Peek in my mailbag (page 4)

cartoon of dog writingMy kids and I just got a Border Terrier puppy. She is only 10 weeks old, and she doesn't like to be picked up. Sometimes she growls and snaps at us!
The breeder told me to "show the dog who is boss" by pinning her to the ground and growling back at her. I tried to do it, but she was like a greased pig--wiggling around and snapping at me. I know my kids couldn't do it.
What should we do?
~ Ann in Cedar Rapids

I'm so glad you asked because I do not agree with your breeder's advice. It's quite likely your puppy will decide that people are scary and a good offense is the best defense.

Instead teach her to accept and enjoy being touched. Sit on the floor in a quiet area with a small bowl of treats nearby. Gently touch her paw with one hand and give a treat with the other. Work on touching her all over and making it a fun game. Do frequent short sessions with each of your kids, and soon your puppy will enjoy having people touch her.

One safety note: Kids should not pick up and carry dogs. That can be very frightening to a dog. Many dogs learn that wiggling and snapping are a quick ticket to the floor, and we really don't want your dog rehearsing aggression toward your kids. Adults should be the only ones to carry a dog--for both the dog's safety and the children's.

Your family will also enjoy Victoria Schade's DVD, "New Puppy! Now What?" It's full of information to get you off to a great start. If you continue to have problems handling your puppy, please ask a trainer to help sooner rather than later.

Our dog is getting pretty old. Chelsea sleeps most of the time and doesn't play much any more. Our 16-year-old son is begging for a puppy. I'm not sure getting a puppy is fair to Chelsea and, to be honest, I'm also not sure I want a puppy. What do you suggest?
~ Jackie in Miami

Think long and hard before getting a puppy. Your son will likely move out in the next few years, and the puppy will stay with you for the next decade or so.

If you decide to get a puppy, make sure that Chelsea can get away when she wants a break. With age comes a few privileges, and one is that you shouldn't have to deal with wild youngsters all the time. She's earned undisturbed naps in sunny spots.

Be sure to give the puppy plenty of exercise and seek out some playmates for him. The more energy he can expend with you, your son, and other dogs, the less he'll pester Chelsea.

With careful consideration to the older dog's needs, many families find the addition of a puppy less stressful than they anticipated. Often the older dog even perks up a bit and begins to play again.

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I'm in a desperate situation. I have a 2-year-old German shepherd. Last week, he bit my neighbor's 7-year-old girl. They had been playing fetch, and he nailed her in the back of the head. She needed 12 staples. Needless to say, I'm sick over this. I have 5-year-old twins, and they can do anything to him. I will say when kids are over he avoids them and seems almost afraid of them. He has growled before, but usually he will just leave the room when kids visit. So I don't know if this bite was intentional, a reaction out of fear, or a mistake. In any case, I cannot risk him biting again. How can I know if he'll be safe around kids in the future?
~ Susan in Oak Park, IL

There are several red flags in your letter. First, your dog growls at visiting children. This is his way of expressing discomfort. Never punish a dog for growling; warnings convey valuable information! But whenever a dog growls at a child, you need to carefully assess the situation to prevent it from recurring. By leaving the room, he is telling you that he would like to be away from visiting kids. For now, be sure to put him in behind a locked door whenever children are visiting.

Twelve staples means your dog did not show good bite inhibition. Most dog bites do not puncture the skin. In this case, your dog created a large gash. If he were to bite again, the injury would probably be similar.

And the ages of your kids and of your dog are another cause for concern. Kids between 5 and 9 (like your kids and most of their friends) are bitten more often than people of other ages. Also dogs grow into their level of aggression. Most serious dog bites come from dogs between 2 and 5 years old. Your dog is at the earlier end of this time frame.

I strongly suggest you take your dog for a professional evaluation to get a better idea of your dog's social drive, tolerance levels, and reactivity. This information will help you decide how best to ensure the safety of your kids and their friends.

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Are beagles good with kids?
~ Jason in Tucson

I wish I could create a list of breeds in which all the dogs were great with kids, but that's just not possible. Many beagles are wonderful family dogs, but I also know some that are not.

There can be big differences in the temperaments of puppies--even within a single litter--so look at each dog as an individual. Compare this with your kids. I have three sons, but they are very different people. The same is true of dogs. Each one comes with an individual personality.

Look for a dog that loves people. A strong social drive is the best barrier against aggression. Good family dogs are social, sturdy, and don't guard their possessions.

