Kathy Sdao, an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in Tacoma, pictured above with her dog Effie, answers this week's question.
Question: A young couple adopted a dog as a 1-year-old. The dog has some obvious separation-anxiety issues, but is a sweet animal. The couple have discovered, by taking the dog on walks, that he doesn’t like kids. He growls and acts aggressive. The couple want to start a family and are concerned about the dog harming a baby or toddler or their child’s friends. What advice can you give the owners?
Answer: Good news. This is one pair of prospective parents not in denial about the possible risk their dog poses to kids.
All dogs – young or old, sweet or shy, big or small – can bite. And all young kids behave unpredictably at times. So even if this dog behaved like Lassie on walks when kids were nearby, I’d urge the couple to learn everything they can about dog body-language, proper socialization, positive training and humane confinement options.
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That said, I’d bet good money that this young dog’s unpleasant behavior on leash around kids isn’t an indication he doesn’t like them. More likely, he’s ignorant. Or intimidated. Or both.
The dog probably has spent little time interacting with young humans in situations that create good will: ones where his owners have ensured the dog will develop pleasant associations (i.e., the presence of kids = treat, play, praise) and have given the dog some control over his proximity to the kids.
Instead, the leash has limited the dog’s behavioral choices. While a leash is necessary on public walks, it doesn’t provide the ideal opportunity for learning fluent, nuanced social skills, unless the owners are careful to prevent it from getting taut and to avoid using it to deliver punishment (i.e., leash pops or “corrections”).
The presence of a leash may actually set up the dog for inappropriate socialization attempts. Owners may compel the dog to get closer to kids than the dog prefers.