boy and siberian husky

Take Treats Gently

My two-year-old likes to give our dog treats, but I worry the dog will nip his fingers. Sometimes my son seems nervous too, and he pulls his hand back instead of giving the treat. Then the dog gets grabby. How can my son give the dog a treat while keeping all of his fingers? ~ Carla in Pittsburgh

Manual dexterity is a challenge for most preschoolers; they have trouble holding a dog treat and then releasing it. There are many ways to make treat delivery a bit easier and less scary for young kids.

  • Drop the treats on the floor.
  • Give your son a bowl to hold while the dog eats a treat out of it.
  • Put the treat on the back of his hand. Young kids often have trouble holding their hand open. Their fingers curl up and form a bowl. It may be better to teach your son to put out his fist and for you to place a treat on top of his hand.
  • Have him sit on the counter (with you right there, of course) and toss treats to the dog. This works well for bouncy dogs who might bump or frighten your child.

 

old dog

Older Dogs May Be Less Tolerant

I have two old dogs—12 and 14 years old. They have never shown any aggression toward anyone, but last week the 12 year old growled at my 1-year-old grandson! I was shocked. My dogs have never lived with kids, but they’ve always been fine with the ones we meet on the street. What should I do when my grandson comes over? ~ Robert

You hit on two important points, Robert. First, your dogs are older. With age comes some creakiness and discomfort. We’re all a bit less tolerant when we are uncomfortable; dogs are no exception.

Also, your dogs have never lived with children. We all know kids behave very differently than adults, and for most dogs, the unfamiliar can be worrisome. Short interactions with strangers on a walk are much easier than an extended visit with a toddler.

I think your best bet is to manage the situation when your grandson comes over. When things are calm, let your dogs hang out with the family.

When your grandson is active or the dogs seem tired, put your dogs in a bedroom with a good chew toy. They will appreciate it, and you can focus on spoiling your grandson.

dog wearing birthday party hat

Birthday Party Bliss or Bedlam?

My 8-year-old daughter was invited to a “bring-your-own-dog birthday party” where each guest (or rather each guest’s parent) is supposed to bring her dog for the first hour of the party.

I’m worried my dog won’t behave well around dogs she doesn’t know. What do you think of this party idea? ~ Candace

I don’t like that idea at all. There are way too many variables to deal with there:

  • Dogs that don’t know each other
  • Dogs that may not be comfortable with groups of children
  • Dogs in an unfamiliar environment
  • Kids whose behavior may be unpredictable around dogs
  • Far too much excitement

No, I don’t think this is a good idea. Each of the dogs may be lovely in her own home, as yours is, but they probably won’t be at their best at a party.

A trainer friend of mine recently participated in a birthday party for a dog-loving child. At this party, she and her trained dog were hired to come to the party for 45 minutes. She taught the kids a little about canine body language and how to train a dog. Then her dog showed off with a variety of tricks. Each child was allowed to come meet Willow and pet her at the end of their visit. The party-goers loved spending time with the dog, and it was a much safer way to have a dog-themed party for a child who really loves dogs.

puppy

Is Her Fear Controlling Her … Or Me?

I have 6-year-old twins: a girl and a boy.  My daughter is afraid of dogs, so I just adopted from the Humane Society a puppy 5 lb. terrier mix who will stay small and is very sweet. 

Hannah will pet Dory if someone is holding her, but she’s still terrified if the puppy is on the ground loose. She will scream and stay on the couch—even if I have Dory on a leash.

She says she “loves” Dory and can’t wait to come home the see her, but once there, it’s another story.  I don’t want to be an enabler and give into my daughter’s control issues.

Hannah will only pet Dory if someone is holding her, and she’s even told me Dory needs to go the crate or she won’t come out of her room.

