A Dog will Help but They are Afraid!

I have a 4-1/2-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl.  My kids are not at all rough with each other or other kids. They are, however, a little afraid of dogs.  And I think they feed off of each other’s fear.
My son has a speech delay and some sensory processing issues, and his therapists tell me that a dog would help him a lot. But . . . they are both afraid.

My husband and I have come to the conclusion that we need to get a dog . . . and the sooner the better.  We both love dogs, by the way.

What do you think of us getting a dog and just helping their fears along in that way? Or is it best not to do that?  Would that traumatize them even more?

I go back and forth on this issue and would really appreciate some feedback. ~ Kelly

It’s great that you and your husband love dogs. That will help tremendously.

Don’t get a dog yet.  I think you’d be wise to spend some time helping your kids become more comfortable around dogs first. Here are some things that I think might help:

  1. Doggone Crazy game. This game has lots of photos of dogs that you can talk about. Each gamecard asks whether you should approach the dog shown and the back of the card explains the answer. It’s designed for kids 4 and up.
  2. • Dogs, Cats, and Kids Video, by Wayne Hunthausen. This has good body language information presented in easy-to-understand format.
  3. • Local Trainers. Ask a trainer if you can come watch a group class. You might even want to pay for a session in which a trainer sits with you and your kids and talks about every dog in class. Then the trainer can accompany you and the kids to meet any dogs the kids feel comfortable with.  The idea is to have them start thinking of dogs as individuals. It’s okay to like only one dog. Soon they’ll like one more, and one more, and so on.

Don’t be in a rush to add a dog to your household, but definitely get out there and start meeting some dogs. Take things slow and go at your kids’ pace. You may even want to take them out one at a time, so that they don’t feed off of each other’s anxiety.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get the right dog. Your kids are too little to completely understand how to be empathetic and kind, so you need a really great dog. Don’t choose based on breed alone. Find someone who performs behavioral assessments (also called temperament tests) to help you find a gentle, social, and very tolerant dog. These dogs exist, but it can take a while to find the right one for your family. Take your time; it will be worth the wait.

Good luck!

Dealing with a Fearful Dog

We adopted a 1-year-old pointer a few months ago. Bart snapped at me the first day when I was petting him.  A couple days later, he did it again. I wanted to get rid of him then and there, since I was due to have our first child in a couple months.  But my husband wanted to give Bart a chance, so I agreed that he could stay if the behavior changed.

Nothing changed.  My husband isn’t interested in dog training. Bart has snapped at him too, when he tries to kiss the dog’s face.

Today Bart snapped at me when I tried to get a thorn out of his paw.  Clearly this dog is still fearful.
Our son is now one month old.  I am terrified that something will happen when our son is a toddler and gets into Bart’s personal space, which is bound to happen.

I have tried working with the dog myself, but my husband seems to undo all my efforts.  He won’t discuss getting rid of Bart or training tactics with me.  He says that when Bart bites our son, he will shoot the dog—which is totally stupid and too late for everyone.

Any advice about how I can persuade him that this is a dangerous situation? ~ Tamara

Your dog needs help. He’s not going to get better on his own. Dogs grow into—not out of—aggression if they aren’t given the training and support they need.

As you said, it’s short-sighted and unfair to blame (or shoot!) the dog for acting out of fear when he hasn’t been given the help he needs. As a starting point, I’d recommend reading Nicole Wilde’s book,Help for Your Fearful Dog.

Babies and toddlers can be scary to dogs. They move very differently from adults, and they have no ability to read a dog’s body language. Once they start to crawl, they are quick and eager to investigate. Your dog will be very uncomfortable with your son making a beeline toward him.

Your dog has shown the ability to warn without causing injury, which is good. However, your son won’t recognize any warning signals and is years from being able to be consistently kind and fair to a dog. So your son and dog are going to have lots of miscommunications, and the risk for a bite is high. (And 77% of dog bites to children are on the face, so we really can’t wait for the first bite before doing something.)

Giving your dog the training and support he needs will require a committed and consistent effort from both you and your husband. If you think that you two don’t have the time and energy to work with your dog, then truly the kindest thing for everyone is for you to find him a new home that does not include children.  Then your son will be safe, and the dog will be interacting with adults, who have a fair shot of understanding canine stress signals and warnings to avoid exacerbating his fear.

