Peek in my mailbag (page 3)

cartoon of dog writing
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 in Knoxville

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.

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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 in St. Paul

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!

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We are fostering a dog that we have considered adopting. He growls if I walk by when he has a rawhide. We are working with him on exchanges, and so far that is going well. From what I read in your book, he probably wouldn't be the best match with kids. We are really bummed! He doesn't growl over his food or toys, but he growls if I try to take a rawhide or napkin from him. If we work on this, do you still think he shouldn't be with a family that may have kids in the next few years?
~ Lowell in Minneapolis

It is incredibly hard to manage all the interactions between a child and a dog who guards resources and, if you make a mistake, your child may be bitten.

You already know that your dog guards rawhide and napkins. But kids bring many other things dogs may find valuable: dirty diapers, food-stained clothing, crayons, and more. Dogs decide what they value, and it’s often not something that we would expect.

As sad as it is, I would not adopt your foster dog if you expect to have children in his lifetime.

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Our baby is 3 weeks old, and Daisy has decided it is her job to protect him from visitors. If I am holding the baby and a visitor comes close to see him, she runs over and barks. When the baby is in the bassinette, she won’t let the visitor get close to the baby.
How can I stop this? People are afraid when she does this, and I can’t deal with her and the baby at the same time. She is very gentle with the baby. I need some help!
~ Kathy in Altoona, PA

When you can’t work with Daisy, put her in another room when guests are over so that she does not rehearse the behavior, which will only make it harder to change.

At first you’ll need someone Daisy is comfortable with to help with the baby while you teach Daisy that guests = good things for her. For example, your mom could hold the baby, while you give Daisy treats as a guest enters and leaves the room. When the guest is visible, treats are being offered to Daisy. When the guest is out of sight, no treats.

We want Daisy to not only tolerate a guest approaching the baby, but to be thrilled about it. Depending on how social and treat motivated she is, this could take time. Go through the counter-conditioning process slowly so that the dog is truly comfortable before increasing the challenge. Behavior deteriorates under stress, so we want Daisy to be really, really comfortable about guests around your son.

Watch Daisy for signs of stress, both when guests are over and when it's just you and your son. Keep your training sessions short. You may want to have a trainer come over and do a session or two with you to help you get started.

Try making a treat rattle: Take a 20-ounce soda bottle and cut a few holes in the bottom. Fill the bottle with treats or kibble, cap it, and lay it where you can reach it easily. When a guest is over, hold the bottle by the neck and "spray" treats on the floor. There are four benefits to a treat rattle: you don't have to get up, there is than one treat to hunt for, Daisy will start associating guests with a sprinkle of treats, and you'll have enough treats to use it several times before refilling.

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We are expecting a baby in a few months. I'm a little worried about how well our two dogs will adjust, but my husband says everything will be fine. What do you suggest I do to get ready and to stop worrying?
~ Elena in Richmond, VA

A new baby causes many changes in a household, so it's great that you are thinking about ways to help your dogs with the transition. Sign up for a group obedience class that you and your husband can attend with the dogs. Seeing how the dogs behave around a variety of distractions--and every group class is full of distractions!--will help you to pinpoint behaviors to focus on. Having dogs that will walk nicely on a leash and sit and stay for a few minutes will be a big help when you are busy with the baby.

Start thinking about ways you can provide physical and mental exercise for the dogs in the weeks following your baby's arrival. Your dogs will need extra outlets for their energy during this busy time, and without advance planning, you may find that they don't get the exercise they need. Ask your friends and neighbors if they can either help exercise your dogs or perhaps watch the baby so that you can take the dogs for a long walk.

Spend some time with your dogs around children. Are they comfortable with the kids' behavior? Do they worry about loud noises or abrupt movements? If you aren't sure how your dogs would act around kids, talk to a dog trainer to get some training suggestions that are specifically tailored to your dogs' needs.

