Many years ago – about 18 if we’re counting – I came across the first book I now consider to be about dog emotions and how dogs see their world. I’d studied many dog-training books but still had some unwanted behavioral issues I couldn’t resolve. For example everything you read on dog training told you, if your dog was not exposed to kids or other dogs by the time they were one year old, you had zero chance of fixing an aggressive or fearful dog – you were basically out of luck. Well, I’m here to tell you…that’s wrong!
I personally faced a couple of those problems with my beloved dog, Spinner. When she was a pup she was attacked by a roaming dog, and from that point on, would attack any dog unfortunate enough to cross her path. I tried many typical training techniques to fix the problem without success. Then through self-study; trial and error, I started understanding the truth behind dog emotions and how the dog mind works. I was able to fix Spinner’s dog aggression in about a week. All was well until she was about 3 years old and my first baby, Jake, became mobile. As any parent of a 10 month old knows, it’s a whole new ball game when they become mobile.
Spinner had no problem with Jake when he was in the “potted plant stage,” but the “crawling and grabbing of her tail stage,” she had a big problem with. I did what most kid and dog-loving parents do, I ran to the scene of the tail grab to stop the toddler from harassing the dog; which of course needed to happen. But, how I did it, how I reacted to the event, set in motion the next phase – the dreaded “baby grabs tail and dog nips baby” stage. What! I can’t have a dog that bites my kids!
Not only had I just come straight out of the sleep-deprived, new born baby months into dealing with the mobile toddler months; I was faced with a possibility my dog was going to hurt my son. I would, and will always, protect my sons at all cost, but getting rid of our dog is NOT an option. I go to great links to make my dogs happy and to protect them. We are all family and this cannot happen! I was simultaneously gripped with fear and completely determined to find out how to fix this situation. I’m the parent to my kids and my dogs, and it’s up to me to love, help and protect each one of them.
Which brings me to dog emotions. I went on a search; a search for new information and answers. I knew in my heart there had to be a way to change Spinner’s reactions. Finally, I came across a book called (if memory serves) “Childproofing your Dog,” and I devoured that book. Cue the music…this was my light bulb moment. I was unknowingly causing Spinner to feel she could, and should, correct the baby. This is exactly the opposite of what you want to teach your dog. In my attempt to protect my dog, I re-enforced her belief that this new family member did something really terrible to her; and therefore, SHE needed to correct him.
In Spinner’s mind, here’s how it all went down…I, the parent and leader of the family unit – upon witnessing this tail grab, ran over in a panic and corrected this new weird smelling, strangely moving baby. You see, Spinner and I were emotionally connected and dogs are extremely sensitive to their human’s feelings and actions. Initially, she was a little concerned when the baby was closing in on her; only because she had no experience with babies crawling at her and squealing. So at this point she is mildly concerned and undecided about how she feels. Then, she felt my worry when I saw the baby grab her and then felt it even more strongly because of the way I ran over with too much anxious energy. Next, she watches me grab the baby’s hand and say “No, we have to be easy with the doggie.” She is seeing me giving the baby a correction for that behavior. Therefore, the next time it happened, she began to correct for me. Make sense?
What really needs done, by the parent, is to quickly and CALMLY stop the child, but not to focus on the child’s correction right then. Not in front of the dog. If a CHILD grabs the dog and the DOG reacts by stiffening up or nipping the child, the DOG gets the correction first. I know! It doesn’t seem fair, but it IS fair and it works, and here’s why. By correcting the dog (firmly saying “NO” or poking her a little, or moving her back) you’re telling the dog two things. First, “This is not a correctable offense, it’s no biggie. I want you to have NO reaction when this happens to you.” Secondly, you are telling the dog, “When things like this come up, I (The parent) will decide what is acceptable and I take care of handing out the corrections and guidance in this family.” Next immediately take steps to show the dog it’s no big deal what the baby did and let’s all get on with happiness and calmness (more on this technique ahead.)
