Family life

Is your new dog nipping, humping or playing rough with your kids?

If your dog’s behaviour around your kids isn't quite what you'd hoped for, a canine behaviour practitioner has advice you can try today.

Purchases and adoptions of dogs have spiked since last March, when we were asked to stay home. And as I’ve said before, while this is great news for dogs—especially those who’ve been sprung from shelters—lots of families are discovering that dog ownership isn’t always a walk in the park. As a canine behaviour practitioner, I’ve received lots of questions from new dog owners since COVID-19 began. Here are the most common ones, and some answers.

My new rescue dog loves us but seems nervous and freaked out by my toddler. I can’t expect a two-year-old to be quiet and still all the time. What should I do? 

New rescue dogs need a lot of time and space to adjust and learn to feel safe. Toddlers are really hard for a lot of dogs, even ones with ideal genetics and socialization histories. Toddlers move in ways that are completely unpredictable, they can be loud, and they often have really noisy toys, too. While most humans might like to be hugged when they’re sad, the vast majority of dogs do not.

Dogs and children should always be supervised together and this is especially true for toddlers. It is important that your dog has access to a safe space to get away from your child. For parents of infants and toddlers, I highly recommend checking out Family Paws. They have some great free resources to help parents understand exactly how to manage dogs and very young children safely together. They have a fabulous online webinar on dogs and toddlers and a network of certified Family Paws Parent Educators who can provide 1 on 1 support.

Our puppy was so gentle when we got him at eight weeks, but now he’s eight months old and it’s like he’s completely ignoring all the training. And now he is nipping at my kids, which makes me wonder if we should rehome him.

At eight months, your dog is a teenager. The teenage and early adult months are a time when dogs can have more difficulty regulating their emotions and it’s normal for teenage dogs to seem like they’ve forgotten the lessons from puppy class. Fears and phobias tend to emerge in this stage. Many dogs also change in their social preferences; it’s normal for puppies to love absolutely everyone and for adolescent dogs to become pickier about their human and canine friends. The world can be pretty overwhelming for teenage dogs and owners need to be aware that stress builds on top of stress. “Trigger stacking” happens when dogs are exposed to many things in the environment that make them excited, worried, or afraid. Teenage dogs need their humans to help them navigate these developmental changes, make them feel safe and protected, and to use gentle methods to teach them what is expected of them.

Nipping the kids can mean a few different things. Some dogs might nip at kids who are running by because they’re overly excited in the situation. There’s also fear-based nipping. And dogs might also nip or bite when they’re guarding resources or territory. The key to successful training is understanding the underlying motivations for the behaviour. When there are concerns about aggression, it’s especially important to get the help of a qualified trainer or behaviour practitioner.

Active supervision is key here and it’s important to create a safe space where your dog can get away from the commotion of kids. A “doggie den” will help keep everyone safe together.

Your dog will need you to teach him what is expected. Many dogs need their humans to teach them how to be calm. This is especially true in busy households—when there’s lots of commotion, dog’s stress hormones can be chronically elevated. You can help your dog regulate his emotions and behaviour by providing lots of opportunities for relaxing activities, and low-key excursions where he gets to engage in doggie meditation (i.e. sniffing). One of my favourite things to teach dogs is how to settle on a mat. Kikopup has some great videos on their YouTube channel to help people learn to train their dogs. Here’s a good one on teaching a calm settle.

It’s also important to consider the humans. How well do the kids understand your dog’s stress signals? Are the kids engaging in behaviours around the dog that are provoking the behaviour? Teaching kids how to read canine body language and interact respectfully with dogs is a big job, but we owe it to our dogs and our kids to do this well. There are lots of great books and tools on this. I recommend the Dog Decoder app, the book Doggie Language, and, for younger children, the Dog Detective colouring pages by Family Paws Parent Education.  I also suggest parents check out the resources at thefamilydog.com/stop-the-77/.

You mentioned that you’re wondering about rehoming. Decisions around rehoming can be terribly difficult. Saying goodbye to a beloved pet is very painful for kids. Often, it’s awful for dogs. They are social animals who form strong attachment bonds with their families. Unfortunately, rehoming isn’t as easy as people think. Most people do not want to adopt dogs with emotional baggage and behavioural problems However, the bottom line must be safety. When families are unable to keep their kids safe with their dog and/or the dog safe with the kids, it can be best to find the dog a more suitable situation. If you do decide to rehome, working with a reputable rescue organization can give your dog the best possible chance of finding a safe and suitable home.

My dog keeps humping my three-year-old. How do I get him to stop?

