Learning to Live Happily Ever After

Help – My Dog is Sulky With Toddler!

Posted by on Jan 9, 2011 in Dog Training, Help! (Q&A), Life With Dog and Baby | 5 comments

Question:

Hi i found your information on a website when trying to find out more about dog behaviour and would like to ask you about my female labrador.  It’s difficult to define what is wrong with her and when her behaviour changed as there has been a few incidents and changes in her circumstances.  I would go in to more detail after i have a reply from you.  The main issue is that we have a toddler who is quite loud and active and our dog who has always been very patient and lovely has gradually become much more withdrawn.  She has never displayed any aggression towards any child but is mainly taken her sulky moods out on me and i think it is mainly based on jealousy as i have always been the one who fed and walked her.  I am not sure how to respond to her sulking and fear i might be making her worse but it upsets me to see her get more and more unhappy.

I would love to hear back from you if you have the time and was wondering if there is a charge for your advice? Or if it is free?

Answer:

Hello!  I’ve been meaning to add a Q&A section to this blog so your question comes at a good time.  I can answer a couple each month at no charge.  For situations that would benefit from more discussion, I do offer phone consultations.  Contact me at enjoydog@san.rr.com for more information.

First off, I’d like to say, “Good for you!” to be taking notice of changes in your dog’s demeanor and behavior.  So many problems occur between dogs and children because we assume the dog is “fine” and miss the early warning signs that something is amiss.

I’m sorry, too, that your dog seems forlorn and not herself.  I know it’s hard on the moms to have everybody needing a little piece of you when it seems like there’s not enough to go around.  Sympathy for a sad dog can easily drift into annoyance that there’s one more thing to have to deal with.

Let’s see what we can do to improve the situation for everyone so you and your dog can enjoy each other again.  Feel free to post back with clarifications.

Step 1: Consider Medical/Physical Causes

As you work on improving the situation for you and your dog, keep in the back of your mind that there may be something else wrong that is affecting your dog’s ability to cope and enjoy her day with your family.  Sure, this isn’t the whole answer because I think it IS hard to live with an active toddler, but, wow, it’s so much harder when you don’t feel well.  You can relate, can’t you?

The thing with dogs is that they can’t really tell us, or the vet, what’s wrong.  You need to advocate for your dog when you take her in.  Tell your veterinarian, “My dog is not herself.  She doesn’t have the same interest in things she enjoys.  Yes, there have been changes in our life that may have contributed to that.  We’re working on those.  I want you to examine her closely for any signs of discomfort – Does her skin look good?  Do you think her legs/hips/back might be sore?  Given her age and breed, what are common issues we need to be alert for?  Can you recommend changes to her diet that will bolster her vitality?”

I don’t want you to go on a wild goose chase, but I want you to remain open to the possibility that your dog’s behavior changes are affected by how her body feels.  Years ago, we had a guide-dog-in-training to raise.  She developed an issue where she would freak out on walks and grab the leash and then bite up my arm.  Training at that time and for that particular program was focused on meeting “aggression” with aggression.  That’s a story for another day, but I can tell you it broke my heart when I found out months later that she had severe hip dysplasia and was in pain all along.  All of a sudden, I saw her behavior in a whole new light.

Step 2: Consider What Will Help YOU

When my kids were both young, we hit a period of time where my dog would bark at me every day at 5:00 PM…on the dot.  Now that you’re a mom, I’m sure you’ve discovered that 5:00 is far from Happy Hour when it comes to living with little kids.  Getting barked at was the LAST thing I needed.

One day, I couldn’t take it anymore and I yelled at my dog (and I’m not a dog-yeller by nature), “WHY ARE YOU BARKING AT ME???”  When I realized that I was waiting for an answer (!), I knew there was more to the problem than just the dog barking.  Sometimes, our dogs are like the canary in a coal mine — an early warning that there is too much stress and something needs to change.

A lot of the pesky, annoying, attention-seeking behavior from dogs in homes with young children comes across as jealousy or sulkiness when it’s really your dog being anxious about you.  If you’re stressed, your dog is going to be worried. After all, our dogs have little or no social freedom to take care of themselves.  If you’re having a bad day, chances are your dog is going to be distressed.  (By the way, it works the same way with our children.)

