What do you do when your dog is aggressive towards children? Dogs and children can be a majorly cute – or majorly scary – mix. It’s challenging to know whether or not to trust your dog around children. It’s even harder yet to train your child and your dog to get along. In the latest “Ask A Dog Trainer: How To Train Your Dog,” Corky A. writes,
Recently, while visiting family, our 4 year old Cavapoo became aggressive toward a 4 year old niece and almost bit her. He really hasn’t been that way around kids before, after we have given him about 30 minutes or so to get used to them. He is a very sweet and lovable dog, but we cannot have this kind of behavior around little ones. What should I do?
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The Importance of Management When Your Dog is Aggressive Towards Children
The most important thing when you don’t trust your dog around children is management. Management basically means controlling a situation to reduce risk. This simple concept is not always simple to act on. It’s also imperative to recognize that management almost always fails at some point. Hire a trainer if you have any concerns about a child’s safety. Journey Dog Training can help create a personalized training plan, but actual training should be done with a trainer present.
Some examples of management in this situation include:
- Don’t bring the dog to visit family
- Teach the dog to wear a muzzle
- Put the dog behind a baby gate or inside of a crate when small children are around
- Keep the dog and child in separate rooms at all times
- Only allow the dog and child together when adults are paying 100% attention to what’s going on
- Rehome the dog to a home that doesn’t have children
As you can see, none of these solutions involve training. They’re just avoiding dangerous situations. Management is an important first step to all training, especially when working with aggressive animals.
Remember, your number one goal should be safety if your dog is aggressive towards children. The safety of Corky’s niece, the safety of her dog, and the safety of the adults around the child and the dog are top priority.
Strict management is imperative in situations like this. All dog owners needs to remember that all dogs with teeth can and will bite. They don’t have to be aggressive, and it doesn’t mean they’re a bad dog. But all dogs can be pushed to bite, and keeping everyone safe is imperative.
For example, my own dog was raised in a home with some small children. I’m still extremely cautious with children around him. Why? One of the worst things that could happen is to have my dog bite a child. So whenever there are kids around, I ask them to do something he likes – like throwing a frisbee – instead of petting him. I don’t allow children to hug or hang on my dog. If the children can’t listen, we leave. When we’re visiting cousins, I put Barley inside the crate if I can’t be watching him. This is to keep him happy and the children safe.
If your dog is aggressive towards children, he’s not necessarily a bad dog who can never live a safe and happy life. But he’s not trustworthy – so it’s your responsibility as an owner to avoid the situation again in the future. Management is the most important step for this. As a trainer, I always recommend strict management with dogs around children. But we have to remember that management usually fails. People forget to close doors, you take your dog outside without a muzzle, etc etc etc.
Where Did We Go Wrong? Understanding Trigger Stacking
In this case, it’s likely that a few things were going on. I’m guessing based off of the information I was given, but here’s a few potential red flags:
- The dog is an adult and doesn’t have regular exposure to children. This means that the small, fast-moving, loud child was probably very scary. 30 minutes of exposure is simply not enough time for a 4 year old dog to become comfortable with the child. We don’t know how often this dog was exposed to children and how old those kids were.
- The entire situation was probably quite stressful. It sounds like the cavapoo was travelling and visiting family. While their dog might have looked excited, it’s quite likely that this was stressful for the dog. They were in a new place with strange people and a strange, loud, fast-moving creature. This is a lot for a dog to take in – it’s a ton of “new stuff” all at once!
- We don’t know what the child was doing when the dog reacted. My assessment of the situation changes based off of what the child was doing prior to the incident. For that manner, what was happening all around the dog? It’s one thing if the dog growled when the child pulled on her tail, stepped on her paw, or tried to pick her up. It’s entirely another if the child walked by the dog and the dog snapped at her. It’s yet another if the dog was hiding under the table with a bone and the child crawled under the table to join her. Something happened prior to the dog becoming aggressive. What happened?
- We don’t know exactly what the dog was doing prior to nearly biting the child. I’m always interested in what the dog did leading up to the incident. Did the dog run away and hide? Did he back into a corner and then growl? Did she give warning signs? This pairs with red flag #3 – did the dog give warnings that the child (and the nearby adults) ignored or missed?
Let’s use all of these red flags to explore a concept called Trigger Stacking.
