In this episode of the Good Dog Happy Baby podcast, we explore how to train and prepare dogs that are afraid of children. If you have a child on the way or a new toddler, this is a big one.
If your dog is afraid of children, here are some of the key steps you can and should take to help your dog overcome her fear of children.
Episode Blog Post
Morgan: What if my dog doesn’t like children?
Mike: Well, that’s a pretty big question. Oftentimes, that becomes an issue when people have a 5-, or 6-, or 7-year-old dog.
Not only has he been the only child – he’s also a little afraid, a little sensitive. There are a lot of skittish, fearful dogs out there.
They’re basically great pets: they’re friendly, they’re sweet – but they’re just afraid of all kinds of things. And with dogs like that, that are middle-aged: like any of us, we get more set in our ways.
Morgan: I don’t know what you’re talking about, man.
Mike: Of course you don’t – because 40 is the new 20, right?
Morgan: That’s right. Exactly.
Assessing The Problem
Mike: So, it’s really an issue with all kinds of dogs. The first thing to note, obviously, is: the sooner you know that the better, because then you can be proactive. But it’s a very tricky thing.
I just had a client like that last week. They’ve got about 5 months to go before she has a baby, and they’re concerned.
There’s a playground near their house – and whenever the dog hears the commotion of the kids in the playground, or a kid goes running by, the dog shrinks away. It’s just afraid of kids.
Again, this is one of those things – the sooner you know that the better, because then you can prepare for it.
And the whole second module of my e-course is all about this: how to help a dog who’s generally just anxious and nervous around kids.
So, the next thing to ask yourself is: what’s the degree of anxiousness? Is he trying to shy away, is he just intimidated, or will he lash out and bite?
And, of course, if he’s going to lash out and bite, we have a serious situation – which I’ll circle back to. But most of them will be shrinking away, a little bit afraid.
So, in that kind of situation, you want to heavily engage with a process called systematic desensitizing.
Treats, Treats, And More Treats!
So, for example, go to areas where there are lots of kids around. Bring your dog, bring a pile of treats.
Let’s say, near a school that lets out at 3. See if you can take your dog there, and maybe stand on the other side of the street.
Whatever the distance is where your dog is aware of all those kids running around, yelling and screaming, but is not showing signs of extreme distress. And start doing something fun with him.
Now, for a lot of dogs, that’s just treats. So bring treats – something good – some string cheese, grilled chicken, meat, anything.
And while all that commotion is going on, run him through his paces in a positive, upbeat way.
And there’s only room for positivity, here. Because if your dog is afraid of a kid, or does a little growly thing, then the absolute worst possible thing you can do in a moment like that is to physically correct him in any way.
Now I’m not a purely positive trainer, and I’m not an advocate of force-free training – but in this particular context, you don’t want to introduce any negativity.
That’s a big mistake expecting parents make: correcting a dog for showing signs of anxiety. Especially if there’s a lip curl or a growl, which is just a sign on the part of the dog, saying: “Hey, I’m afraid.”
So, keep it positive, and get near those situations where the dog is aware of the stimulus, but it’s not at a high enough level to totally freak him out.
And then do something familiar and fun. Sits, downs, stays, rollovers, shake hands – whatever.
And give him lots of treats. For some dogs, it’s not the treats. There’s so much obsession with treat-training, these days – and I do a lot of it, too. But don’t forget, there are other things to motivate a dog.
Some dogs are really high-drive on balls, on ties. So, if your dog loves to play tug of war, do it there when kids are around.
Or toss him a ball to catch in the air. Just do anything that the dog views as fun, and connect it with the presence of that stimulus.
And then, slowly start to work your way closer, if you can. Again, in module 2 of my e-course there’s a lot of video of this.
Ease Your Dog In
Out here, there’s a big playground – and I think this is common now – that’s fenced in. They’re very fancy, new playgrounds with rubber floors on the whole thing.
Morgan: Yes, we have those here in Boston.
Mike: And they’re fenced, right? So, one of the things you can do is to go and wander around the outside of the fence.
You’ve got a protective layer there – you don’t have to worry about some kid running up, ploughing into your dog, and creating a bad scene.
So I just walk the perimeter in exactly the way as I described. With something fun – treats, toys, whatever. And get close to the fence.
Sometimes, some kid will come up to the fence and go: “Doggy! Doggy!” And if the situation is appropriate, if the mom is there, see if the kid can give your dog a treat through the fence.
And generally, just monitor your dog. Oftentimes, when you do this enough, they start softening up.
And then once in awhile – even on the outside of the fence – you can evaluate the situation. If a mom comes up, ask: “Can my doggy say hello?”
You have to make a judgement call, but maybe you could have the kid hand a treat to the dog. If you don’t feel good about that, just have your dog sit for a treat, and focus on you, while the kid is nearby.
And slowly start to work your way into situations like that – and create as many opportunities as possible for your dog to start getting exposed to children.
So, with the couple I was with earlier this week, I asked them – and I always ask people this: “Do you have any friends with kids?”
And it turns out that, yes, they have a few friends with a 6-month-old, a one-year-old and a two-year-old. So I said: “Have them come over here as often as possible.”
It’s the same kind of thing: create fun, positive contexts. Use your friends to start introducing the concept.
Know Your Dog
Obviously, it should go without saying: you have to be careful, and monitor your dog.
And I’m distinguishing between a dog that’s snappy and biting and reacting, versus a dog that’s just skittish and afraid.
If your dog is snappy, biting, and reactive, then it’s a whole other ball game. And at that point, you probably need to ask yourself whether you can keep this dog with a baby or not.
Morgan: Got it. I remember we had one of those when I was a toddler – and we had to get rid of her.