I know she is afraid; I used to be the same way until my parents got me a dog.  Should I make her stay in my bedroom with me with the dog running loose even though I know she will freak out? I feel if I don’t do this then she will never try to do more than she is doing now because of fear, but I don’t want to terrorize her either.  ~ Sarah

I think this is too much, too soon for Hannah. I don’t recommend getting a dog for a child who is afraid of dogs until after we’ve done some significant ground work to help decrease the child’s level of fear. If you haven’t seen a big improvement within a week, I would seriously consider returning the dog and enlisting some professional help to deal with your daughter’s anxiety. There is a possibility that being forced to interact with the dog can make her fears worse, not better.

The biggest challenge is that dog behavior seems unpredictable to frightened children. By asking you to hold Dory, Hannah is really asking you to ensure nothing unpredictable or scary happens.

If you want to make this work, then I think you’ll have to do everything you can to make their interactions calm and controlled (which can be challenging with a puppy!). Give Dory lots of exercise and plenty of tempting things to chew, so that she won’t be too bouncy around Hannah.

Since your son isn’t worried about Dory, have a conversation with both kids in which they say what they like best and least about dogs in general and about Dory in particular. It’s nice for kids to be able to say that they like some things and not others. Add your own thoughts to the list. Maybe hearing from the two of you will help Hannah see some of Dory’s more enticing traits while accepting that “nobody’s perfect,” so it’s perfectly okay to not like every little thing about her.

Encourage your son to do some basic training with Dory using treats to make it fun. (More info and ideas in Puppy Training for Kids.) Have Hannah watch from the couch. Once she sees that there are ways to interact with puppies that encourage calm and appropriate behavior, she may start to warm up a bit.

P.S. Don’t let either of your kids carry the puppy around. It’s tempting to treat a small dog as a toy, but most dogs are very uncomfortable being carried by a child and many learn to wriggle (and sometimes snap) as a way to be put down. That won’t help Hannah at all.

greyhound

Labrador or Greyhound?

I’m a single mom with a 2-year-old son, and I would really like to adopt a greyhound. I have talked with a local greyhound rescue, and they have approved I have talked with a local greyhound rescue, and they have approved my application.

But everyone keeps telling me to get a Labrador because they are the best dog for kids!

I like labs, but I don’t think I have enough energy to live with one. On the other hand, I definitely want a dog that will love my son. What do you think? Should I get a lab? ~ Phoebe

Go for the greyhound—but make sure you choose one that is highly social (not just tolerant) with children.

There isn’t a best breed, but there are “best traits” for your family. There are laid-back labs and hyper greyhounds. Never choose simply by breed. Instead choose a dog that is social, gentle, tolerant, and has an energy level compatible with yours.

I’m sure the rescue group can help you identify dogs who may be good matches. Ask if they perform behavioral evaluations (or if you can hire someone to assess a dog before you adopt).

Take your time. When the right dog comes along, you’ll know.

girl and dog

A Bite Without Warning

My daughter and her friend (both 10) were playing with our dog, Zorro, the other day. The girls were both petting and hugging him when, without warning, he bit my daughter on the nose! Nothing like this has ever happened before. How can I trust Zorro around kids again? ~ Debbie

It sounds to me like your dog was a little overwhelmed. A common problem in kid-and-dog interactions is that the dog is telling the kids he’s uncomfortable, but since the kids don’t “speak dog,” they miss the warning signs. Very few dogs like to be hugged, and being hugged by two affectionate girls may have been too much for your dog.

Carefully supervise when Zorro is around kids, even when it’s just your own kids. Look for signs of stress, such as yawning, turning away, licking his lips, or panting. When you see any of those signs, separate the kids and dog for a while. Later watch to see if Zorro seeks them out again. The best family dogs really enjoy kids, but all dogs will have moments when they are uncomfortable. With a little space and downtime, many dogs will be eager to rejoin the activity.

Intervene early and often when kids and dogs are playing. It's always better to leave them wanting more than to wait until someone get cranky.

Never punish a dog for giving warning signals, such as snarls, growls, or even snaps. Warnings are valuable information! Parents must immediately intervene and take steps to prevent similar scenarios from occurring (such as allowing a dog to feel smothered by well-intentioned hugs).

If you see many stress signals or early-warning signs, I strongly suggest you have a dog trainer provide some personalized advice. This post has some tips for finding a good trainer.

