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Managing Dog Aggression Toward Babies

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Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

Q: Professor Boo, I have an 11 year old female German Shepherd and a 10 month old baby at home. My dog has always been friendly towards my baby girl and usually kisses her and licks her a lot. My baby is always after the dog, using her as a “ladder” to stand up, grabs her tail and face and usually my dog just walks away but today was the first time she growled at her and showed her teeth when my daughter tried to grab her (my daughter was in my dog’s sleeping area.) Does that mean she might bite her? I love my dog dearly but my baby comes first. What do I do?

A: This is fairly common when little ones begin to toddle around and use the dog as a walking “helper” as it were.

Please remember all dogs can bite anyone if they feel they have no other way to stop something that either scares them or hurts them. Cute as it may be to see baby loving the dog, most dogs are not really comfortable with this kind of grabbing as most little ones don’t have really good grip control and can hurt when they pull and tug on an dog especially an older dog.

It should not have to come down to a choice for you between the dog you love and the child you love.

It really just has to come down to always remembering that baby doesn’t know she may be hurting the dog and your dog is telling baby with a growl “please stop.” Your job is to stop baby before doggie gets to the point where she feels the need to “correct” the baby. There are some simple rules that will help.

Please start out by thinking of your dog like an open pool in your back yard. You would never turn your back on your baby around an open pool. You would never let her dangle her feet in the pool without you right there next to her. You would always be right there to catch her if she fell, etc…

So in light of that – please follow these rules:

  • Dog and baby are never alone together and you are always right between them for now.
  • Baby can only touch dog when you are right there guiding baby as to how to gently touch dog.
  • Dog is never used as a walking helper for baby.
  • Dog is never chased by baby – not with walker, not with toys and not on her own.
  • Baby never wakes the dog, pokes the dog or lands on the dog when dog is sleeping.

In addition to all of these I would suggest some review of basic skills especially the recall command. Very often parents find it easier to call the dog away from baby then to ask baby to stop advancing on a resting dog. This may mean some new or review training either individually or in a classroom.

Too many dogs are euthanized each year because they are viewed as aggressive to their toddler. Much of this can be avoided if we try to understand that for most dogs toddlers can be scary. Most dogs try to warn the toddler away and too many parents punish the dog for the growl. This leads to a dog who feels like they have no alternative but to bite.

Please remember:

The first rule to keeping your child safe from your dog is keeping your dog safe from your child.

Your dog has given you a great gift – she has told you she is uncomfortable with some things baby is doing. Take that gift and return the favor to your dog by following the rules above and teaching or reviewing some really basic skills to keep everyone safe.

15 Responses to Managing Dog Aggression Toward Babies

  1. Kim January 10, 2012 at 8:21 PM #

    Our 3 year old lab mix has been showing food aggression toward our 11 month old son. It doesn’t matter if it is her food or his. She has growled and snipped at him never making contact. She also does this when she is laying and the baby messes with her back legs and such. But she doesn’t care if hangs off her face or neck. I just don’t want a growl and snip to turn into a bite we will regret. What to do?

  2. Angela May 1, 2016 at 6:48 AM #

    Kim,

    What did you end up doing? Right now we have a 5 year old lab/ pit mix. She has started showing aggression towards my 11 month old niece. I was just wondering what you ended up doing with your dog?

    • Lisa May 4, 2016 at 6:49 AM #

      I don’t know what happened in this case because this was an online query and not a local client whose progress I was following.

      I can say that many of my local clients (and myself) have successfully trained and managed our dogs who were less than trilled with the new baby to the point where we could all live happily and safely. I have chronicled my journey through this process in my book “Please Don’t Bite the Baby, and Please Don’t Chase the Dogs.” This book will also give you great tips to help keep kids of any age safe around your dogs.

  3. Amanda August 1, 2016 at 12:33 AM #

    We have a 3 year old GSD who hasn’t really shown much interest in our 8 month old baby. He will tolerate him chasing him around in his walker, doesn’t really care to pay much attention to him… But today he dropped his ball inside the area I have gated where my baby plays. Obviously my 8 month old can’t throw a ball back to the dogs so he was just holding it. My GSD got very mad and charged the gate. If the gate had not been there he would have probably bit him. What am I to do? I won’t be able to contain my baby for much longer he will be walking soon and he will grab toys on the floor. How can I assure that my dog won’t attack him for taking one of his toys?