You can see how it becomes a cycle — rough day for you, dog starts acting sulky, you feel worse, dog feels worse and acts even MORE sulky, etc.

You can break this pattern, though.  Look for ways to make your day with your toddler easier on YOU.  What can other people do to help you?  Are you getting enough sleep?  Do you eat enough throughout the day?  Are you getting some time to yourself?  In my situation, I adjusted our afternoon routine so I wasn’t so much on edge by 5:00 that a dog’s barking could make me insane.  Guess what?  The 5:00 barking stopped.  I like to think my dog had a canine superpower as a Psychotic Alert Dog.  Once I pulled myself together, she could go back to laying around, “My work here is done.”

Step 3: Keep Informal Logs / Make a Plan

Fixing a problem is easier when you know what exactly the problem is.  I am a huge proponent of keeping logs.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.  Just a pad of paper and pen left out somewhere handy.  When you notice your dog doing something that seems sulky or not in keeping with her usual behavior or anything that annoys or distresses you, write down the date, time and what it is.  Jot down the scenario, too.

For example:

1/7 – 4:00 PM:  She’s pacing and following me around and is underfoot again.  AHHH!  And the whining is starting, too!  It’s making me crazy because I just have to get this diaper changed so I can get back and return that phone call before 5:00.

After about five days of logging, you may very well see a pattern that you can head off with easy changes.  Look for consistencies in time of day, time before/after eating, baby activities, level of exercise or outings, your mood, etc.  Once you know what’s likely to prompt the unwanted behavior, you can make a plan.

Another great way to log is to keep track of the GOOD times.  This can really help put things in perspective, as well as, identify at a glance the times of day when things get difficult. To do this, make a spreadsheet with 2-3 columns of your day broken into 15 minute increments and a little box next to each time period.  If you were not annoyed by your dog’s behavior, color in the block for that fifteen minutes.  Claim that success!

It’s human nature to feel like an annoying behavior is happening all the time and not notice times that are going okay.  Gather objective information so you can make a plan.

Step 4: Find Enjoyable Ways to Include Your Dog

I know you love your dog and you want to do what’s best for her.  I respect that even when you’re busy with a toddler,  you’re still trying to think of how to help your dog.  I bet she’s a good dog, too!

I usually begin with the premise that your dog wants to be with you.  Her “job” is to be your companion.  Now that your life situation has changed, this job has gotten more challenging — more disruptive working conditions, different hours, less encouragement from the “boss,” more uncertainty about what to do, loss of job perks, etc.

So much of common knowledge dog training is focused on trying to make a dog stop doing things we don’t like.  This leaves a dog at a loss as to what to do instead.  Fortunately, modern reinforcement-based dog training is focused on building behaviors — starting always at a point of success.  Clicker training is my go-to method of choice.  Check out Emily Larlham’s  website for lots of wonderful, short videos on all kinds of useful and fun things your dog can learn.  Pamela Johnson also has lots of videos you can access here.

Clicker training gives you a fun way to engage your dog while you’re doing your daily activities because you can train in very short increments of time and you can incorporate training into any daily activity.  If you’re back and forth with your baby, your dog can be heeling rather than pacing around.  If you’re reading a story to your child, your dog can be relaxing at your feet.  If you drop something, your dog can pick it up for you! There are so many ways to engage your dog so everyone is happy.  Funny tricks are always entertaining for everyone, too.

Think about your days and what your dog could be doing to make herself welcome.  There’s a training solution for every situation.

Nan Arthur’s Chill Out Fido book gives you step-by-step help to train your dog to relax on a mat so you can have your dog with you as you attend to  your toddler.  Your dog will be happy doing her “job” and all you have to do is notice and reinforce and enjoy your companion.

Going out on walks together with the stroller can be a big help, too.  Walking attentively on a loose leash is not as hard as it seems so don’t give up hope!  Turid Rugaas has a very nice booklet and video showing how peaceful walks can be.  You can find short clips on You Tube, too.