Continue reading
boxer dog getting treat

How to Choose a Dog Trainer

Must Love Dogs ... And People Too!

Let’s start with the most important thing: the dog trainer you hire is going to be handling your beloved dog, so you want someone who is kind, humane, and knowledgeable. You want someone who will work with your dog, someone who sets the dog up for success, someone your dog feels safe with. This is vital.

I wish it were easy to give guidance about how to find a good dog trainer, but unfortunately it can be a bit tricky.

Here’s the problem: No website says, “Our trainers are unkind, inhumane, and ignorant.” If only it were that easy.

A trainer using inappropriate methods can actually create more problems than they solve. Any method that rely on fear, force, or coercion can increase the likelihood of aggression, anxiety, and other stress-related behaviors. (Avoid electronic collars, prong collars, choke chains, noise deterrents, etc.) You are looking for a trainer to make your life easier, not harder and potentially more dangerous!

There are lots of misguided philosophies that describe dogs in unflattering terms. Dogs have been labeled as devious schemers who try to boss you around, so you are encouraged to be very tough and rigid in your interactions with them. The outdated, inaccurate, and disproven theories about pack hierarchies and alpha roles are wrong for wolves and ridiculous for dogs.

A far more accurate description would be that dogs are like toddlers—curious, social, and impulsive. When a dog jumps up to say hello, she’s not trying to dominate you; she’s just checking you out in a way that felt natural to her. It’s your job to kindly teach her what you expect. When your dog takes food off the counter is “stealing” the really best word to describe the behavior? If a young child reached over and took food off your plate, you’d know that he didn’t understand the social proprieties and not brand him a thief.

So it matters—a lot—what methods your trainer uses. Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers came up with three questions that I love because they’ll help you learn about about a potential trainer’s methods and philosophy:

  • What, exactly, will happen to my dog if she gets it right?
  • What, exactly, will happen to my dog if she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

These are excellent questions. The right dog trainer for you will be willing to discuss their methodology with you, and in that conversation you should feel their respect for dogs and for people. (A disappointingly high number of trainers say they only like dogs, not people. Those trainers are not right for you and your dog.)

Companion Animal Psychology has an excellent, detailed blog post on finding a trainer. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just share the link. And if you are more of a listener than a reader, in episode 18 of Your Family Dog, Julie Fudge Smith and I talk about how to find a good trainer.

Choosing the Best Dog Trainer for Your Family

  • Ask the three questions listed above in the post and listen carefully to the answers. If you have any sense of unease, ask more questions. Still not sure? Move on. Your conversation with the trainer should make you feel comfortable and confident that you and your dog will both enjoy the training experience and learn new skills.
  • Look for a trainer who uses food. Using food is the fastest way for your dog to learn what makes you happy. You love your dog and are going to feed him every day (of course!), so be strategic about the timing and delivery of that food to use it as a powerful teaching tool.
  • Get trainer references from your friends and neighbors whose dogs are happy and well behaved. No shut-down, robotic dogs, please. You want good behavior, not suppressed behavior, for a great family dog. Not sure what happy really looks like, learn more here.
  • Look for certifications and continuing education. You want a trainer who is always learning more, not someone stagnant. There are a bazillion different codes that signify training certifications. These indicate a willingness to grow, which is good, but certifications don't guarantee you'll like their methods.
  • Look for membership in a professional organization. As with certification, membership is no guarantee of compassionate, effective training, but at least it shows the person is serious enough about their work to belong to a professional association. 
two golden retriever puppies

Should I Get Two Puppies?

I would like to get each of my daughters a puppy. One of my neighbors said she heard it was a bad idea to adopt littermates. Is that true? Should I get the dogs from different litters? ~ Wendy

Wendy: Don’t get littermates. In fact, don’t even get two dogs.

I think having a dog is a great experience for a child, but ideally the dog should be part of the family, not a personal pet. As the parent, you are the one taking ultimate responsibility for each dog in your household.

