We’ve got another great Ask the Trainer column from Colleen Safford from New York Walk & Train, named “Best of NY” by New York Magazine. Parents, don’t miss this column! Colleen is not just a dog lover and trainer but a conscientious mom as she tackles this difficult question:
I have a 3-year-old spayed Boxer/Shar pei mix that I adopted from a rescue three years ago. She was teased really bad by her previous owners children. I have three children and she loves them to death. However..she does not like their friends or strangers. She has nipped three times and then she finally drew blood the fourth time. I put her in a crate when other kids are here but this last time she bit a child who put her fingers through our fence to try and pet her. Please help!!
I am very sorry to hear this. I am tackling this question with heart. As a mommy and dog lover, I know how difficult it can be to manage children and dogs safely. It’s something that takes 24/7 diligence.
This is a very serious situation. Your dog’s last incident tells us that she feels her previous three warnings were not heard or respected.
Should she continue down this same path, it is likely that her reaction will only become stronger. She is trying very hard to tell everyone that she is very uncomfortable. So, it’s your job to be sure she feels she is being kept safe.
I am very happy to hear that you are using the crate. I am not sure where the crate is located, but I want to recommend that it is behind a closed door, and that all children understand that she is NOT to be disturbed while she is in there. This is her safe haven, quiet place and refuge from the kid tornado (haha).
Dog Body Language: I know you mention that she loves your own children, but please visit a website called www.doggonesafe.com. This organization helps teach children and adults to understand dog body language and the early warning signs of stress (lip licking, yawning etc) . We often miss them. Everyone in your home should be very well versed in dog body language.
Appropriate use of the crate:
1. While she is in there, she should have things to work on. She can eat her meals through enrichment or food stuffed toys like the Kong.
2. Teach her a “hop in” or “go to your room” command, where she learns to hop in the crate on her own (without be physically prompted or dragged by the collar)
3. She should be crated randomly each day, not just when children are there. This will help her feel more comfortable in there and not connect the crate directly with the presence of children.
4. ANTICIPATE when children are going to arrive. 5-10 minutes BEFORE their arrival, she should “hop in” her crate.
Yard/Fence: She must not be left in the yard on her own where people can approach the fence and reach at her. As she exhibited last time, she is not comfortable with people reach toward her. When you are outdoors with her, she should be on a long line where she can move about freely, but not so much that she can reach the fence. While you are out there, you should let her wander on her leash and then call her to come to you and reward her for doing so. In the case when people are passing your home, call her to you (before she sees them!) and give her a treat. Really work on her ability to stop what she is doing and COME to you.
Training: Working even on her most basic of obedience every day and reinforcing good behavior (with treats, toss of a toy, praise etc) can really help her confidence flourish. You should ask her to sit before giving her attention, come to you – just to check in and get a yummy treat or pet on the head, play fetch, but ask her to sit before you toss the toy each and every time.
I will also suggest that you work with a humane trainer to help her with some of her child anxieties. Teaching her the presence of strange children is actually a really fun thing! You need to work with someone who is skilled though in behavior modification and does not use any correction based methods.
Exercise: This is something that I cannot emphasize enough. I know you are a busy mother of three, but this doggy really needs some good heart pumping exercise every day. Not a leisurely walk, but a nice game of fetch, off leash play etc. Hiring a buddy (dog walker) to get her that daily exercise is something I would highly recommend if you are unable with all the mommy duties to do this with her.
Never punish her: It is also very important that your dog is never punished for letting out a growl, lifting her lip, or barking at children. Doing so, only reinforces for her that things get bad when children are around; and further reminds her of why she doesn’t like them. Instead, realize that she is simply trying to tell people, “I need help. I feel a need to defend myself here.”
Rehoming: This is a difficult topic to address; particularly so in an open forum where people are sure to have strong opinion. When I work with families there are times where we need to discuss the possibility of finding a new home for a dog. A home where the dog will feel less anxious and those in the dog’s life will be safer.
A lot of the above advice is what trainers refer to as management. Management prevents behavior from being displayed and undesired habits from becoming stronger. The reality is however that management systems can fail (i.e. – kids let dog out of crate or go into the room). This is why training her to be comfortable around children is important.
I do NOT have enough information about your particular situation. This is certainly something that is NEVER taken lightly or without hours of developing a relationship with a family, the dog and getting a true sense of the full situation. The safety of the children and mental health of the dog are top priority. Please seek out a supportive and skilled trainer to work with you through this.
I am sending positive thoughts to your pup and your family.