Any time I was out on my little push-bike, she would be nipping at my heels.
She’d bite, she’d nip – it wasn’t too malicious, but she was a herder. She was a dog that was used to herding.
So, any time that I was on something that had wheels, that was it. She would just start biting.
Mike: Well, it’s a shame to hear that, because with stuff like that – when it’s not directly related to anxiety or fear – when it’s just that nippy behavior, you can stop that.
Morgan: I believe it.
Mike: The dog wasn’t afraid of you – it’s just when you started moving in a particular way that it engaged that response.
Morgan: It’s like a drive.
Mike: It’s a fixed action pattern, for a dog. So, that’s sad in a way, because had they had some good advice, they could have gotten over that pretty quickly.
Morgan: Well yes, we didn’t know. We didn’t have that advice, obviously.
But the key point is: there’s a categorical difference between dogs that shy away and wince, and are just a little averse to kids, and the ones that are actually nipping and biting?
The Power of Positivity
Mike: Yes – especially if they’re flat-out aggressive. But even having said that, in module two of the e-course, the last case history is one where we brought a dog that’s really quite reactive to kids. He hasn’t bitten, but he’s very loud, and very reactive to kids.
So I had a family of four little kids, and we brought the dog over – and we videoed the whole process, during that hour where we transformed the dog from being crazy, barky, and afraid of kids to playing with them by the end of the hour.
That was a very interesting process, and I wasn’t sure what to expect when we went to shoot that. Because I don’t pre-plan these things – I basically hired the camera guys, we went over, and then we basically just saw what happened. And it was quite a transformation in the dog.
So, there’s a lot that can be done. But, obviously, this is a thing where you want to get some professional help. And you want to get somebody who’s very familiar with positive methods.
Like I said, I’m definitely not an advocate for purely positive training – but for this kind of thing, heavy-handed training of any kind is going to be completely counter-productive.
So, anybody who’s correcting into proper behavior, using leash corrections or something like that – that is not the way to go with this stuff.
Morgan: Are we still talking about the first category, or both categories?
Mike: Oh, both categories.
What Is Systematic Desensitisation?
Morgan: And Mike, I have a question. So, everything you’ve been talking about here falls under the rubric of systematic desensitization, right?
Mike: Pretty much, yes.
Morgan: It should be obvious, because it’s implicit in everything you’ve been talking about – but can you just say a little bit directly about that theory of systematic desensitization?
Mike: It’s very simple – it basically means slowly getting a person, or a dog, or whatever, used to something they find frightening, in tiny little increments, by connecting it with something that they like a lot.
So if a dog is afraid of children, we introduce the stimulus at a low enough level that it’s not completely blowing the dog’s mind.
And then we start connecting it with something that the dog likes a lot, so that the overriding association with that stimulus starts to become: “There’s nothing to fear because nothing bad ever happens to me. And not only that, but a lot of good things happen to me when that’s around.”
And that just takes time – but it definitely works.
Morgan: Yes. You have another awesome video on systematic desensitization – a little girl and a dog. Do you remember that, the little baby?
Mike: Yes, and that little Cocker Spaniel. Now, that dog had already bit the kid.
I got the call to go see them after the bite on the face. You can even see, in the video, the little red mark on the kid’s face.
And through the process, through both a rank-management process, and a process of systematic desensitizing, they completely turned that dog around – in about a month, six weeks.
Morgan: Amazing. And that was through rank-management, but also a lot of systematic desensitization?
Sound Sensitivity In Dogs
Mike: Yes. And another area of systematic desensitizing, in relation to the original question about a dog that’s a little afraid of children and child-like things, is that there is audio of baby sounds that you can buy.
I did a blog post on this, and there’s a link to a three- or four-dollar audio file that you can download.
You can play those baby sounds back on your stereo system at low levels, and then just do the same thing: play a fun game with your dog, or do some treat-based exercises or whatever, and slowly start raising the volume so that your dog gets used to the various types of baby sounds that are going to be coming.
Because dogs are very sound-sensitive. And those harsh, abrupt, shrill baby sounds – you know, they’re designed to annoy and to get attention, so that mom finds the sound so annoying that she’d do anything to stop it. Which is: find out what the kid needs, and take care of it.
Morgan: That’s a great article, by the way. That’s a fantastic story, with many layers to it – it’s a real exposition on systematic desensitization through story-telling. So please check that out – it’s a great example.
Mike: I had a lot of fun with it – and it’s just something I came up with on the fly. It turned out these guys had a Sonos sound system in their house, which allows you from your iPhone, or whatever smartphone that you have, to control where the speakers come from in your house.
So we ended up teaching the dog that whenever it heard baby sounds coming from anywhere in the house – the sound of a baby crying – it should run to mom looking for a treat.
Because a lot of times, those shrill sounds attract the dog. They want to go and see: “What is that?”
It’s almost like a kick-in prey instinct, and the dog’s going to want to run over and want to know what the heck’s going on over there, in possibly not a very nice way.
And we reconditioned that, by teaching the dog that whenever it heard baby sounds coming from any room, it should run to mom, look for a treat, and then they will both go and check it out.
So that’s on the blog, it’s free – just scroll down.
Morgan: Alright, good – so, in the next episode we address this question: “My dog is afraid of being touched in sensitive areas of her body – should I be concerned?”
If you want to go further with this information or learn more about systematic desensitization – it’s the first module in Mike’s e-course and you can find that here.
It’s really worth checking it out – if this is something that sounds like it resonates with your situation, go ahead and get the course.
And sign up for Mike’s email list – you’ll get a special discount code that’s good for one week. You can get the course at a discount.