Helping Dogs Interact with New People

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

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.

What is “Resource Guarding” and What Can I Do About it?

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

“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.

Honesty about a Dog’s Death

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

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.

The “Perfect” Dog Breed

Are beagles good with kids? ~ Jason

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.

Is My Dog a Danger to Kids?

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

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.

Getting a Puppy while Having an Old Dog?

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

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.

New Puppy Growls and Snaps!

My 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

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.

Shy Dog Reacts to Kids Changing Clothes

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

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.

Dog Exhibiting Predatory Behavior Towards Baby

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

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.

Dog Killed a Neighbor’s Cat! Are my Kids in Danger?

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

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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