We all want a family that can co-exist peacefully, and even enjoy one another’s company. And our furry friends are no exception to the family rule! But the mix of kids and dogs can often be a stressful one. How can we help everybody get along?
In today’s Ask a Behavior Consultant, we’re helping out an owner of a Jack Russell who doesn’t seem to like the owner’s niece and nephews.
“He keeps growling at my niece and nephews and I don’t know how to stop it!” -Jumpy Jack
If your dog has trouble around children, check out these other resources from Journey Dog Training:
- What Do I Do When My Dog Is Aggressive Towards Children?
- Six Easy Ways to Keep Kids Safe Around Dogs
- Keeping Kids Safe and Dogs Happy (A Self-Study Course)
Why is My Dog Growling at Children?
Let’s face it: kids are scary. Think about it from a small dog’s perspective, like this Jack Russell Terrier. While children look small to us, to a small dog they are still huge!
Kids are often extremely loud, clumsy, and have very unpredictable movements. They are much more likely to come running up to a dog and loom over them or even hug them. Growling is a dog’s way of communicating that he is uncomfortable or even frightened.
And it’s completely understandable for a dog to be afraid of such an unpredictable creature!
Jumpy Jack says the behavior occurs most often when the children get very loud or if they approach him. Before tackling the problem, it’s important to know what exactly is upsetting him. Your dog might truly hate children, but since their volume was mentioned specifically, it’s important to rule out potential noise sensitivity as well.
Are Dogs Afraid of Loud Sounds?
If your dog gets upset at loud noises in general, not just from the loud children, he could be experiencing noise sensitivity. You can help teach your dog to be calm when they hear loud noises of all kinds by desensitization and counterconditioning them to loud sounds.
How Can I Get My Dog to Like Kids?
So far, the strategy for dealing with this Jack Russel’s growling has been to expose him to kids more frequently.
This is a completely logical thing to do! Dog is afraid of something, so expose him to the thing more to show him there’s nothing to be afraid of!
Unfortunately, the exposure strategy can often backfire and make the problem worse. While exposure can sometimes results in habituation (the dog learning that the scary thing is irrelevant and can just be ignored) it can also lead to sensitization.
Just exposing your dog to your nieces and nephews could cause sensitization. He might get more and more uncomfortable and potentially aggressive towards them as time goes on. He could even generalize that dislike to all children or even to all people!
That is definitely not what we want! So what’s the solution if your dog hates children?
Help Teach Your Nieces and Nephews How to Interact With Dogs
Enlist the help of your niece and nephews to make sure they are behaving appropriately around your dog. Most kids are extremely eager to learn and be helpful!
Loud sounds and sudden movements from children can be really frightening to a dog. Encourage the children in your life to move slowly and keep their voices low when they are around your dog.
Help them learn dog body language so they can tell when your dog is uncomfortable. Your dog might be giving out subtle signs well before growling. Encourage them not to approach your dog if he is showing subtle signs of discomfort. If your dog is showing any of these signs, instruct your nieces and nephews to give him space.
Subtle signs of discomfort: Yawning, lip licking, turning head away, tightly closed mouth, sniffing the ground
Tell them not to pet your dog unless he gives them permission by approaching them on his own, and teach them the Pat-Pet-Pause protocol.
- Pat your leg to invite the dog to come over to you.
- Pet (with one hand) the dog’s chest, sides, or hips for three seconds
- Pause and see if the dog solicits more petting from you, or if they move away
Offering a dog a choice of whether or not to interact can work absolute wonders for a dog that hates children!
Manage While You Train
When you can’t directly supervise your dog around children, or if you feel that everyone needs a break, practice management!
- Put your dog in a different room, behind a baby gate, or in a crate with a toy or bone to occupy him.
- Keep him on a leash around the children and make sure they know not to approach him.
- Give him a bed or crate he can retreat to when he’s feeling overwhelmed, and instruct the kids not to get in his space when he’s there
Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization to Children
You can slowly teach your dog to actually like your niece and nephews by counter-conditioning and desensitizing him to the kids. Sometimes an added source of stress is having children in a dog’s home, so you can start this work outside at first. That way there is plenty of space for you and your dog to keep far away from the children if needed.
Look at That Game with Children
As part of counter-conditioning, you can teach your dog that when he looks at children, he gets a treat! This will help him create a positive association with children.
Anytime your dog looks in the direction of the kids, give him a treat. Start at a far enough distance from the kids that he isn’t worried about them. Outside, you can do this from across a big field, or on opposite sides of the street while talking a walk.
In your home, you can play the Look at That Game from behind a baby gate. Gradually decrease the distance between the kids and your dog.
Always keep an eye on your dog’s body language and move him (or the children) further away if he looks uncomfortable. Only progress if he is completely comfortable at the current distance!
Go at your dog’s pace. It might not take him much time at all for him to start liking the sight of your nieces and nephews, or it might take a long time to see any progress at all.
Should I Let the Kids Feed my Dog Treats So He’ll Like Them?
It may seem like a good idea to give treats to the kids so they can feed your dog, but this strategy can backfire.
In this case, the dog has struggle between his desire for food and his fear or dislike of children. He might get close to the children to get the food, then freak out once he eats the treats and realize how close he is! He could even start to become suspicious of food treats because they predict his interaction with something unpleasant.
Don’t use food as a bribe or lure to get your dog closer. Use it is a reward after your dog has chosen to interact with the kids – even if that interaction is just looking at them or moving closer towards them.
The presence of the children should be a predictor of food, not the other way around!
Employing a combination of management and training here will go a long way towards helping your dog learn to like your nieces and nephews. And getting them involved in the training process will help them feel more invested in the training process and their own relationship with your dog!