This is probably the hardest blog post that I’ve ever written. It’s certainly the most difficult and heart-wrenching dog training case I’ve worked in my career. I want to tell you a story about a family (a WONDERFUL family) that I was called to help. I think that this story (or some variation of it) happens far more often than we realize, and it’s important to understand the red flags, the options, and the consequences.
I was contacted by a really great woman (we’ll call her Emma) about training for her dog, Roxy. She wanted to know if I could help her to get Roxy to be more happy and comfortable around her 17 month old baby, especially because she has another little one due at the beginning of next year. In our initial talk, Emma told me that Roxy had been through a lot of training before, but that she definitely seemed like she was territorial and uncomfortable around the toddler.
What with this being one of my areas of training expertise, I agreed to come out and help her.
What I walked into was not at all what I was expecting. From what Emma and the previous trainer had told me, this dog was maybe a little edgy, but generally well trained. When I came into the house, Roxy was closed into the back playroom area by a baby gate, and was barking and snarling at me like she was ready to take me to the floor. Emma explained that she’s really only like this at home with strangers, so I sat down at the table to chat with Emma a little bit more about her experiences with Roxy and her baby.
Emma admitted to me that she was actually very worried that Roxy would hurt her little one. She was unpredictable in her moods, and she would react aggressively sometimes when she got overly excited or anxious. She put a leash on Roxy and brought her to the table so that I could meet her. Not realizing the true trouble that this family was in with Roxy, I offered her a treat. Rather than taking the treat, Roxy dove under the table and sank her teeth into my hand.
Now, I know that if Roxy had truly wanted to put the hurt on me, she could have done a lot worse than the two small punctures that I came away with. However, considering that this was a dog that I was there to help with being comfortable around small children, it definitely threw up some very large, very red flags.
We did some work with Roxy that night, helping her to learn to be calm and relaxed on command (a part of Synalia Training Systems called Perception Modification). My hope was that as Roxy learned to take control of her anxiety, she would be more able to control herself around both strangers and be more reliable around the toddler.
However, as I left that evening, I told Emma the flat out truth: Roxy was eight years old. She had apparently been dealing with aggression (both toward people and dogs) for her entire life. While I could absolutely help Emma to get Roxy under control, there was no way that I could guarantee that we could make Roxy a safe dog to live with small children. As a parent myself, I could imagine the trauma of an accident happening with this large, powerful dog and how devastating things could truly be.
Emma sent me an email later in the week, telling me that she had discussed trying to re-home Roxy with a couple of rescue organizations. However, because of her history of aggression, the rescues were simply not willing to take her and attempt to re-home her. They couldn’t accept the liability of a known aggressive dog. Similarly, under Texas law, if Emma personally re-homed Roxy and she hurt someone, Emma and her family would be held liable for it.
She asked my honest opinion about what I would do if Roxy was my dog, and I gave it to her. I told her that it was the most difficult decision that I could imagine having to make. Having to choose between your dog, a partner that you’ve had for nearly a decade, and the safety of your toddler and your soon-to-arrive newborn, was devastating. However, I told her, in my opinion, the humans always come first. It may seem cold, but when you know the amount of damage that a 70 lb dog can inflict on an infant, you know that the risk is just not something you want to mess with. I told her that if she were my dog and I were unable to find her another place to live, I would euthanize her.
It sounds completely horrible, I know, and I pray that none of you are ever in the position to have to make that decision. I pray the same for my own family, and my heart breaks for Emma’s, to know that they had to go through this. However, as I told Emma, she would need to manage Roxy for the remainder of her life, and with the ever expanding curiosity and mobility of toddlers and young children, management would fail at some point. It wasn’t a question of “if,” it was a question of “when.” And when that “when” arrived, the possible consequences ranged from a bit of a scare for mom and no harm done, to a mauled and possibly dead child. The risks were just too great to even contemplate.
There were many things that I took away from Emma and Roxy’s story. Important things that I want to share with you now. As a dog trainer, and especially one with a heart for helping dogs to prepare to live happily and peacefully with newborns, toddlers, and young children, I think it’s crucial to be completely open and honest about when things do not go right, or according to plan.
