I stumbled upon your website when looking for ways to get my 1 year old to behave with the dog a little better. We did EXACTLY what you said not to do. Our lab is a magnet for the baby. She is what you would consider a “good dog” but a recent snow storm has had us cooped in the house for a week together and her tolerance has dropped and sent me searching for the right thing to do. We have started to keep them apart more, but I wanted to make sure I had some guidance from experienced people. Thank you for your blog! I have forwarded this to my husband in hopes he agrees. Our lab has growled once… and I intend not to let it happen again. I would never want that accidental bite, because I would not want to get rid of her, nor have a baby scared of dogs. If you have any other blogs you think I would benefit from, I would appreciate it!
Hello Sara! Thank you for your question.
Being cooped up in the house will definitely wear down the best of us. Maybe the blessing in disguise here is your opportunity to recognize that your good dog, like all dogs, does not have a limitless supply of tolerance. Sometimes dogs, like people, have days/moments when they just can’t deal as well as usual. Doesn’t mean they’re bad — it just means we need to be aware of the contributing factors so no one is surprised by the results of a low balance.
I use that analogy of a bank account to represent a dog’s balance of tolerance. Things that are startling, uncomfortable, unnerving, etc. represent withdrawals. The dog has to “spend” some of her tolerance to be “good” in response. This can have the effect over time of wearing down the dog’s balance when it is constant (like with a magnetized baby), but, usually, the balance bounces back OK if it’s just a little bit here and there, with periods of feeling relaxed in between.
Getting snowed in means there is no opportunity for a break, a chance to recharge. In that case, the bank account analogy goes into “ATM Rules” — there’s only so much you can take out in one day. We saw that in action in our family when my younger son was just walking (and falling). I thought my dog’s tolerance/goodwill balance was acceptably high, but the third time he fell near her, she growled. It was just too much in a short period of time, not a sign that she had gone to the dark side.
Even though hearing a growl direct towards your baby will chill your blood, try to remember that this is also an opportunity to say, “Thank you,” to your dog. “Thank you for not hurting my baby.” A growl is a bite that wasn’t. Even so, the growl remains a wake-up call that something needs to change.
I’ve got a whole chapter planned on this for my book, but I’ll hit some highlights here so you don’t have to wait forever.
What Needs to Change With the Baby’s Behavior?
You’re smart to factor in baby behavior as an additional avenue so it’s not all on your dog. Have you already read older blog posts on “magnetized” babies? I also highly recommend the book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky Bailey, PhD. That book was a lifesaver for me when I was trading off days of babysitting with a friend and her son was a year ahead of mine and I just wasn’t familiar yet with how to handle a different stage. I love that book so much for its compassionate approach and precise direction, especially on how to word things clearly and kindly to foster cooperation – even with very young toddlers.
It IS possible for your baby to be in close proximity to your dog and not be reaching or grabbing for her! De-magnetizing the baby/child has never been an issue with my bite/incident clients. If it’s not noticeably better after two weeks, there’s something we can change in your approach. A phone consultation would be a good fit in that case.
Bites to young children are almost always precipitated by a movement from the child towards the dog. How often do you hear of a child just standing there and a dog gets up, walks over, jumps up and bites his face? The situations almost always involve the child moving into the dog’s space. Not that it’s “okay” or expected that a dog would bite in response, but knowing the precipitating movements highlights an essential aspect of bite prevention. Children should all be taught “Don’t close the gap” or “Ask the dog” or some other catchy variation to clarify that the dog has to choose to go to the child; not the other way around. (This is not as applicable to your child’s age right now, but something to keep in mind.)
What Needs to Change Logistically?
I see you are already looking at ways to provide some separation. Giving dogs some space is always part of a good plan. Keep in mind, though, that many dogs are going to want to be with YOU if they have not been prepared to enjoy alone time. Barbara Shumannfang’s terrific book, Happy Kids, Happy Dogs includes step-by-step guidance for establishing “The Safety Zone” where you can easily place your dog for a little break. You can find a summary on her website topnotchdog.com.
With a newly mobile baby or toddler, dogs can feel more comfortable if the baby is corralled, rather than the dog having to be “put away” all the time as the only option. This helps the dog acclimate to baby antics knowing the baby can’t get right over to her.
Dogs also do better, generally speaking, when they have something they are enthusiastic about chewing, like Kong toys that can be stuffed with food or other “food-carrier” or food puzzle toys. (Obviously, you will not give your dog a high value chew item in a situation where the baby can crawl/walk over to her.) Getting out for more frequent walks also helps dogs keep their equilibrium. When you can’t get “out,” mental exercise and games indoors can serve the same purpose.
When dog and baby are out and about, it’s your job as their Guide to keep them both safe and comfortable. This means you don’t wait until someone is distressed to step in. Aim for about a five foot space between dog and baby. I don’t mean that they can’t ever be closer (not practical in many homes!) but that when their respective orbits do bring them in proximity, you are there to be in-between, guiding and sending each on his/her way without incident. Your baby just doesn’t have anything good to offer your dog at this stage so the dog is not made “available” for him to explore at will.
What Needs to Change for Your Dog?
This one I can’t answer definitively, not knowing your dog. You have concerns that are most appropriately addressed by a qualified trainer or behavior expert in person. What you describe is, on the surface, a textbook example of a good dog with too much going on that raised an objection. You may never see a growl again with the steps you are taking. Or, maybe there is more going on that needs to be evaluated. That, I can’t say. You can contact me to see if I can find someone I know near you or we can arrange a phone consultation. (At some point soon, I will finish the “how to find a good dog trainer” section of this website!)
Positive reinforcement-based training can build not only training/responsiveness skills, but also coping skills by teaching your dog that she can make choices. I do not recommend any sort of correction-based training and especially not in the circumstance of a dog that has growled at a baby. You need to know as best you can that your dog no longer wants to growl at the baby, not just that your training can make her stop once she starts. That’s way too late for my comfort.
What Needs to Change for You?
At a minimum, your family needs to learn about dog body language so you can “read” your dog’s signs of discomfort long before she has to growl. See my past blog posts on body language and great information on the following websites:
I think you’ll see that your dog is in good company and it’s not at all uncommon for nice dogs to be uncomfortable with small children up close. It’s not just your dog. It’s important for all of us to recognize this. The more willing we are to at least consider that the dog might not like it, the more likely we are to see and respond to early signs of discomfort — and never have to experience the growl or snap.
Here are some books I can recommend about dogs and babies, plus a great dog training book focused on coping skills:
- Chill Out Fido by Nan Arthur
- Happy Kids, Happy Dogs by Barbara Shumannfang
- Living With Kids and Dogs by Colleen Pelar
- Kids and Dogs, A Professional’s Guide by Colleen Pelar
Always Consider Your Scenarios
Everyone can be educated and prepared and still forget that things are different/harder when it’s not the normal scenario. Problems occur when the situation is:
If something’s different — visiting kids over, you guys are at someone else’s house, it’s high activity time, etc. — expect that your dog will be less able to manage as well. Assess your scenarios and assign a difficulty score based on the above and what you know about your dog’s existing sensitivities. Just like in the Olympics, adjust your expectations for the degree of difficulty.
It’ll be OK! Everyone gets presented with the fantasy of how wonderful it is going to be with the dog and baby growing up together. That does such a disservice because it lulls parents into a false sense of security with their “good dog.” Then, when something happens, it’s such a shock — until you discover that the same thing is happening all around and you’re left to think, “Why didn’t anyone warn me about this?” I hope that you can take your distressing experience and turn it into education for your family and friends so no one you know has to have a similar experience. Little by little, that’s how things will change. Spread the word!