I’m really sorry, I wish there were an easy answer for you, but there is not.  I hope you and your husband can find a solution that is right for all four of you.

Suddenly Overprotective Puppy

My 1-year-old lab was a star at puppy classes and is a generally friendly little guy.  This summer, I had 2 surgeries, and he has become a bit aggressive and overprotective of me.  The recovery periods required a lot of bed rest, and since I am his primary caregiver he clung to me quite heavily.  He would not let unfamiliar guests near me if I was home alone.  This was an out-of-the-blue change in his personality that I fear has led to some fear-aggression tendencies that I am hoping to nip in the bud.  How do I re-socialize this once very friendly dog? ~ Kathy

If you are up to it, try to get him out and about again.  If you aren’t ready for that, ask a trainer to supervise some visits when you have guests to offer some training tips. The very basic idea is to have guests mean good things for the dog; you’ll want to avoid feeding him unless someone comes over (which means, of course, that you’ll want to have people over often). If you can’t do a short session daily, then get some mind-blowing treat (such as roast beef) that only appears when a guest is over.

The timing of your surgeries coincided with his adolescence, which is when we typically start to see dogs feel confident enough to do something when they are uncomfortable. We need to turn his feelings around so that he enjoys your guests again.

Getting Son Acquainted with a New Dog

My fiancé wanted a puppy, but I didn’t want to deal with the chewing, training, and peeing all over the house. I wanted an older dog, one we didn’t have to work with quite as much. However my two year old only likes smaller dogs and my fiancé likes bigger dogs (as he says “something I don’t have to bend down to pet”).

We agreed to look for a slightly older, large-breed puppy to fit both of our needs. We recently found the most adorable, friendly 5-month-old yellow lab.

We’ve had the dog for about a week now, which I know it hasn’t been long, but my two-year old screams and panics anytime the dog comes near. I know the dog only wants to get to know my son, and he’s not growling or barking at him. How can I help them get acquainted without traumatizing my son? ~ Cassie

Make sure your puppy is getting tons of exercise. It’s virtually impossible to wear out a lab pup (and be aware that labs and goldens have the longest puppyhood of all), so your son is probably reacting to the puppy’s active and impulsive behavior.  A tired dog is a good dog.

Then set up some fun interactions between your son and the dog. Try putting a baby gate in a doorway with you and your son on one side and the pup on the other. Encourage your son to toss a ball or some treats over the gate. Make sure that his arm doesn’t reach across the gate because the puppy will jump at his hand, which could be scary.  Just keep them each on their own side for now.

Teach your dog to sit using treats.  Practice it a lot.  If your dog sits reliably, you’ll have better control of him. You can also have your son tell the dog to sit—and then you’ll say it too. The dog will be responding to you, but that’s not important.  We want your son to see that he can communicate a little with the dog and that there are times that the puppy isn’t so impulsive or scary.

Narrate the dog’s actions for your son, so that he can understand what the dog is doing. You can also make up some silly stories about your son and the dog. Imaginary tales filled with humor and fun can help your son to become more interested in the dog.

I hope you’ll be able to turn this situation around so that you, your fiancé, and your son all develop happy relationships with your new pup.

Old Dog, New Baby!

My 8-year-old dog has had behavioral problems for a long time, but my husband and I ignored them. A year ago we had a child. As my daughter gets more active and grabby, I am afraid Carly is going to bite her. Janette races after Carly, and Carly tries to get away. I sometimes resort to locking Carly in different rooms.

Last night, my daughter tried to pet Carly through a baby gate. Carly growled and I saw her teeth!
Carly is part of our family, and we hate to keep her separated until Janette goes to bed. Any advice? ~ Linda

Since your dog is 8 and has some long-term issues, we aren’t likely to convince her that kids are the greatest thing ever. When you separate her, give her a chew toy with a little peanut butter inside so she has something enjoyable to do. Increase her exercise as well so that she naps more.

Supervising an active toddler is exhausting.  I know you feel bad about separating Carly, but she may prefer to be separated than to be constantly on alert for Janette’s approach.