    • Lisa August 1, 2016 at 2:14 PM #

      Hi Amanda,

      I’m sorry to hear this, but very glad you emailed. First thing on your list is (if you have not already) is pick up a copy of download the electronic version of my book, Please Don’t Bite the Baby. You will find step-by-step training tips in the second half of each chapter. The first half of each chapter is more for you to see via the narrative that you are not alone in this. Your second step will be to contact a local trainer who has experience with kids and dogs. I would go to any of the following websites to look (unless you are near me, then we can speak): Truly Dog Friendly or Family Paws or IAABC.
      Hope this helps and please let me know if you have any other questions.
      All best,
      Lisa

  4. Beth November 8, 2016 at 9:32 PM #

    My mom’s 10yr old dog has recently been following my 8mo old daughter closely. At first I thought he was being sweet and licking her but now I’m not sure because today when my daughter was pulling herself up on the couch he lunged forward and nipped her. He Didnt break the skin but it’s made me very nervous. I generally don’t leave her alone with dogs and always keep her from accidentally tugging on him. She wasn’t even reaching for him just pulling herself up. Any suggestions?

    • Lisa November 9, 2016 at 5:41 AM #

      Thanks for asking this question. Very glad that you have been managing interactions as you daughter grows and your mother’s dog gets used to the every changing little human that he may not completely understand. My first suggestion is to increase management between you mother’s dog and your daughter. I outline a number of different levels of management strategies in “Please Don’t Bite the Baby,” and would strongly suggest picking up a copy to help you go through these steps. Following that, I would review the basic skills your mother’s dog has and work on a few of the really important ones like settle, directional commands like place, out you go, etc., then set up times when you mother’s can watch your daughter playing and exploring her new skills like crawling, pulling herself up, the beginnings of walking, etc. Your mother’s dog should be well rewarded for just watching and doing nothing as your daughter demonstrates the new things that she can do. He is going to have to get used to and happy with her changing right before his eyes. Hope that helps and “Please Don’t Bite the Baby” will give you many more tips and suggestions.

  5. Chiara November 20, 2016 at 7:09 PM #

    I came across this while looking online for information on this issue.
    We adopted our dog Lacey 2 1/2 years ago from the SPCA. She had been a stray so there was no background on her but she was very nervous and fearful/jumpy and excitable. She was also extremely possessive of food and has bitten twice in the past when guarding food. We’ve worked hard to build her confidence through positive reinforcement and she is now no longer scared of people at all and is generally much calmer and relaxed. Her food aggression is much better and we work on this as an ongoing thing but I would still never trust her 100% due to her previous.
    My husband and I plan to start a family in the next 2-3 years but I really want Lacey to be in a good place before we introduce a baby into her life. I also obviously wouldn’t want to risk her causing any harm to a child so I am looking for information on what we can be doing with her to help prepare her for this over the next couple of years. I don’t worry about Lacey doing something to a child for no reason but I worry about what will happen when the baby starts to crawl/walk and if it might do something to bother her or gets too close to a toy/food and she snaps. Is there any advice you can give on what we can be doing for Lacey over the next couple of years before bringing in a baby to the family?
    Is the book available in the UK?

    • Lisa November 30, 2016 at 6:49 AM #

      Hi Chiara,
      Sorry for the delay – the Thanksgiving holiday here slows everything down. “Please Don’t Bite the Baby” would be the perfect book to help you help Lacey get ready for a new baby. You will see a good number of pre-baby tips in there as well as some direct exercises and strategies for once baby arrives. It is available on Amazon, so there should be no problem buying the US edition shipping to UK. Please let me know if you have any problems and good luck!

  6. Kristi January 15, 2017 at 10:15 AM #

    We have a 3 year old St. Bernard mix who we are not sure what to do with. Every since we brought baby home she has been acting strange. She barks uncontrollably and will not come in the house after being outside unless we give her treats and sometimes she will come to the door to be let in, we go to open the door and she runs away. Our son is 7 months old now and we noticed that she tries humping him and will nudge him and whine. She has always had some food aggression but now it’s become so bad that she nips. We have 3 older children 10 and 2 16 year Olds and they cannot even get near her food. We have been showing her more affection and making sure she knows who the pact leader is. She has become extremely unpredictable and seems worse with every step we’ve tried. We are at a point where we are thinking of finding her a new home. She is great with anyou adult but not with any child that comes into our home.

    • Lisa January 16, 2017 at 3:29 PM #

      Hi Kristi,

      I am sorry to hear this. It cannot be a good thing for anyone (k9 or human) in the house.

      There are a number of strategies that I like to implement when I have a client whose dog is not doing well with a new baby. I don’t know where you are located, but ideally a local CDBC (iaabc.org) or CPDT (ccpdt.org) should be able to help you navigate through this. I wish I had a quick answer to these complicated issues, but unfortunately each dog and each household brings different factors. For the resource guarding, be sure to manage feeding so she can be in a quiet place to eat with the least amount of stress. Resource guarding has a very large anxiety component so it is not unusual to see an already existing RGing issue increase when a baby comes home.

      For the humping and nudging. Ideally I don’t let 7 month-old babies and dogs to get that close without me being right next to them, less than arm’s reach. If you follow this, you can redirect your dog with simple commands that she knows and then praise her for complying. My favorite here is the settle command. This is one of the easiest and most complicated commands for our dogs, but ultimately it teaches your dog to just hang out around your baby without doing anything.