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Please help! Last evening our dog, Cocoa, was hit and killed by a car. Our 8-year-old daughter, Julie, had been in the back yard playing with the dog and when she was ready to come in, Cocoa didn't come when she called her, so Julie left her in the yard. Later Cocoa climbed the fence and ran into the street.
We don't know what to tell our daughter! Should we tell her the truth? I don't want her to feel that it was her fault and keep thinking of how her dog was killed. Should we tell Julie her dog ran away? She will want to look for Cocoa and put up flyers to find her.
What is the best way to handle this?
~ Kim in Carson City, NV

As hard as it is, I recommend telling Julie that Cocoa was hit by a car. I'm sure she'll feel terrible, but maybe you can diffuse her guilt somewhat by saying that you noticed Cocoa in the yard and forgot to let her in too. Stress that it was an accident and that no one intended Cocoa any harm (you, she, or the driver); it was simply a situation that Cocoa couldn't understand so she ran out into the road.

I know many people who were told as children that their dog ran away. They tell of looking for the dog and hoping for its return for years--far beyond the dog's logical lifespan. In response, you'll find yourself trying to distract Julie when she talks about Cocoa, which may make her think that you don't care that Cocoa is lost.

Telling your daughter the truth will be painful, but you'll be able to talk things over and move forward. Give her time to grieve and remember that kids process things very differently. Many kids look for a silver lining and will say things that sound hurtful. For example, one of my sons told me that he was glad when our golden retriever died "because now we can get a black dog." Ow! He was 7 and didn't understand; that was just a child's way of trying to find the good in the situation.

The loss of a pet is often a child's first experience with death. Your support will help Julie deal with Cocoa's death in the best way she can.

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My dog hates to have his nails trimmed. He pulls away and I have to chase him. What should I do?
~ Dan in Philadelphia

The way I see it, you have two choices. You can ask a good trainer to teach you how to desensitize your dog to having his nails trimmed. The trick is to take things slowly and make him love each step of the process. It's definitely doable, but it takes time.

Your second option is to find a groomer who can quickly and efficiently trim the nails. Your dog still won't like it, but he won't be running from you. You have to choose your battles in life. Nail trimming is one that many people opt to leave to the pros.

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My bloodhound died a few months ago, and I found a bloodhound puppy available through a local rescue group. When I applied to adopt her, they turned me down because I have young grandchildren who sleep over sometimes. They said the puppy had a problem with "resource guarding." What is that and why is it a big deal for my grandkids' visits? Is this something I could train out of the dog?
~ Ellie in Bakersfield

"Resource guarding" is when a dog is willing to growl, snap, or bite to protect something she has. Some obvious possibilities are food and rawhides, but the tricky part is that the dog gets to decide what's worth guarding. I've known dogs who guard Styrofoam balls, wet bathing suits, spilled cereal, food wrappers, and plastic toys.

Mild resource guarding can respond well to behavior modification in an adults-only household, but it's a very tricky problem to manage with kids around. Kids have trouble reading a dog's body language and usually don't recognize some of the early warning signals, such as stiffening or curled lips. Also with kids, food and garbage are much tougher to manage. Kids frequently spill their plates when carrying them to the sink, miss the garbage can with their napkins, and carry a cookie as they walk from room to room. A resource-guarding dog could become aggressive at any of those times.

If the rescue group turned you down, they must think this dog has a serious resource-guarding problem. I'm sure you are disappointed, but I think you'd be wise to look for a different pup.

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I often take my dog to my son's baseball games. I bring a chair, and we sit a distance away from the bleachers. Most of the time, things are great. Every now and then, Kelsey takes a dislike to someone and starts to bark. It's usually an elderly man. I have no idea why she'd act this way. The people have never done anything to her. It's embarrassing, and it makes me worry that people will think I have a mean dog. What should I do?
~ Samantha in Nebraska

Dogs define "normal" by what they see all the time and, conversely, they find things that are different a bit worrisome. It's not unusual for a dog to react badly to people who limp, use a cane, or roll by on skates. These things are not every-day occurrences for many dogs.

If she's usually good with people, take treats with you and work on having her focus on you instead of the "scary" people. Stand up, move around a bit, and do a little training. Movement can be settling for both people and dogs. Be sure to stay far enough away that she feels comfortable and is not reactive.

If possible, ask the man to sit in your chair (so he'll be still and Kelsey knows he won't approach her) and toss treats to her. Most social dogs can get over their initial fear of someone different when you keep things light and fun.

