Dear Jelena …
Is it ok for a dog to growl when they have their bone in their dog bed and a child approaches in a manner that the dog views as possible attempt to take the bone away?
What is appropriate behavior by a dog to warn a child that the child is pushing boundaries?
The behavioral term for a dog showing threatening or aggressive behavior when its toys or food are approached is “resource guarding.” Most dogs display resource guarding at least to some extent. Nobody likes having their things taken away. However, resource guarding can be a dangerous behavior, and is among the most common behavioral problems seen in dogs relinquished to shelters. When managing a household that includes a dog and children, it’s important to set boundaries for both.
From your letter, it looks like you understand that children should respect a dog’s limits. The best cure is always prevention, and teaching kids not to reach for a dog’s bone while she is in her bed chewing it is a good way to prevent a bite before it happens. However, the dog has to hold up her end of the bargain as well, and it’s an adult’s responsiblity to set her up for success in doing so.
The vast majority of dogs who occasionally growl when disturbed in the middle of chewing a favorite bone are safe family dogs and will never bite. However, if growling at a child is too often reinforced by the child’s removal from the situation, some dogs will put two and two together and think that growling at children is an appropriate way to get some peace and quiet. Teach children to respect a dog that is signaling she’s had enough, but take it a step further: Provide a way for the dog to have her need for privacy met without showing aggression.
The Alone Zone
I recommend that all families with kids and dogs establish a doggie alone zone in the home. The alone zone is a place where the dog knows she will not be disturbed. With crate trained dogs, the crate should always be an alone zone, and to provide additional space for quietly chewing a toy or bone, a playpen can be attached to the crate, with a dog bed in the playpen. If your dog isn’t crate trained, choose a quiet area where she likes to spend time, place her bed in that area, and mark off a couple of feet around the bed as her space.
Brightly colored tape, a plastic carpet runner, a rug, or anything that differentiates the dog’s alone zone from the rest of the room can be used. Explain to children that the alone zone is the dog’s “bedroom,” and just like their own bedrooms and your bedroom, it’s a private space. They should understand that going into the dog’s alone zone while she’s using it is a privilege reserved for adults, and that you also will respect the dog’s privacy in her space unless you need to enter for an important reason.
Most dogs need little training to learn that children will not enter the area you’ve established for them. If your dog seems overstimulated while the kids play noisily, lead her quietly to the alone zone and reward her with a treat or chew for staying there. As long as the children stick to the rules, she’ll soon learn that she can retreat to her designated area to indicate she needs to be left alone. Teaching your dog to use retreating to her alone zone, rather than growling, to signal her boundaries are being tested, will prevent conflicts.
But there’s more to preventing tension in the household than just providing a quiet area. You can teach your dog not just to escape curious little fingers when she wants to chew a favorite toy, but also to welcome the curious little fingers while outside her alone zone.
Make a Trade
Resource guarding can be prevented and mitigated by playing a simple game with your dog. Start by handing her something that she will take in her mouth, but that is not of a high value to her. Then, offer her a second object that is of slightly higher value. As soon as she drops the first object, praise her and hand over the second object. Continue to make trades until you reach her very favorite thing in the world, whether it’s raw steak or a tennis ball.
Practice the trading game for about five minutes several times a day. When your dog is eagerly spitting out one item in anticipation of receiving the next, it’s time to pair trading with a verbal cue. “Give,” or “Swap me,” work well. Say your cue clearly as your dog drops each item. You should aim to pair the cue with the moment that she opens her mouth to release an item.
After associating the verbal cue with the act of dropping an item for several trading sessions, start offering just the cue, rather than holding out your item for a trade. If she drops her item, immediately praise her and reward her with the item you’ve been hiding. The objective is for her to trust that any time she hears your verbal cue, if she spits out what she’s holding, she will get something better in return.
When you can trade items with your dog using the verbal cue you’ve chosen, teach the children to make trades with her. Ensure that they understand they are never to ask her to give up a possession if they don’t know they’ve got something better to give her in exchange. With young children, it’s best to teach them to swap for a specific favorite toy or treat, rather than to allow them to make their own choices as to which objects are high-value to your dog.
If you teach a child that, “You may ONLY ask the dog to drop her toy IF you use the cue ‘Swap Me’ AND you have a piece of canned chicken to trade for it,” the kid will be less likely to try to trade pocket lint or army men for the dog’s favorite bone.
Have the children practice making trades with the dog under your supervision. They should also learn to give her some simple verbal commands, like “sit,” and “stay,” and to reward her for performing the correct behavior in response. A dog who sees the family children as friends who happen to give tasty treats when obeyed is not likely to growl at them. If little hands reaching for her bone (while she’s NOT in her alone zone) are a precursor to a great reward for giving it up, she’ll welcome, rather than growl at, the little hands.
The occasional growl, by itself, is not generally cause for concern; however, any behavior that raises an eyebrow can be a training opportunity. Teaching a behavior that allows you to get an object away from your dog is useful in many ways. Imagine being able to simply say, “Swap me,” if your dog has picked up a rotting dead thing on a walk, and having her drop it in exchange for a reward. Likewise, creating an area where children know they mustn’t disturb the dog is useful not just because it can prevent a conflict over the dog’s possessions. Dogs who become stressed by the arrival of guests, for example, can benefit from using an alone zone as a refuge from umpteen “Oooh what a cute poochie!” shrieks and pats.
Finally, let me emphasize again that raising dogs and children together is always a balancing act, but the benefits of raising kids who have fond memories of their time toddling around with the family dog are completely worth the effort.
If you have a pet related question that you would like Jelena Woehr to answer here in our “PetLvr Mailbag” series … send your question to jelena (at) PetLvr (dot) com