's eating nor play with his food.
A common theme I hear from parents is, "We mess with his food because he needs to learn that he can't protect his food." The quickest way to make a dog protective over his food is to continually mess with him while he's eating. However, an adult (not a child) can feed the dog and then part way through his meal, give him some more food. That's fine as it teaches him that food comes from your hand.
Children can give the dog food treats when it's not mealtime and away from his food bowl. During training sessions is a great time for the child to give out treats (as directed by the adult doing the training).
I hate the photos or videos that show a child sleeping on top of the dog, climbing on him, riding him like a horse or otherwise using him as a toy or jungle gym. Many dogs will be endlessly patient, until finally a sharp elbow in the eye or knee in the rib cage sends the dog over the edge and the child is bitten. Parents lament, "But he's been so good!" Yes, he was patient and good, but when he didn't get any backup from the parents and the child wasn't taught to respect the dog, he ran out of patience.
Just as young kids need to learn to respect other people, so do they need to learn to respect the dog. No poking eyes, pulling ears, yanking on the tail or climbing on the dog. No stomping on paws. No bouncing on the dog.
In place of the rude behaviors, teach your child how to pet the dog. He can pet the dog's back, scratch behind the ears if the dog likes it, scratch at the base of the tail and if the dog rolls over, rub his tummy.
Kids repeat what has been done to them, so if affection is shown to your child through kisses, hugs and tickles, then they are apt to repeat that. You can often see this repeating of behaviors when the child is playing with a doll or stuffed toy.
Unfortunately this, too, can lead to problems with many dogs. Few dogs like to be kissed on the face and if a child does it too often and the dog protests, then a bite in the face may be the result. Few dogs like to be hugged around the head, either. So again, show the child how to pet the dog and explain this is the best way to show the dog that he is loved.
Play sessions are a wonderful way for kids and dogs to interact but again, as with all other aspects of the relationship, there are some things children can do and a few they should not do.
The best games for dogs and kids to play together are retrieving games. Your child can throw a ball or toy and the dog retrieves it. Your child can then ask the dog to drop the toy rather than taking it from the dog's mouth. That helps protect small fingers when the dog is excited. Hide and seek games are also great, as are trick training and scenting games.
Children should not wrestle with the dog, tease him with a toy or play tug of war with him as these three games tend to get the dog over excited. Many dogs get over stimulated when several children run together. The dog will chase and sometimes catch and bite. If your dog gets this excited, don't let him play with a group of kids who are running; just put him away for that period of time.
Your dog needs a safe place where he can have time alone. This can be his crate, access to your bedroom, or another spot where the family kids are not allowed to bother him. Let him go to this spot when he's been given something to chew on, when he's tired, or when neighborhood kids come over to play. If he's tired, let him go to his spot.
Teach your child that the dog is never to be disturbed when he's in his spot. Your child is not even to stand in front of that spot and stare at the dog. Everyone is to treat this spot as sacred to the dog.
Rules are for Safety's Sake
All these warnings aside, dogs and kids can be great friends. However, all friendships have some rules, whether they are socially accepted rules or rules taught for safety's sake.
The family dog has some lessons he needs to learn, too, but in the meantime, teach your child to treat the dog as they would people in the family: with respect and consideration.