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Understanding your dog’s limitations
There are many dogs out there who don’t have limitations at all that stop them from being a good family dog. Most dogs acclimate to a new baby, toddler, and child very well, especially with the proper relationship, boundaries, and training put in place by their families. However, there are three limitations that my experience has taught me which can lead you and your family into unsafe waters.
This is where Emma and Roxy found themselves. There are many things that cause true aggression, but often it is a physiological or chemical imbalance that creates a dog that will take another animal or person to the floor. Like most things in training, aggression is a word that covers a wide range of behaviors. From barking protectively when the mailman comes to the house, all the way to attempting to harm, maim, or kill humans or animals. Aggression can stem from being overly protective of food, property, or toys (this is called “resource guarding”), or it can be a set of behaviors that the dog has practiced so much that it has just become his nature and his habit.
Whatever the cause of a dog’s aggression, it limits his ability to be a safe pet and companion to a small child. While you, an adult, may be willing and able to navigate and manage your dog’s aggressive tendencies, your child will not be born able to do that. No child should be put in the position of having to accidentally discover, at the expense of their feelings of safety, love, and security, that their dog will hurt them if crossed or provoked, and that is where you put yourself when you have a dog with an aggressive history as a companion for a young child.
2. Fear and Anxiety
Like aggression, there are many things that can contribute to a fearful or anxious personality in a dog. Whether they’ve suffered a traumatic past (covered below), have a physiological imbalance, or they are just simply nervous, dogs that display fear and anxiety can be a danger to young children. It depends entirely on how your dog manages that fear and anxiety.
When your dog responds to a stimulus or event that makes him react fearfully, he has two options: the ever-famous Fight or Flight response. Dogs that choose to retreat, run, hide, or otherwise remove themselves from a situation are the easier dogs to manage in this scenario, and still have a great shot at being a companion for their growing families. Careful management, training, and work put into teaching your child to respect your dog’s boundaries from the very beginning will pave that path for you.
However, when a dog reacts to his fear or anxiety with the Fight response, rather than Flight, you end up in a potentially dangerous situation. These are dogs that we trainers lovingly dub as “Fear Biters.” That is, dogs that react aggressively when confronted with an upsetting stimulus or situation.
When you consider the amount of stress that a small child can put on a dog, from new sounds and smells, to fast, jerky movements, to children actively chasing their pets and badgering them relentlessly if not taught otherwise, you can see why a dog that reacts to difficult situations with an aggressive response would be a problem. These dogs can be managed more easily than dogs with true aggression, rather than fear aggression, but management is the key word there. Seeking the help of a professional who can assist you in helping your dog to control his emotions effectively, as well as being constantly vigilant about your child’s manners toward your dog and upholding the safety boundaries that you put in place are the keys to a successful relationship with a dog in this category.
3. History of Abuse or Neglect
When adding a new pet to their household, many families choose to rescue a dog. Some of the very best dogs that I’ve had the pleasure of working with were rescue dogs! However, bringing in a dog with a difficult past can have some unintended consequences when it comes time to add a baby into the mix.
When I was 12 years old, we came outside one morning and found a young dog curled up next to our barn. He was maybe 6 months old, and he was probably some sort of pit bull or boxer mix. We guessed he was probably a Highway Dog (a dog that someone didn’t want to keep, so they drove him to the country and let him “free”), and we decided to keep him. We named him Murphy, and he was an awesome dog.
One day, while we were taking the dogs for a walk down the road, Murphy picked up an old McDonald’s bag that had blown out of someone’s car. My mom told him, “Drop it!” Poor Murphy dropped that bag, and he hit the deck like he was expecting the wrath of God to be visited upon his poor head. It was a serious overreaction to a gentle admonition, and definitely gave us cause to speculate about the life he had led before he came to be our dog.
Dogs who are rescues may have experienced abuse or neglect in their previous home. Whether that’s disclosed to us when we take them in, or like Murphy, all we can do is speculate about it, it’s there. If that is the case, these dogs may have a knee jerk reaction to stimuli or events, some of which are predictable, and some not so much. As your baby grows, he or she will become a mobile, curious child. Young children scream, run, fall, laugh, and grab. All of the loud and jerky habits of a toddler can be very disconcerting to a dog, which may lead to some of the responses discussed above in the Fear and Anxiety and Aggression sections of this post.