Dogs hump for a lot of different reasons and a big one is overarousal, meaning excitement rather than sexual. When your dog starts to hump, the best thing to do is to calmly redirect them to another activity. This is a great time to give them a stuffed Kong, engage your dog in a “treat scatter” (toss some treats around the floor), or another enrichment activity. You can also look for signs that predict humping is about to happen. Does it happen mostly when your son is excited? When your dog has just come in from an arousing run at the park? If you can start to predict the situation and see warning signs, you’ll be able to gently redirect your dog before the humping actually begins.

My kids are a bit rough with our dog. They put their hands in her mouth, pretend to “ride” her like a horse and grab her fur. She is a total sweetheart and completely tolerates it, so do I need to make my kids stop?

Any dog can bite. A dog can put up with uncomfortable and scary behaviour for a long time and then “snap.” According to the Stop the 77 campaign, 77 percent of dog bites to children come from a family dog or a friends’ dog. Most parents do not think this will happen in their home. This is a problem for kids and families, but arguably an even bigger problem for dogs as dogs who bite kids often end up relinquished and euthanized.

There need to be some clear ground rules around interacting with the dog. Supervision is key. Kids who might make a dog feel afraid or uncomfortable should not be interacting with dogs at all unless there is supervision. This is another situation where management is really important to consider. Creating a “doggie den” where your dog is able to be left alone and relax will be important for her. And you’ll need to put lots of work in with the kids to teach the kids to understand and respect your sweet dog’s body language. Your dog will need you to set firm limits with the kids to make sure she can feel safe in her home.

My kids love petting all the different dogs at the off-leash dog park. What should I teach them about interacting with new dogs?

I believe we should be teaching all kids—not just those who have dogs—how to interact safely with dogs. While young kids are most often bitten by the family dog, recent research suggests that kids in the 10-14 year old age group, bites most often come from dogs outside of the family.

The big thing to teach kids is that dogs should always get to choose whether or not they’re touched. Most kids are taught to ask the dog’s owner if they can pet the dog, but it’s important to also ask the dog! Dog’s Trust in the UK has some great handouts to help parents teach their kids dog safety and I like to use their approach. Here are the steps:

  1. Approach calmly to the dog’s side and stop at least an arm’s length away. Humans like to greet face to face, but head on greetings can make dogs nervous.
  2. Ask the dog’s owner if you can pet the dog. If the owner says yes, you can say “hello.” But here’s the trick: Don’t stick the hand out. The “sniff test” that most of us were taught is actually an unsafe way to greet a dog. Dogs’ noses are so powerful they can detect cancer—we don’t need to help them smell us by putting a hand in their face.
  3. Wait for the dog to approach. If she does, great! Dogs prefer to be pet gently on their side or shoulder. For most dogs, being pet on the top of the head is scary. If the dog doesn’t approach, then she’s saying “no thank you” and it’s time to move away calmly.
  4. Be sure the dog can choose to move away at any time. If she does, then let her go on her way.

Your children will need you to support and give them reminders about their interactions with dogs, but it’s worth the effort. You’ll help keep them safe around dogs and might even be giving them tools—like a strong understanding of the importance of seeking consent before touching—that can help them be safer in their future relationships with other humans.

We’re having a lot of problems with our dog and want to hire a trainer or behaviour practitioner.  There are plenty in my city, but how should I choose? What should I be looking for?

Dog training and behaviour work are unregulated professions. This means that anyone can hang out a shingle claiming to be a dog trainer! In the last decades, science has taught us so much about dogs. We understand a lot about dogs’ emotions, how they learn, and what they need to flourish in their lives. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of what many of us were taught about dogs has been proven wrong. For example, we used to think that dogs needed humans to dominate them and be “alphas”, but that’s not the case. There are still lots of trainers and television celebrities peddling punitive approaches to dog training, even though we now know that dogs learn best using positive rewards like toys, treats, and play. It’s especially important that families with children use positive methods. Kids can learn a lot from their relationships with dogs; instead of teaching them to use force and fear to control other beings, we can use positive methods to teach our children that relationships with those we love should be based in mutual respect, listening and care.

This article by Zazie Todd gives a detailed overview of different kinds of training approaches and what to look for in a trainer. The BC SPCA has created a helpful guide for people looking for trainers. Their list includes things like: ensuring the trainer uses positive rewards and humane, science-based methods; that they ensure training is fun (and not stressful!) for both you and your dog; that the trainer will take time to teach you about dog body language and behaviour; and they treat both you and your dog with respect. Families might have some of their own criteria–for example, you might want to find a trainer who is willing to include children in the training. Finding a trainer that fits for you is like finding the right teacher or psychologist–the right match is important.  I recommend interviewing trainers before signing on to make sure they’re a fit. And if, at any point, you feel that your dogs’ mental health and well-being are compromised by the training or it’s not a fit for you, don’t be afraid to try someone else.