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My neighbors have an invisible fence for their dog. They tell me that it's completely safe and that the dog will never cross the line. I'm not so sure. Every day the dog charges to the edge of the yard and barks at anyone going by. I'm worried that one day he'll come after a kid on a bike. Are these electronic fences really effective?
~ Martha in Kansas City, MO

I think you are right to be worried. We all get better at what we practice, and this dog is rehearsing aggression. Arousal levels and aggression are closely linked. So each day, this dog is getting the opportunity to get all charged up to bark at people. It is not uncommon for a dog to bolt through the electric shock in pursuit of something exciting.

If possible, have your kids play in a different area. Practice the "be a tree" pose with them so they know what to do if they encounter a loose dog. Kids are far more likely to be bitten if they are running away, so this is very important rehearse with your kids.

You might also want to talk with your neighbor to see if they would only allow the dog to be out when they can be outside to supervise him or suggest that they allow the dog to be in the back yard only.

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My house is the gathering place for the neighborhood. Yesterday we had 16 kids here. It doesn't seem fair to put my dachshund in her crate or in my bedroom because this is her home. She should be allowed to go where she pleases, but I find it really stressful to supervise a large group of kids around her.
~ Kelly in Salt Lake City

Sixteen kids? Wow, that would be challenging for any dog. When kids are around, dogs are treated like celebrities--the kids all clamor for the dog's attention. While you are right that it is her home, your pup might be far happier to have some quiet time in her crate with a chew toy when your house gets chaotic.

When you have a smaller crowd, keep your dog out for only part of the time. Let the kids do a little training with her. Give them each a few treats and allow them to reward her for sitting or coming when called. Then take her away and give her some downtime so that she can recharge and the kids can move on to something else.

A special reminder about little dogs, do not allow the kids to pick her up. Kids want to pick up dogs and cuddle with them. Dogs often learn that wiggling and/or snapping will get them put down quickly. This is dangerous for both the child and the dog. A common fallacy is that there are good dogs and bad dogs, but situations like this show that good dogs can certainly have bad moments, just as people do.

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I’m a divorced dad with two daughters. My new girlfriend has a dog that hasn’t been around kids much. After only a few visits, he got used to my 13 year old, but he still charges and growls at my 7 year old. He’s never bitten anyone. I don’t think he’d hurt Ashley; he’s just trying to scare her a bit. He’s seen Ashley every other weekend for the last 2 or 3 months and it doesn’t seem to be improving. How can I get him to stop?
~ Karl in Philadelphia

Go slow! It really hasn’t been that long. If you count every other weekend, it turns out that the dog has met your daughters relatively few times.

Keep him on a leash when the girls visit. We must prevent him from charging at Ashley. Practice makes perfect. It is wonderful that he’s never hurt anyone. However since he hasn’t been around kids and he’s showing clear signs of aggression, I don’t think it’s safe to assume he wouldn’t hurt Ashley in a stressful moment.

Whenever Ashley is in the room, reward him for calm, quiet behavior. Don’t have Ashley try to work with him yet. For now it’s enough for him to see that having Ashley around turns you and your girlfriend into human treat dispensers. Have him do simple behaviors (eye contact, sit, down, or shake), and keep things upbeat and fun. When Ashley leaves the room, become boring. Soon he’ll be begging her to come back in.

When you can’t be actively working with the dog, put him in another room behind a locked door. Both the dog and Ashley will need some downtime. This ensures that everyone will be safe when you are not able to be completely involved.

A big part of the problem is that the dog hasn’t had much experience with kids. Dogs are very attuned to body language. The fact that he adjusted to your older daughter relatively quickly is probably because she’s old enough to move more like an adult than a child. Ashley’s youthful body language is unfamiliar and therefore worrisome to the dog. The dog can learn to understand Ashley, but it will take some time and effort on your part.

This is a very serious problem.  I strongly suggest you set up an appointment with a good dog trainer. Check the Association of Pet Dog Trainers to find someone in your area. Having someone on site who can guide you through this will be very helpful and will speed the process along.

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My Labrador is a licker!  He covers everyone in kisses.  One or two is fine, but he’s excessive. How can I stop this?
~ Vicki in Billings

Labs are bred to be very oral. Try giving him a ball or a toy to hold when he meets people. For many dogs that completely solves the problem.
You can also teach him a few tricks. By giving him something specific to do, you will provide an alternative behavior.  “High Five” is a good trick because it encourages a bit of distance between the dog and his new human friends. The people will likely stand up straight to watch and respond when your dog gives them a high five.

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Send your question

If you have a question about kids and dogs, feel free to write to me. I can't answer all the questions I receive, but I answer many.

I won't deny that living with kids and dogs is a lot of work! But when things are going well, a dog can be your child's best friend. That experience is a wonderful gift for any child and well worth the effort involved.