I also enjoyed the opportunity to take a class again with my dog once my first child was past the age where I needed to be there ALL THE TIME.  It’s kind of a luxury to get to spend time by yourself with your dog.  A little bit goes a long way.

Step 5: Make Accommodations

Living with toddlers is not easy.  For anyone.. human or canine!!  If your dog is telling you that she can’t easily cope with what’s going on, look for ways to make accommodations for her.

One of the best bits of parenting advice I came across is, “Today is not forever.”  Remind yourself and whisper it in your dog’s ear. It won’t be this crazy forever for your dog.  Soon enough, your toddler will have steadier, more predictable, calmer behavior and it will bet easier for your dog.

In the meantime, how can you make it easier for her to manage?  What activities are most challenging for her?  There are many times I need to say to my children, “You may not run in the house.  It’s distressing to me and the dog.  You may shoot your Nerf guns in the garage or outside.”  I think that’s a reasonable accommodation. We also recently instituted afternoon walks for the dog.  I’d like her to be a one-long-walk-a-day dog, but she’s more of a two-medium-walks-per-day dog.  She really needs that time out in order to not be on edge in the afternoon.  So, the kids have their snack after school and we all go out for a walk.

When you can’t get out as much or attend to your dog as she needs, you can buy a little breathing room with good chews.  If your dog gobbles her food in a few seconds flat, those calories haven’t bought you much in terms of keeping your dog busy and engaged.  See this blog for ideas on how to stuff Kong toys.  You don’t have to do it exactly the way she does, but take notice of the photo with the Kongs lined up in the freezer — a “Dog Free Moment” is always at hand!

You’ll find the right balance in your family so you don’t feel like everyone has to walk on eggshells around the dog but the dog’s needs are taken into consideration wherever possible.  After all, part of the benefit for children of growing up with a pet is learning respect for other creatures (and thus believing you are worthy of respect, too).

P.S.  It’s not what you asked about, but you CAN train your toddler, too! Yes, toddlers are crazy and active and loud and all over the place.  You can see my younger son below so you know I can relate!  (Story that goes with the video is on the About page.)  I LOVE the book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky Bailey, PhD.  It’s such a kind book and very helpful for fostering cooperation at all ages.

5 Comments

Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Mary

    Hi, lots of good ideas. I always like reminders to try to see things from the dogs point of view. I also really like the dogmantics.com training videos, Clicker training is something learned better by watching than by reading about it.
    Haven’t had a chance to check out Pam Jarvis’s web site yet.
    Thanks

  2. will street

    We have a baby and our yellow lab loves her. The baby can do just about anything and the dog rarely gets upset. Here’s a link to a video of the our child playing with her. Labs are just so wonderful with kids. http://tinyurl.com/4qdtzzw

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Hello Will – thank you for sharing the footage of your baby and dog. I hesitated to put your comment up because I didn’t want to open you up to criticism. I’ll take it down if you change your mind (and delete anyone else’s comments if they are mean!!). Did you read some of my newer posts about “magnetization” and “The Curse of a Good Dog?” Honestly, I don’t think your dog is very comfortable with the baby’s interactions. (See posts about body language.) I agree that your dog is being very GOOD about it and I know your child means no harm. (See post about “Does Your Baby Love Your Dog?”) One of my theories is that most of the bites to children are because of good dogs. When the dog doesn’t clearly object, it’s natural to gradually allow your child more and more liberties with that “good dog.” But, what happens when the good dog has a bad day? Or, the other risk is that your young child acquires a repertoire of behaviors with dogs that put her at risk of a bite from someone else’s dog that does object. These are risks I can’t get past, as much as I want to join in on appreciating a good dog’s forbearance. I just think it’s too much to ask and too much risk of something happening down the road. Every parent makes their own choices for their family. My work is to present the risks and possibilities so families can assess those risks and make a conscious decision. “I wish I knew!” is something I hope to hear less and less frequently. I sincerely wish the best for your family.

  3. google

    Amazing! This blog looks exactly like my old one!

    It’s on a totally different topic but it has pretty much the same layout and design.
    Outstanding choiuce of colors!

  4. whole dog journal aggression

    I reallly like it when folks get together and share ideas.

    Great website, keepp it up!

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