      The commands I see from your post that will be the most important are: Settle, Touch, Sit, Down, Come, Leave-it, and Drop-it.

      If you guys are good at training on your own but need guidance for these, “Please Don’t Bite the Baby” has all of these in easy to follow format. If you learn better when someone demonstrates these things, then refer back to the CDBC and CPDT trainer searches.

      I hope this is helpful.

  7. Beth Picha February 26, 2017 at 9:21 PM #

    We have two labs. They will be 11 in March. We have two older children and have never had any problems. About a month ago, my youngest son who is 20 months old and a bit more agressive in general was laying near her and I believe may have leaned too hard on her back lega. Our dog bit him near the top of his head. We were distraught and not sure what to do. We have been very careful to watch him around her and so far so good. Until tonight, the kids were running around the living room chasing eachother with a blanket. The blanket landed on the dog and when my 20month old gently reached for it to pull it off of her, the dog turned to snap at him. Right in front of us. I love thus dog but, this is becoming very concerning as we have neighbors and many other kids near us.

    • Lisa February 27, 2017 at 9:02 AM #

      I am sorry to hear this and can relate to the conflict you must be feeling. At 11 some labs will be suffering (like many of us humans as we get older) age related joint stiffness, and/or soreness. It is also possible hearing has begun to fail a bit (we don’t often see the signs of this when another dog is in the house as many times they act as the other’s hearing or seeing dog). It would be worth a trip to the vet to have a complete physical with a complete blood work up if you have not done that lately.

      Because you son is now well into his toddling phase, this too can spook many dogs who don’t have any aging issues. Toddlers move strangely and unpredictably, which is a trigger for many dogs.

      My fist suggestion is to stand back and ask what are the options – I suspect you have done that. Of all of them is there one that is not great, but not horrible? Usually there is – I like high end management. For dogs who are having trouble adjusting to a new baby, or the new phase of toddling child, I love gates and other physical management techniques. This allow the dog to adjust to the child’s new activity level (because she can still see your son through the gate) in safety. I will then teach a settle on the other side of the gate and when I think everyone is ready begin to bring the dog into the room for the settle when your son is up and about, provided your son can follow your directions, and when he cannot or things get nutty – the dog goes out for the safety of everyone (including the dog)

      We often sigh with disappointment when we are faced with leaving our behoved dog out of the family activity. I have done just this, but I remind myself that having Pinball safely away when my son is playing roughly or running around crazy, allows Pinball to stay with us, and for me not to have to consider re-homing (which for an older dog is very difficult) or other options worse than rehoming.

      In short, I would move heaven and earth to get some good gates with a good lock (I have my favorite on the Threedogstraining.com website in the shop, but you may like others). Then start by having your son and dog separated whenever your attention cannot be fully on the two and you cannot be within elbow to finger reach of your child and dog.

      I will be posting an excerpt from my book “Please Don’t Bite the Baby” on the blog shortly which may help, but there is far more to say about this than fits in a blog. And in the interim “Please Don’t Bite the Baby” is available on Amazon for assistance, AND, it would be a good idea to reach out to some positive reinforcement dog trainers (who have worked with managing kids and dog) in your area. If you are not local to me, look to , ,

      Please keep us posted and we wish you all the best.

  8. Sonya seehafer March 3, 2017 at 9:22 PM #

    Im currently 34weeks pregnant with my first child. We have 3 dogs. Two of them being American bullies. Cross of American bulldog and American staff terrier. One is super sweet and loves every animal person she meets 1 year old. Our 1.5year old male only likes dogs, and not other animals. While preparing them for baby we let them smell an outfit in a doll used by my 6month old niece. Our female smells it and sits. Our male jumps, barks, and bites at the doll. We even let him smell the outfit before putting it on the doll and he was fine, but then walking around he was trying to attack it. Is this something that can be corrected or does baby and dog always have to be separated?

    • Lisa March 4, 2017 at 6:24 AM #

      Hi Sonya,
      Thanks for asking these questions before baby arrives – it helps the dogs a lot. Separation/management is the best way to be sure everyone is safe and allow you to arrange times to begin training the behaviors you want to see from your dogs around the baby. This is the tricky part with three dogs – time to train! I like to train my dogs to settle around the baby, get out on a cue (usually returning to a gated portion of the house), drop-it and leave-it. There are many, many other skills, but the first rule is to keep everyone safe so you can “live to train another day” as the saying goes with a little dog training twist. I usually recommend the “Please Don’t Bite the Baby” book because there are so many tips outlined, how to train, how to manage, what to look for, when to move on the the next step. And, if you don’t want to read the memoir portion (although it is there to give context as to why we do certain things), you can go directly to the tips section of each chapter – E-book would allow that easily. Unfortunately, there is no one thing that will keep baby safe around dogs, and there are many options to help the dogs behave better around our babies. Please don’t stop working with your dogs – and again, thanks for thinking of them ahead of time!

      Best of Luck!

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