When both you and your husband are home, include Carly in your activities. One of you will watch the dog, and the other, Janette. Don’t let Janette get closer than 5’ from Carly. She’s uncomfortable, and if she feels trapped, she may bite.

As parents, we want our kids and dogs to love one another, but trying to force the relationship will backfire. Don’t ever restrain Carly so that Janette can pet her. Many parents think this will help, but it makes the dog even more anxious about the child.

Instead encourage interaction from a distance. When your daughter is in her high chair, let Carly clean the floor. Teach your daughter to toss a treat or toy to Carly. When you use a baby gate, put a box on one side so that you have at least 15” of depth between them.

Be very cautious.  Janette’s physical abilities are improving every day. You need to be sure that Carly feels that she is at a safe distance at all times. She’s telling you she’s uncomfortable and she needs your help. Consider bringing a dog trainer in to give you more specific suggestions as well.

Wake Up Call! Dog Will Not Stop Barking in the Morning!

When I go in to wake up my 5 year old each morning, my dog starts barking and acting up. I want my son to wake up, but I don’t want to wake the whole neighborhood! How can I get her to stop? ~ James

She thinks she’s participating in the wake-up call. Tell your son that when the dog barks, you are going to ignore her and walk immediately out of his room. When the dog is quiet, you’ll go back in. It doesn’t matter if the dog follows you out or stays in the room with him (as long as she isn’t jumping on the bed). Tell your son to ignore her unless you are in the room.

Keep a small cup of treats near his bed so that when your son actually sits up in bed, he can toss one to her. No treats until he’s sitting.  She’ll soon figure out that it’s not in her best interest to add to the excitement level because it only delays her reward.

Be sure to start your wake-up routine 15 minutes earlier for the first few days you try this. Within a week, she’ll catch on.

Looking for Dog for Family with Special Needs

We want to get the right dog for our family, and train him/her from the early on so the dog will become a valuable, loved, and well trained member of our family.  We are looking at labradoodles and goldendoodles.  We have 2 young sons ages 5 and 6 (one has autism). We’ve always had miniature poodles, but are looking for a dog that is more whole family friendly ~ Jackie

We get lots of “doodles” in class. Most of them are very nice dogs, but nearly all are very, very, very energetic. Far more so than a purebred lab, golden, or poodle puppy (and these pups are all known for being pretty high energy). For some reason, the combination of breeds seems to produce a “caffeinated” dog. 🙂

Are you familiar with North Star Dogs? North Star is a nonprofit group that places dogs with children who have autism. Check out their website to see if you might be interested in one of their dogs.

You might also consider adopting a dog that didn’t pass the Canine Companions for Independence training. We’ve had many CCI puppies (usually lab/golden crosses) come through our program, and they’ve been calmer than all the others. Their advanced training program is very rigorous, so they sometimes have well-trained, social adolescent dogs who would make wonderful pets, but aren’t quite up to the task of being a person’s full-time service dog.

And don’t necessarily rule out a shelter dog. One advantage of adult dogs is they’re pretty much “what you see is what you get” whereas there’s a bit more guesswork with puppies. I adopted a very sweet, social, gentle dog from a local rescue group. He’s exactly the kind of dog I’d recommend for a family like yours.

There are great dogs out there, but you’ll have to look more carefully than most people. I absolutely think a dog could thrive in your family, but it’s vital that you get the right dog. There are no perfect dogs (or perfect people), but a good trainer who knows how to perform behavioral assessments can share a lot of information with you about a given dog.

This is a really big decision, so I applaud you for doing research in advance. I’ll be happy to help you in any way I can.

Dog Given as a Gift!

My 17-year-old son gave his girlfriend a puppy, but her parents made her give it back. He now understands that he shouldn’t have given a puppy as a gift, but we are left trying to decide whether or not to keep the dog.

The puppy is adorable. We think she’s a boxer mix. We have a lab, and he’s doing well with the puppy. Actually everyone is falling in love with her, but I’m not sure I want to start all over with a puppy. My son swears he’ll do all the work, but he’s a junior in high school and will be going to college in a year and a half.

I’m really torn. Do you have any advice that may help me decide whether or not to keep the dog? ~ Beth

I’m glad your son has learned (albeit the hard way) that dogs should never be given as a surprise and that each person should play an active role in choosing the dog he or she will live with.

