An expert breaks down several kid-friendly dog breeds and explains how to choose the right one for your family.

child with bernese mountain dog
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You want a dog, but which one? Whether it's a friendly retriever that doesn't mind the pokes and prods of a toddler, a patient collie that allows a preschooler to "do" her hair, or an active mountain breed that's a grade-schooler's most loyal sidekick, a dog is often one of a child's first and favorite playmates.

As a general rule, the younger your child, the larger the dog should be. The reason: If a toddler falls on a big dog, it won't hurt the dog -- he'll just walk away. If a toddler falls on a small dog, the dog is likely to react aggressively to protect himself. Small breeds are best with kids older than 6. Select a dog with a calm temperament, raised by a reputable breeder (visit the American Kennel Club's website for tips). And always supervise your child with any dog.

The following are the best dog breed picks for families, according to experts.

1. Bernese Mountain Dog

Why It's a Winner: Berners are known to be easygoing and very devoted. They form a strong bond with a family but often attach themselves to one person in particular. The perfect winter playmate for an only child, this breed thrives in cold weather and loves snow.

Special Care: Berners typically have a shorter lifespan than smaller breeds, usually living for eight to 10 years. This can be tough for a child who gets attached to his dog at a young age.

Word of Caution: Be sure to select a calm, even-tempered dog. As with any breed, some Berners are shy and others can be aggressive—not a good quality in a large dog. Finding a good breeder is key.

bichon frise puppy
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2. Bichon Frise and Havanese

Why It's a Winner: Playful and loving, these small breeds are good for city dwellers. They're also great for kids with allergies or asthma because they have hair instead of fur. Both breeds like to perch on the back of a couch or chair so they can peer out the window at passersby.

Special Care: These breeds don't shed much, but they do require professional grooming every month to keep their coats from matting.

Word of Caution: Since these breeds are sensitive to pain, they aren't fond of being tugged on by an overzealous toddler. They do best with children over 3 years old.

cavalier spaniel puppy
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3. Spaniel

Why It's a Winner: A good size for a toddler and small enough for a child to walk with supervision, gentle Cavalier spaniels are a terrific fit for most families.

Special Care: Cavaliers don't require a lot of grooming, but they thrive on attention. This breed could be the perfect choice for an only child looking for a constant companion.

Word of Caution: Cavaliers are very high-energy dogs, which makes them good for rural or suburban life-but not life in the city. They're such great family dogs that their popularity could lead to inferior breeding. Choose a confident, happy puppy from an outgoing mother.

collie with ball
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4. Collie

Why It's a Winner: Collies are herders by nature. That means if a collie views a child as his "herd" or pack, then the child's got a loyal, fun-loving companion for life.

Special Care: "Rough-coated" collies require frequent brushing, making them ideal for attentive kids who want to "style" their hair. Also, collies can be jumpers, so you will need a high fence to contain them.

Word of Caution: Don't confuse this breed with the Border collie, whose shyness, sensitivity to sound, and extremely high activity level can make it a challenging dog for families or for novice dog owners.

chocolate golden and black labradors
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5. Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever

Why It's a Winner: So many people gravitate to these friendly dogs that the American Kennel Club ranks them as the two most popular breeds. They can be great for infants because they're soft-mouthed and gentle. Plus, they're usually not bothered by noise or crying.

Special Care: These breeds need plenty of space to play and lots of exercise, making them an excellent match for athletic families.

Word of Caution: Retrievers love to chew on objects, although early training usually prevents that problem. The high demand for these breeds can make it tough to find a healthy retriever with a good temperament.

Newfoundland dog
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6. Newfoundland

Why It's a Winner: Newfs are good-natured and laid back. They love to swim, take daily walks, pull carts, and carry backpacks (the last two come from the breed's history as a working dog). This outdoorsy breed could be the motivation a sedentary child needs to get more exercise.

Special Care: Newfs drool a lot and shed a ton, especially if you don't brush them regularly.

Word of Caution: These playful giants (they generally grow to be between 110 and 150 pounds) are best suited to suburban and country living.

standard poodle
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7. Standard Poodle

Why It's a Winner: Often perfect for children with allergies or asthma since they have hair instead of fur, poodles are smart, energetic, and highly trainable.

Special Care: They require professional grooming every six to eight weeks, plus at-home brushing and bathing between appointments. Getting plenty of outdoor exercise keeps poodles calm when they're indoors.

Word of Caution: The poodle's popularity means that there are many out there, some with better temperaments than others. Choose carefully.

Copyright © Kristen Finello. Reprinted with permission from Child magazine.