Be aware that most dogs do fine for the first six months. If there are going to be problems, you'll most likely see them when your baby begins to crawl. So keep an eye on your dogs' behavior and watch for changes as your baby achieves each mobility milestone.

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We just adopted a new dog. He's sweet and gentle with everyone. He really loves my 10-year-old son, but he seems a bit worried about my 15 year old. What can I do to help him understand that he doesn't need to be anxious around my older son?
~ Susan in Orlando, FL

Your teen's body language and behavior now more like a man's than a boy's. Many dogs are more anxious around men than around women and children. Remind your son that dogs interpret straight-on approaches as more threatening than arcing, sideways movements. Perhaps in his eagerness to befriend your dog, he is inadvertently scaring him by approaching too directly. Ask him to move a bit more slowly around the dog and to be aware of how he can make the dog feel more comfortable.

Encourage your son to attend a training class with the dog and to use delicious treats to train the dog to spin, rollover, and give a high-five. Working on a few fun tricks will strengthen the relationship between your son and the dog. Take things slowly. Soon your dog will understand that everyone in his new family is gentle and caring, and that he has no reason to worry.

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My dog bit the babysitter last week! We always put Molly in our bedroom when we go out. I'm not sure why Amelia went in there, but Molly bit her on the thigh. Amelia had a big bruise on her leg.
I'm embarrassed, anxious, and a little angry too. We love Molly. She's never bitten anyone before, but she has growled a few times at strangers. That's why we always put her in the bedroom when we have a sitter.
Now Amelia's mom is telling everyone that we have a dangerous dog. What should I do?
~ Nicole in Portland, ME

Dog trainers often say, "Sooner or later, management fails." That's why I recommend doubling up on any management technique. Instead of leaving Molly just in the bedroom, put her in your bathroom and lock both the bathroom door and the bedroom door.

That way if a sitter goes into your bedroom (which is now harder since she has to unlock the door), she still won't encounter Molly.

Talk with Amelia about what happened. While it is certainly not okay that Molly bit Amelia, someone old enough to babysit is also old enough to understand that she should not go into an off-limits room. Find out why she did. The answer could be perfectly innocent; for example, one of your kids might have left a special bedtime toy in your room.

I don't think you need to get rid of your dog, but you do need to develop much safer management techniques--and possibly hire a different sitter.

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My 13-year-old daughter is crazy about dogs. She says she'd like to be a veterinarian or a dog trainer. What suggestions do you have for her?
Marina in Delaware

Those are both great career choices. The best thing for her to do now is to get involved in some dog-related activities. Training a dog to do agility, rally-o, or tricks will teach her a lot about dog training and behavior. Most trainers will allow her to take a class with your dog as long as you attend with her. If possible, sit a distance away from her and let her work on her own. If your dog enjoys training and interacting with new people, your daughter may want to train the dog to be a therapy dog and take him to nursing homes and hospitals.

To be a vet, she'll need excellent grades, particularly in math and science as well as good communication skills. Dog trainers do not need a college degree--though many have one--but the field still requires a lot of independent study of behavior and learning theory.

Introducing your daughter to dog lovers in a variety of careers--groomers, shelter/rescue workers, trainers, veterinarians, veterinary assistants, pet sitters, dog daycare providers--can help her decide what best fits her interests.

When she's a bit older, perhaps she can do an apprenticeship to learn more about a given job. There are lots of career and volunteer opportunities open to someone who loves dogs. I'm sure she'll find something that's right for her.

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My dog is great with most kids, but she gets too excited with one of my daughter's friends. Ashley, 9, seems to do everything wrong. When my dog tries to sniff her, she starts jumping around and shrieking, "It tickles! It tickles!" I ask her to not to run in my home, but she'll dart past the dog as fast as she can. My dog is friendly and outgoing, so Ashley's behavior makes her even more interested. Ashley's a nice girl, but I really dislike having her over. How can I make this easier?
~ Pam in Nashville

Ashley sounds both interested and nervous about dogs. Does she visit often? If she comes regularly, commit to fixing the problem. Start with a toy dog and have Ashley practice standing still and extended her hand for the dog to sniff. Act out different scenarios with the toy dog being calm, jumpy, and even disinterested. Talk with Ashley about how she should respond in each of these cases.