You are right that if you keep this puppy, she will be more your dog than your son’s. So think this over carefully. You should keep this dog if you find her charming and you are willing to provide 12 or more years of care. What are you are hoping for in the coming years? Do you want to be home more or less than you are now? Are you hoping to travel frequently? Are you hoping to walk daily for exercise? If so, fantastic. It sounds like this new puppy will be a wondeful addition to your family.

Don’t feel guilty if you cannot keep the dog. Good shelters and rescues work very hard to help dogs find terrific homes. The goal is not to find a dog any home, but to find a dog the right home. These groups can make that happen. (A donation would be appreciated since most shelters and rescues operate with severely limited funds.)

Is Twelve too Young to Dog Sit?

My 12-year-old daughter has been asked to care for a neighbor’s dog for a week. She won’t have to walk the dog, only play with her in their fenced-in backyard. The dog is a sweet, mid-sized spaniel mix. We also have a dog, and my daughter is good with him. Do you think she’s old enough for this job? ~ Chrissie

If your daughter is good with your dog and also knows the dog she’ll be caring for, then this might be a nice opportunity for her to take on some additional responsibility.  You will need to help her though. Go with her for the first few visits to make sure she knows what to do.

Expect that you’ll need to remind her about the dog from time to time. It’s common for kids to focus so much on what they’re actually doing that they forget what they should be doing instead.

You may also need to do either the last outing at night or the first one in the morning. Typically a 12-year-old sleeps more hours per night than a dog can comfortably hold it.

One advantage of having a preteen care for a dog is that she may have more time to hang out with the dog and play than an older child’s busier schedule would allow. Dogs get lonely when their families travel. They more than just food, water, and potty breaks, so encourage your daughter to spend some time petting and playing with the dog during her visits.

Dealing with “Rough Play” Between People and Pets

I’d like advice about how to handle a playful dog, who is very rowdy and sees the children more as his “playmates.” My husband and sons love “rough play” with our lab pup who gets very excited, but he mouths them as his very natural way to interact and roughhouse with his “littermates.”

The men and boys in the house don’t mind this, but I sure do!  It’s teaching the dog that it’s okay to nip for fun.  Then he nips my younger children when he’s excited and thinks they want to play, and he’s actually pierced skin sometimes because he obviously doesn’t know how to be more careful.  I can’t get the men in our house to stop playing with the dog this way, so how else do we teach him that nipping is not okay?

I am sure this is a common problem with the men and boys in homes.  Several acquaintances have mentioned this same problem to me.  It would be great to see more information on your site on how to handle these types of situations….overly playful dogs and teaching them the “right” ways to play with the kids. ~ Rita

Ah, Rita, I wish I had the magic answer for you. I live in a house full of males (husband and three sons), and it’s really difficult to convince them to moderate their behavior so that they don’t rile the dogs to the point of inappropriate behavior.

I haven’t given up though! I always teach people to recognize stress signals because I think it’s important to be able to recognize them. So I’ll say things like, “Ooh, ‘getting a lot of half-moon eye there. Time to bring it down a notch.” (Half-moon eye is when you see the whites of a dog’s eyes. There are some stress signals shown on my website in both video and photo form.)

I also talk about how it’s really hard for a dog to know what he can and can’t do with any given individual. If my 15-year-old riles the dog up and gets him jumping and mouthing, how is the dog supposed to know that he shouldn’t jump on and mouth the kids when I take him to preschools? It’s really unfair to blame a dog for not having sophisticated reasoning, but a lot of people think the dog should know that he can only do these activities with certain people. How is the dog supposed to figure that out other than trial and error?

Teach your husband and sons to “be a tree” when the dog starts getting too excited. (The tree pose is with feet firmly planted, hands clasped and held close to the body, and eyes looking down at toes. This gives clear guidance of what to do, rather than what not to do.) This body language is a cut-off signal for a dog, and most respond quickly to it.

Encourage everyone to play games with toys like fetch to keep the dog’s energy focused and channeled. Even tug can be a great game as long as you set some rules.

If you happen upon the brilliant solution to this age-old problem, I would love to hear it!  It’s definitely a common problem.

Good luck with your guys!

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