Trigger stacking is an important concept in dog training. The basic idea is this: people and dogs have a finite amount of patience and wherewithal at any given time. A series of mildly stressful events throughout the day can lead to an explosive result. This is often the case when people say that their dog “bit out of nowhere.” They probably missed some warning signs. They also probably missed a lot of tiny stressors leading up to the actual incident.
I’ll illustrate this concept with a human example first. Imagine me, a young dog trainer, on a Tuesday.
- 5:49am: I wake with a start. My alarm didn’t go off at 5:30, and now I have only 40 minutes before I need to leave for work if I want to be on time.
- 6:01am: I rush out the door with Barley for his morning potty break. We run into the apartment complex’s resident reactive dog in the stairway. The dog barks, snarls, and lunges at Barley. Barley reacts well, but it’s not fun for either of us.
- 6:06am: Barley poops. I reach for my poop bags and find that I’m all out. It’s ok – there’s a dispenser nearby. But it’s still irritating.
- 6:23am: I’ve forgotten my keys. I have to call my boyfriend, who takes a while to get out of bed in order to come let me back into the complex.
- 6:31am: I’m now late for work. I hop on my bike and pedal like mad, hitting all the wrong red lights on my way to work.
- 7:03am: Only 3 minutes late. That’s not so bad. But there’s a volunteer using the staff clock-in area. Again. That’s really annoying.
- 7:42am: I head out to work with the first dog of the day at work. He’s a high energy young Rottweiler. He spends the first 3 minutes of our session barking at me, the next 5 jumping on me painfully, and the next 10 yanking me around on leash and refusing to eat treats. Our training session feels fruitless.
- 8:03am: I get a call from my insurance company, who tells me that my last claim was through an out-of-network provider (it wasn’t) and I now owe $249 for my last appointment. Instead of calmly working through the misunderstanding, I scream at them and start sobbing.
It’s only 8am, and I feel like my day is ruined. I spend the remainder of the day on a knife’s edge, easily set off into anger, frustration, or tears by tiny annoyances.
Now that’s trigger stacking. We’ve all been there. Days like this didn’t have one huge catastrophe. But the tiny problems throughout my morning led to me being an emotional wreck for the remainder of the day. The same can happen to our dogs. Let’s explore a hypothetical timeline of Corky’s cavapoo and her day. Forgive me for anthropomorphism.
- 8:00am: Moms’ alarm goes off. Instead of taking me out for my morning walk, she spends her time packing. Our morning walk is much shorter than usual, and I don’t get to sniff as much as I’d like. Bummer.
- 8:30am: Mom loads me up into the car. I like the car, but this isn’t our normal routine at all. Weird.
- 10:06am: We arrive at a new home. Phew, that was a really long car ride. I’m a bit nauseous.
- 10:08am: We go straight into this new home. My stomach hurts a bit. These new people are really loud and very excited. People keep petting me on the head and picking me up. I wish they’d just pet me under the chin or leave me alone. There’s this tiny human that is very loud and very fast-moving. I watch her carefully. She seems unpredictable. To try to calm myself down, I jump up all over the people and try to lick their faces. Maybe if I lick their faces and mouths, they’ll understand that I’m not a threat and leave me alone.
- 10:12am: My owners keep bringing me back over to meet the tiny human. The tiny human moves too fast and pets me a bit too hard. Sometimes she puts her fingers in my fur and pulls a bit. I don’t like this, so I jump up to lick her face to try to appease her.
- 10:22am: I wander away to another room and crawl under a table. It’s a bit quieter here, and I feel safe. It’s like a den. I start to lick my paws as a way to calm down.
- 10:06am: The tiny human comes into the room and reaches under the table. I look away. She grabs onto my collar and starts making kissy sounds. I look back to her out of the corner of my eye and put my ears back. She keeps pulling. I growl a little bit. She keeps pulling. I lift my lips and growl louder. She really doesn’t seem to get it that I want to be left alone. At this point, my owners come in. They yell at me when they see me baring my teeth at the tiny human. In fear, I snap at her hand.
Again, this is a total guess as to what happened in Corky’s cavapoo and her day. But if Corky’s cavapoo has never been around kids before, it’s a good guess that being around the kid was stressful. It’s also likely that visiting family is an unusual occurrence, so that’s stressful too. It’s also likely that Corky’s cavapoo was giving some sort of warning signs before she reacted to the child. We’ll talk more about warning signs below.