Then use a baby gate to separate your dog from Ashley and have Ashley ask your dog to sit. She can toss treats to the dog for complying. Once Ashley understands that she can communicate with your dog, she'll be less fearful. Go slow and praise Ashley for every proper interaction.

If she doesn't come often, it may be easier for you to give your dog a chew bone and keep her away from the girls. Tell Ashley that the dog has earned a special treat and can't visit with her while she's eating it. Then either keep the dog at your side or put her in a locked bedroom to give her some peace and quiet.

Either way, we need to prevent the dog from chasing and riling up Ashley; neither one is learning the right things in those interactions. To a less kid-friendly dog, Ashley's behavior could be alarming, so it's very important that someone teach her how to safely interact with dogs.

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Last week my dog killed a neighbor's cat in our yard. I knew he liked to chase cats and squirrels, but I never thought he would catch or hurt one. He just picked it up and shook it. It was over in the blink of an eye, and he didn't even seem to care. Now I'm worried that he might hurt one of my kids. Does he know the difference?
~ Sheila in Rhode Island

I think all dogs should be prevented from chasing kids, but that said, it's unlikely that your dog would cause serious injury to a child in the same way he went after the cat. Since your dog lives with children, he's used to the sounds and movements they make in play.

With the cat, he probably shifted into "predatory drift" in which chasing a small animal triggered an instinctual "chase, bite, shake, kill" sequence. This rarely happens unless the fleeing animal is significantly smaller than the dog. Since kids are far larger than cats (and most dogs!), the risk is much lower.

Make sure that you are always supervising when your dog is outside to prevent him from harming another cat, and if you still have concerns, ask a dog trainer to assess your dog.

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My son and his wife just had a baby. Their dachshund seems obsessed with him. She's spent the last week barking her head off. Whenever he makes any noise, she charges over to investigate. They tried to put him in a playpen, but she races around it barking and biting at the mesh. Then she begins leaping up to get into it!
When they carry the baby around, she's jumping up to try to reach him. Once she even grabbed the foot of his sleeper. It's kind of scary.
She's always been somewhat hyper, but this seems extreme. Does she think the baby is a squeaky toy? How long will it take before she gets used to the baby?
~ Michael in Des Moines

Please call a dog trainer today! While every dog will need some time to adjust to having a baby in the house, some of what you are describing sounds more like predatory behavior than simply a dog being thrown off by a new baby in the house.

It is rare to have serious kid-and-dog issues in the first six months. Given that the baby has been home a week and the dog is still showing such strong interest in him, I think it would be wise to bring a professional in to help your son and daughter-in-law decide how best to manage their new baby and their dog.

If the trainer feels that the dog is looking at the baby like prey--and dachshunds were bred to hunt badger--I think the dog should be rehomed immediately. While training can create incredible changes in behavior, predation is hard wired and difficult to change. It's simply not safe to put a child at risk while working with the dog.

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I have a really sweet dog who can be shy when she first meets people. She's good with my kids and their friends if we do nice introductions at the door. I ask the kids to stand still and let her sniff their hands. She usually comes over to check them out and then is fine with them being in the house.
But when we have a sleepover, she sometimes barks at them after they change into their pajamas! Why does she do that? What could be scary about pajamas?
Kathleen in Houston

It's not so much that she's reacting to pajamas, but that she's reacting to change. Shy dogs tend to be very attuned to their environment and immediately notice when things change. Because shy dogs tend to worry, they often respond to something new as if it were something bad.

When you have kids stay over, keep her near you while they go change and then have them come back over for a quick reintroduction. It sounds like she just needs your support to help her understand that, although their clothing changed, the kids remain the same. This will be much easier for her if you take the time to do introductions once 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.