It’s the ONLY way to fix it. You must take away the dog’s indecisiveness about what to do when a baby grabs him. You show him it’s no big deal what happened to him – brush it off and redirect him to something fun. It’s the dog equivalent of a little kid falling down and scraping his knee. You go support him calmly, have him shake it off and then convey “let’s go back to playing our kick ball game!” This technique and attitude changes how the dog feels about the child’s actions and then shows him what is an acceptable response, and here’s what he can do that’s fun around kids. This starts to remove the dog’s fear of the child, or the child’s touch or the child’s noise – whatever this particular dog finds scary or threatening.
Now, the flip side is, you have to back up your dog and protect him from any abuse by your child or any other person. Show him you are a strong parent – a confident, loving parent that gives guidance and respect to everyone but also insists on respectful behavior to, and between, all family members. This shows him, you will protect him and it’s your job to hand out discipline if, and when, it’s needed…bottom line. Dogs are greatly relieved and much happier when they don’t feel they have to be on call to control everyone’s behavior.
Always supervise dog/kid interaction. If an incident happens and doggie does the right thing by not nipping, calmly stop the child and take them aside to explain how to treat dogs respectfully. Show them what is an acceptable way to touch or play with a dog. Just don’t correct the child in front of the dog and remember, the dog’s instruction, if needed, happens first. Dogs must be given guidance in that very moment when they are feeling or acting in a way that is not good for them or the rest of the family. You cannot take them aside later and discuss it with them, – doesn’t work that way with dogs – but you can do that with kids. So, for that and many other important reasons; the dog’s correction is first and the child’s is second.
An acceptable reaction from the dog is to get up and leave if the baby is grabbing him or pulling his tail. Then, just approach the child calmly and use that as a teaching moment. The dog did the right thing; he left the scene without biting the child. Don’t look at the dog, or pet him, or say “good boy” or “you’re okay, Baby.” Don’t say anything to the dog or you will create fear of the child in the dog! Act like it’s no big deal that it happened to the dog. If the parents play it cool, the dog will come to believe it’s no big deal. Just address yourself to the child, and then entice your dog back into the room where the baby is and play a fun, safe game with him.
If you have a new baby or a child and you’re having behavior issues between the two, please try this before considering giving up your dog family member. It’s a lack of understanding on the parent’s part as to how tuned-in and sensitive our dogs are to our emotions and actions and how desperately they rely on us to guide them. We tragically misunderstand how a dog’s mind works and how he feels, but once we do understand and change our behavior accordingly, dogs change fast!
Here is an added tip for parenting kids and dogs. When planning your day, it’s best to only play with the dog when the kids are up and playing. When the kids are napping….doggie naps….when the kids are playing….doggie plays. Dog only gets treats when kids are up making noise, etc. This will not only save your sanity, but your dog will see your kids as the “Bringers of Fun.” Your dog will love being with kids, because in his mind, all good things happen when kids are around!
One last note on this extremely important subject – when you first bring home a new baby, always insist the dog stay back from the baby. Not in a harsh way – don’t yell at the dog or scare the dog – just respectfully and firmly insist on distance between baby and dog. The dog doesn’t need to approach the baby to smell the baby. The dog smells everything about the baby just by being in the same room. Keep the baby on a higher level than the dog. The dog NOT being allowed to approach the baby will tell the dog’s mind, “this is a precious member of our family and must be approached with respect.” I like to keep some treats in my pocket and when the baby cries or I’m rocking baby, I toss a treat to doggie if he is calm. I like to get doggie associating calmness and good things with the new weird baby smells and noises. After a week or so with your new baby, and if the dog is calm and settled down when the baby is in the room, you can then allow the dog to carefully approach the baby and get a better look and smell. Always indicate to the dog he must be very easy and respectful to this new part of the family. The number one family rule for the doggie is : NO MOUTHING THE BABY OR TAKING FOOD FROM THE BABY! If you allow this you are endangering your human baby in the future and most likely setting your dog up to fail by not understanding he can’t bite or run rough-shod over kids.
Dogs that bite kids lose their families and are un-adoptable through rescues – and it’s not even their fault. They tragically end up in a fearful state or being painfully isolated from the family and most often end up paying the ultimate price – the loss of their life. All this suffering is avoidable and is solely due to lack of information and mistakes on the part of the parents. That’s why I spend time writing and teaching and striving to get information out there to save dogs and help families. Please open your mind to everything you’ve just read. It will work!
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