Take note of how many times the cavapoo tries to diffuse the situation in this fake scenario. She licks faces. She hides under the table. She looks away. She whale eyes. She growls a little (big warning). She lifts her lips (huge warning). Then she gets yelled at – this makes the situation even more stressful. So she snaps.
Teaching Your Children How To Behave Around Dogs
After setting up a solid management protocol, it’s good to examine how the children behave around dogs. This is particularly important if your concern is a specific child. In this case, teaching the child how to be appropriate around dogs is more important for safety than teaching the dog how to be around children. Why? The child will interact with many other dogs in their lifetime, while your dog might only interact with the child. Keeping the child safe means teaching the child how to interact with dogs.
If your concern is that your dog is aggressive towards all children, learn how to keep your dog away from children. You can educate the neighborhood kids, but it’s just not realistic to teach every single child how to safely interact with your dog. Management and training your dog is key in this case.
Let me say it again. The first step in this process is setting up good management. This probably means starting out with a basic rule: no unsupervised interactions between the dog and the child. Period.
Ok, got it? Good. Let’s talk about teaching children how to behave around dogs. There are some pretty basic rules that are a good place to start:
- Always teach your child to ask if they can pet the dog.
- Teach the child to pet the dog under the chin instead of over the head.
- Never, ever let the child pull on ears, tails, paws, or fur.
- Never let the child ride or hug the dog. Ever.
- Teach the child to stop petting the dog every 5 seconds. This gives you and the child opportunities to see what the dog does.
- Teach the child to let the dog leave if the dog wants to leave.
These 6 steps are really important. All children should learn them and understand that these rules apply to all dogs. Yes, that even means your family labrador who loves children. It’s even more important for dogs that are unfamiliar with children and children that are unfamiliar with dogs.
Children who interact safely with dogs are less likely to get themselves into trouble. It’s that simple.
Teach your child to read some basic dog body language. My favorite resource for this is DoggieDrawings.net. I print out these posters for clients to hand on their refrigerators. Start out by teaching your child how to greet dogs politely.
Adults and children should also learn how tell the difference between a calm/relaxed dog and a shut down dog. Many people see a dog that’s lying down or showing its belly and think they’re relaxed. But there’s much more to it than that! A child who understands how to tell when a dog needs space is much less likely to be bitten.
For slightly older children, start teaching them how to recognize more advanced dog body language. This poster hangs on my fridge at all times. I use it to teach friends and family how to recognize some warning signs that my dog is getting uncomfortable. A few highlights from the poster to look out for:
- Lip licking. Dogs often lick their lips when they’re nervous, unsure, or uncomfortable.
- Looking away. Dogs look away from situations to diffuse tension.
- Whale eye. This basically means looking at something from the corner of a dog’s eye, showing the white of the eye. Dogs often do this when they’re uncomfortable.
These 3 signs can be quite subtle and are easy to miss. It’s entirely possible that Corky’s cavapoo tried to diffuse a stressful situation using dog body language, but no one noticed. Learning to recognize when your dog is uncomfortable is key to keeping everyone safe. If your dog is aggressive towards children, this is even more important.
Teaching Your Dog How To Behave Around Children
Once you’ve implemented good management and you’ve helped the child understand how to interact safely with dogs, it’s time to help the dog learn how to behave around children.
It sounds like Corky’s cavapoo has previously done OK with children – but we don’t know the specifics of each interaction. Let’s start from the beginning and assume the worst. I highly recommend working with a trainer at this point.
This means doing lots of counter-conditioning and desensitization. Take the dog to an area where the dog can watch children go by. A park might work. Be sure that you don’t let children greet the dog just yet. Start doing Look At That training using the children. At this stage, our only goal is to teach the dog that children = treats. We do not want the children to approach the dog.
We can slowly move closer and closer to the children. Again, don’t let the children approach the dog just yet. Use your management skills – keep the dog behind a fence and on leash, or on leash with a muzzle. If children run up to say hi and this scares your dog, you’ve just undone all of your hard work! This is why working with a trainer is important.
If things are going well, you can start walking your dog past children and feeding her. You can feed your dog while children walk past her. Eventually, build up to having children approach while you feed the dog. Keep interactions short and very safe. Let children feed the dog and pet your dog under the chin. After just a few seconds, end the interaction.
Keep a very close eye on your dog’s body language. Don’t be afraid to gently direct the children though the interaction.
I won’t go further into training here in this blog post. There’s much more to be done here. But you need to work with a trainer at this point if your dog is aggressive towards children.
