Ask the Dog Guide: Dogs Growl at Unruly Toddler

March 5th, 2010 by Dan

I have a seven year old black lab and a three and a half year old Australian Terrier who are great with my grandsons, one being two and a half years old. However, both will give warning growls to the toddler who is extraordinarily bent on doing his own thing. He has been told numerous times not to climb on the dogs, not to put his face in theirs, not to push on them while they are resting, so on and so forth. He continues to do so and the dogs will give warning growls. The terrier has nipped at him a few times as a serious warning, in fact. I fear the grandson is begging to be bitten. My daughter (they all live with me for now) insists that I should always reprimand the dogs when they are attempting to protect themselves, as well as the misbehaving child. What are y’all’s opinions, please?

Thank you.

Two dogs with small child.

No matter how well-trained a dog is, it still may bite to protect itself if it feels threatened. It sounds like your dogs have been tolerant so far, if the situation continues to escalate, your grandson will be bitten sooner rather than later. While a bite might teach the toddler not to invade dogs’ personal space and provoke them, it’s obviously not the best way to convey that lesson! It sounds like everyone in the household–regardless of species–needs some training in order to make sure that your grandsons are safe around your dogs.

The first step for now should be to prohibit the youngest grandson from interacting with the dogs except with close supervision, such as petting a dog gently while being held on a parent or grandparent’s lap to prevent him from pushing or slapping the dog. If the other grandsons are also interacting with the dogs in an unsafe way, they too should have their “dog privileges” revoked for the time being. Baby gates can be used to keep kids and dogs in separate rooms to enforce this rule while you work on a more permanent solution.

Next, work on bite inhibition with your dogs. Sit with them and encourage them to lick and mouth your hands. If their teeth hurt you even the slightest bit, yell, “OUCH!” in a high-pitched voice and leave the room. Come back after a few minutes and try the game again. As long as they are licking and putting their mouths on your hands gently, they continue to receive attention; if their teeth press down on human skin, you yelp and leave the room. Soon your dogs should learn that their mouths must always be gentle with humans. This won’t prevent them from instinctively biting if hurt or provoked, but it might save the person bitten from being seriously injured.

Before allowing the children and dogs to interact again, you and your daughter will need to be on the same page as far as enforcing ground rules. Make sure that your rules are simple, consistent and easy to understand. It might be best to teach the toddler that he is only allowed to touch the dogs by stroking them gently on their backs in the direction of their hair. If he touches the dogs in any other way, he should be immediately lifted and carried to a time-out spot. Over time he can be taught to play with the dogs in other safe ways and can even learn to give simple commands like “sit.” But until you’re sure he is past the pushy phase with the dogs, your youngest grandson should always be supervised with them and should be limited only to the very safest activities.

If the grandson slips up and one of your dogs does growl, the first priority is to remove the grandson from the situation and place him in time-out. If both you and your daughter are present, one of you should take the toddler away while the other gently walks the dog to a quiet room and shuts it in for its own time-out. There’s no reason to punish or shout at a dog for growling when it has every reason to feel threatened, but it is important to convey the message that a growling dog won’t be welcome to play with its human family. Isolation for only about 90 seconds in a dark, quiet room should get that across nicely without escalating the dog’s fear and stress level. However, if only one person is present when growling happens, that person should focus on the child. Giving the dog a time out or any punishment will be ineffective if even a few seconds pass between the growling and your reaction.

Finally, if you are working on modifying the children and dogs’ behavior but growling and nipping continue to occur, please hire an Animal Behaviorist to help your family. It’s much more pleasant to spend money on dog training than on hospital bills for a child!

2 Responses to “Ask the Dog Guide: Dogs Growl at Unruly Toddler”

  1. Wanda Says:

    Thank you so much for your long, thought-out response. I can’t decipher what type of “training” the whole household needs, however. We are simply seeking advice on how to handle/train the dogs. The toddler does go into time out every time he harasses the dogs, however, as I stated, is is extraordinarily strong headed. My question related to appropriate training for the dogs, and what sort of reprimand they should receive, as well as appropriate “punishment”, if any, when a dog is simply trying to protect himself. We will try the 90 second time out for the dogs and continue keeping a close eye on the toddler, as has always been our practice.
    Thanks again. I look forward to hearing what type of training the rest of the household needs.

  2. bettye scoda Says:

    No one knows what may be the “last straw” that would cause one of the dogs to bite or otherwise harm the children. So, I agree that for now, the young children should only be near the dogs when they are closely supervised. At a young age, children don’t always make the best behavior choices, and until you’re sure the children understand what is & isn’t ok, everyone is better safe than sorry. I thought the answer to the question was great in that it gave some very specific suggestions for working with both the children and the dogs.

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