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Peek in my mailbag (page 2)

cartoon of dog writing
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 Dorie 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 Dorie on a leash.
  She says she "loves" Dorie 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 Dorie if someone is holding her, and she’s even told me Dorie 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 Dorie, 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 Dorie 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 Dorie, have a conversation with both kids in which they say what they like best and least about dogs in general and about Dorie 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 Dorie’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 Dorie (using treats to make it fun). 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.

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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 in Tacoma

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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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 in Baton Rouge

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.

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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 in Arizona

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.)

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My 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?
Diana in Washington, DC

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.

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Our 11-year-old daughter loves dogs, and we recently bought her a border collie puppy. Since she’s the dog’s owner, I want her to be the main trainer. When I tried to register her for a class, I was told that she couldn’t be the primary trainer. Why not?
~ Marie in Daytona

Most 11-year-olds are very good trainers. Some trainers enjoy having kids in class, and others don’t. Look around in your area for a trainer that welcomes kids. Ask questions and go watch a class or two before signing up.

When kids come to my classes, I require a parent to stay on site and help the child if needed. With a child as old as yours, you could probably just sit and watch, but for younger kids, it’s very helpful to have the parent hold the leash so the child can train hands-free. The biggest challenge for most kids is keeping the dog close by, so if you take care of keeping the dog there, the child can focus on training and rewarding the dog. As the dog’s behavior improves, there will be less need for you to pitch in.

As much as possible, let the trainer teach your child and let your child teach the dog. It’s really tempting to coach your child, but far too often, I see kids becoming self-conscious and inhibited if they get too much guidance from mom or dad.

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Twice a day, my dog goes nuts. At 8 am and 7 pm, she races around the house, crashing into things and barking like crazy. You could set a clock by her. What’s up with that?
~ Dylan in Taos, NM

Lots of dogs get “the crazies” and will expend excess energy in the way you describe. For those dogs, I recommend increasing their physical exercise and presenting them with some mental challenges as well. If we get their brains and bodies working, the problem usually goes away.

But the fact that you can identify specific time periods makes me wonder if this could be a food sensitivity. Many dogs have difficulty digesting corn, dyes, and artificial preservatives, which are all too common in dog foods. Try switching your dog to a food recommended by Whole Dog Journal (which I think of as Consumer Reports for dogs). Give her two months on a high-quality food and keep track of her behavior. I’m betting you’ll see a significant decrease in the crazies at your house!

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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 in Philadelphia

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. Last spring, 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.

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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 in Alexandria, VA

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.

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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 in Nashville

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.

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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 from Wisconsin

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.

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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 in Blacksburg, VA

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.

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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.