I can’t say it enough. Work with a qualified dog trainer at this stage. If your dog is aggressive towards children, you should seek help. This is true even if the interaction only happened once and your dog is otherwise very sweet and friendly. It’s just too much of a liability for you, your dog, and the child if you ignore the problem.
Assessing Your Options When Your Dog is Aggressive Towards Children
Dogs that are aggressive towards children can live safely in many homes. Explore your options of management, training, rehoming, and euthanasia – in that order. Most dogs that are aggressive towards children can live safe lives through management and training. I would never recommend euthanasia based off of a few sentences – but we need to talk openly about it a bit here. I certainly do not recommend it in the case of Corky’s cavapoo!
When exploring your options, consider these factors:
- Your ability to safely manage your dog around children. Think about your handling skills, your environment, and your distraction level when your dog is around children.
- Your dog’s daily, weekly, and monthly exposure to children. The risk when dog that lives at a daycare is different from a dog that lives with a childless couple on a remote farm.
- The frequency of incidents. Does your dog have issues every single time she interacts with a child, or was this a first-time incident?
- The severity of the incident. Did your dog just growl at the child, or did she chase the child down and bite her in the leg? How deep was the bite?
- The triggers of the incident. Did your dog have issues after being trigger stacked, or did your dog escape your yard in order to chase children?
If your dog is aggressive towards children, you have to sit down and think this through.
Examples of When Management and Training Weren’t Enough
I once fostered a dog who regularly growled at children. That was fine for me. I’m an experienced trainer. I’m young and have no kids of my own. I don’t live with family that has kids. I’m comfortable avoiding kids (management) and using training to reduce the problem. We never had any issues in the 2 months that I fostered her.
That same dog later moved in with a man who ran a community garden. Families frequently visited to enjoy barbeques. The constant hubbub made management very difficult. He tried to keep the dog shut inside during barbeques, but people kept letting her out of the bedroom when they searched for the bathroom. The dog eventually ended up biting a child, and the foster parent returned her to the rescue. His management could have been better (why wasn’t the dog shut inside of a crate?), but this home also was just not a great fit for a dog that is aggressive towards children.
We constantly run into this issue at the shelter I work for. Many families end up making the difficult decision to rehome their dog when their dog is aggressive towards children. For some families, it’s just not worth the risk of management failing. Other families don’t have the time or money for training. Some dogs don’t just growl, but regularly bite and snap. It’s a very personal decision that should not be taken lightly – and most families recognize that.
I do not have a problem with families recognizing that training and management is not a good option for them. Rehoming isn’t ideal, as outcomes for these dogs are often not good. But I’d rather not have a child get hurt.
Euthanasia is also an option for dogs that are aggressive towards children. This is an extremely difficult topic, but it’s important to bring up. In the case of the foster dog above, rehoming was a fine way to deal with the issue. That dog is now living well with some older children in a home.
In the case of another dog at my shelter, the family chose euthanasia. Why? Their dog dragged their child off of a swing by her hair and bit her on the hip. Another dog bit a 14-month-old child all over the back and buttocks, sending the child to the ICU. Both of these dogs were put down.
While management, training, and a better home could have worked for both of these dogs, the families and the shelter decided that it just wasn’t worth the risk. These dogs were both huge liabilities – what if they bit again? The courts would not be very forgiving to a family or a shelter that knowingly went forward with adoption for dogs that are known to be so aggressive towards children.
Again, I’d never recommend euthanasia or rehoming on a blog post. Talk to a qualified trainer or veterinary behaviorist if you are worried about training and management not being enough for your dog.
There are several steps towards working with a dog that is aggressive towards children. To recap:
- Manage the situation. Avoid children if your dog is aggressive towards children. Keep your dog on leash and use fences or muzzles to prevent bites. Only allow child-dog interactions in fully supervised situations. Remember that management often fails.
- Teach children how to interact with dogs.
- Have a trainer help you teach your dog how to interact with children.
- Don’t shy away from hard conversations with qualified help if your dog is aggressive towards children.
In the case of Corky’s cavapoo, I’d start out with trying to understand exactly what led up to this aggression. What was different this time? Then work to manage the situation and prevent it from recurring. In the meantime, avoid all unsupervised and unprotected contact with children. Teach the child how to interact with a dog. If possible, hire a trainer to help teach the dog how to interact with children.