Each puppy in a litter will have its own personality, which means that one of your daughters will have a dog that is (pick a characteristic) smarter, more obedient, more social, less jumpy, less prone to chewing, more easily housetrained, and on and on. This could cause friction between your daughters if one perceives that the other has the “better” puppy.

Just as the puppies will be different, your daughters are too. One is likely calmer, more patient, more consistent, more clear, or gentler than the other. Many times family dogs will prefer one child over another. You really don’t want to have to explain to one of your girls why her dog actually seems to like her sister better. That’s a tightrope conversation because it can be hard to explain without sounding like you are judging your daughter’s behavior as being less worthy of a dog’s affection.

All of this is before we even address your daughters’ levels of responsibility. Will they be equally reliable? Would they prefer to do half as many dog chores by sharing responsibility?

In addition, your odds of dog-to-dog aggression issues increase when you have two dogs of the same size, age, and gender. It’s quite common for littermates to not enjoy each other’s company as adults and to sometimes behave aggressively toward one another.

All of these factors make me strongly in favor of families adding one dog at a time and giving that dog all the attention and training it needs before adding another.

Note: The writer didn’t tell me how old her daughters are, so I assigned this letter to the 7-10 age category as a guesstimate.

Mom frustrated with kids

You Better Behave … Or Else!

I am sick of repeating myself. My kids know how to behave around dogs, but I feel like I’m constantly nagging them about how they should act. I’ve even threatened to get rid of the dog! How can I make them understand? ~ April

April: Do your kids remember to use a napkin at every meal? Mine didn’t for years. They knew what was expected, but sometimes they forgot. That’s part of being a kid. Your kids may know the rules, but it’s hard for them to be consistent and empathetic.

When it comes to teaching kids how to interact with dogs, I tell parents to think of themselves as a coach, giving constant feedback (more positive than negative) and encouraging improvement. It's far more effective than nagging and a lot less frustrating too.

Will your kids still make mistakes? Yep, every single day. Instead of threatening to get rid of the dog, please choose a different consequence, like having extra chores or losing a TV show. It’s really not fair to get rid of your dog because your kids are acting like kids.

If your kids are just being boisterous and a bit clueless, spell out the rules and consequences clearly—and follow through, over and over, day after day. I’ll be the first to admit living with kids and dogs isn’t always easy, but it really is worth it.

Warning

If you have any concern that your kids are being cruel, that’s a different scenario entirely. In that case, I would recommend rehoming a dog and then also some counseling to help the kids learn more empathetic and cooperative behavior. This is a problem that must be addressed with professional support.

terrier mix

New Friend or Unwelcome Interloper?

I rescued my dog, Benji, a terrier mix, about a year ago. At the time there were no children in the household. However I now have a 4 year old stepson, Anthony, and a baby on the way, and we are noticing some upsetting behavior from Benji.

He regularly growls when my stepson gets too close and has bitten his foot when he steps over Benji. Benji does ok when Anthony gives him treats and will do tricks for rewards.

I am unsure if I should continue to foster positive interaction or try to separate the two to be safe. We currently have Benji sleeping in his crate at night to avoid any late night unsupervised interaction.

Thanks in advance for your help. ~ Teresa

Teresa: That's a lot of change for Benji in only one year. Based on what you’ve said here, I don’t think you need to keep Benji and Anthony completely apart. Instead pay particular attention to the things that are challenging for Benji.

For example, I would prevent Anthony from ever stepping over Benji and also figure out how close is “too close.” Having a mental image of where the line is allows you to intervene earlier, before they are too close to one another.

Whenever they’re in close quarters, you can distract one or the other to add a bit of distance and extra comfort.

Try to think of their interactions as a traffic light. The more you provide help and support in the yellow zone, the more comfortable the two of them will be with one another. The trick is learning to identify the signs of stress that come before Benji hits the red zone and feels the need to growl or bite.

Ideally interactions between kids and dogs should follow the same guideline as play dates with other kids: “Always leave them wanting more!” That’s so much better than burning out and getting cranky.

Give this a try for a few weeks and let me know how it goes.