If you have a dog that falls into one of those categories and you are expecting a new baby soon, there are definitely some things that you can do to prepare and manage your dog.
First and foremost, you must accept that your dog has a limitation. You must be completely honest with yourself and recognize that your journey with your dog is not going to be as easy as others are having it. You need to realize that you might need to manage your dog in order to keep him and your baby safe, or that you may need to seek professional help.
If you do find that your dog has a limitation, and you recognize and accept that fact, you may be able to find a trainer who will be able to help you. Dog trainers come in many different forms, with many different styles and techniques. See if you can find one in your area who has experience with the difficulties you are facing (experience with aggression or experience with fear and anxiety), and has a good history of success with those dogs. Make sure before you spend a lot of time and money on their training process that they will be able to resolve the problem to the point where your dog will be safe with your baby, with ongoing management and support from your trainer.
Once you’ve got a plan in place with your trainer and you’ve gone through their training program, your next step will be to implement ongoing steps to keep your dog’s training fresh. No matter what style of training you’ve chosen for your dog, you’ll need to make it part of your daily life to provide opportunities to practice what he’s learned. You’ll also need to set up your home for success, being sure to have a safe space for your dog and have areas in the house to allow your dog some “me time” away from the baby.
However, sometimes it doesn’t matter how much training you do, or what action steps you implement. Sometimes, your dog is simply not cut out to be a family dog. That is where very difficult decisions come into play.
Making difficult decisions
In the case of Emma and Roxy, there was no good outcome for their family. Roxy had a bite history, so no local rescues would accept the liability for taking her and re-homing her. And Emma discovered that under Texas law, if Roxy were to hurt someone after Emma had re-homed her herself, she and her family would be held liable for the damage. In light of all of this, and because of the danger she posed to her children, Emma and her husband made the devastating decision to have Roxy euthanized.
When you’re confronted with a situation like this one, the very first thing that you need to consider is safety. Will your child be safe from your dog? If your management plan to keep your dog separate from your child at all times fails, what is the worst that can happen? Is your dog one that will nip at an irritating child, or one that will grab and shake an infant if he is able to get close enough? When it comes to these types of questions and situations, the safety of your child ALWAYS comes first. I am a dog lover and a dog trainer, but I am also a mother and there is absolutely no question who takes priority. Your child ALWAYS comes first.
If you must make a decision like this one, and you’re considering keeping your dog with limitations in your home, it’s time to openly and honestly consider the quality of the rest of your dog’s life. Will he live the rest of his days by himself in a 10×10 kennel in the back yard, only seeing you when you feed him every day? Will he spend his nights in his crate, and his days outside alone so that you can safely focus on your baby? You must carefully consider the risks if your separation plan fails, and you must also consider the commitment to management that you’re making. Extreme care should be taken to ensure the safety of your children, and that means always being mindful of what doors and gates are open when, and what you’ll do when your little one starts walking, grabbing, and opening up doors.
And, if you decide that keeping your dog is not what is best for your family, know that there are many options available depending on your dog’s history and temperament.
- Rescue-particularly if your dog is a purebred dog, you will likely be able to find a local rescue that will assist you in re-homing your dog.
- Re-homing your dog yourself-you may be able to find friends or family that have a home more suitable to a dog with limitations.
- In-depth rehabilitation training-while it can be a lengthy and expensive process, training can help your dog to manage himself wonderfully in the face of stress and live a much happier life.
- And, as a last resort, euthanasia.
If you have a dog with limitations like aggression, fear, or anxiety, take a look at your dog and your family openly and honestly. Consider all of your options, but please remember that the safety of your child should always come first. The trauma, the injuries, and the fear that can result in even an accidental mishap are things that stick with a child for his or her entire life.
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If you find yourself to be in a situation like the one described above, please feel free to send me an email or leave a comment, and I’d be glad to help you out in any way I can.