Doggo with a grudge
June 14, 2020 9:35 AM   Subscribe

We adopted a dog a few months ago. He's awesome. Good natured, energetic, and sweet. He's always been good with kids, our son and others. But on Friday a few kids came over for a water gun fight (socially distanced fun! try it!) and the visiting kids were aggressive with spraying him. Since then, he has taken to being standoffish around kids, even ours occasionally. He sometimes growls now (softly, but still) at kids who reach to pet him (when he used to love attention from kids of all ages.) How do we get him to trust kiddos again?

We are definitely not scolding him for the growling, as we understand it's an early warning and far preferable to biting. And again, it's pretty mild, only faintly audible growling, not threatening/menacing growling. And we are having kids give him his space for now. But we'd sure like to see the dopey playmate dog our kid and the handful of friend kids in our social bubble have enjoyed all summer and not this growling, vaguely intimidating grouch. What can we do to help him feel safe so that he can enjoy kids again?

He has warmed up to our kid again and is even tentatively okay with kiddo's best friend now. So it seems surmountable. But for both now and going forward, how do we help him feel good about kids?

(If it matters, doggo is a three year old 65 pound Boxer-Labrador mix. He is very handsome a good, good boy..)
posted by DirtyOldTown to Pets & Animals (17 answers total)
Best answer: It will probably just take a little time, and a pattern of low-key interactions with kids who treat him gently and kindly. For now, focus on making sure your own kids are gentle with him, and supervising any interactions with others that might get out of hand.

I'd also suggest keeping those other kids away from him for now, until you can be sure that they understand that they can't treat him that way. This could be a good time to teach everyone involved that animals have feelings and can be not just physically but emotionally hurt by "aggressive" play, even if it's unintentional.
posted by rpfields at 9:55 AM on June 14, 2020 [22 favorites]

It's sad that you weren't able to stop the kids' behavior in time, but you should be able to backtrack it with educating the kids and practicing positive reinforcement with the dog. It may take a few months, but you need to undo the damage, and that can take a while. When you talk to the kids about how this was really not cool, you can engage them in rebuilding trust with the dog, which will help everyone.

Start with not allowing the kids around the dog, which you are doing. Great! Then let them start feeding him, giving him treats, etc. This is all on the dog's timeline, not yours or the kids. Remember to let them know (and explain why, total teachable moment) to move slowly around the dog, teach them how to know when to back off based on the dog's body language, etc. Only positive behaviors, and only when the dog offers up attention to the kids, not the other way around.

And your beautiful dog is not a grouch. That just shows that it might be a good time to learn a bit more about dogs (there is so much new and amazing information out now). Of course he's shut down. He feels unsafe in his own home, which is still new to him. The timing kinda sucks, as this happened right at the time he started settling and feeling safe. Slow, and on his terms is the way to go.
posted by MountainDaisy at 10:47 AM on June 14, 2020 [13 favorites]

Additional thing: if there are kids around, make sure that pupper has a way to get away from them if he wants to. And when he wants to, respect that and make the kids respect that.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 10:58 AM on June 14, 2020 [11 favorites]

Real talk, you need to be not putting the dog in a situation where growling happens at all, because it's an indicator of active stress. Also, someone's going to get bit and it will not be the dog's fault but it probably will mean the dog's death. No more kids reaching for him if that is what makes him growl. You know the old thing about a rolled-up newspaper? Hit yourself with one every time the dog growls, because that's a failure on your part to control the situation, which is your job.

Your dog isn't a grouch, he's traumatized. And actively afraid on a regular basis because of it, which is sad for him and dangerous for everyone.

No more reaching/touching until the dog can relax in a room with kids. The dog needs to be able to trust you, as the pack leader, to protect him, which means you need to keep the kids on one side of the room and yourself between them, with calm but firm energy. Have the dog do basic behaviors (sit, shake) for high value treats in the presence of the stressor, as a means of reminding him that you are being a leader AND watching out for his safety. Eventually, your kid can step in as co-leader (when they've earned it, and also learned how to recognize your dog's stress signals) and do this. You need to be mindful nobody's blocking the dog's exit paths from the room, nobody's being aggressive, no hard stares.

Over time, if the dog shows general relaxed body language around individual Friends of Kid, the friend can offer a treat just for an approach, and then maybe a second treat for a respectfully-requested sit.

As a pet owner, sometimes you have to traumatize your animal a little bit (moves, medical treatment, grooming) but this was entirely by choice, and dogs know the difference between "leader making me do the thing even though I don't wanna" and cruelty, which they don't know why it started or how it stopped and so there can be some long-term effects that are strange and/or unpredictable. Most dogs don't have extremely detailed long-term memories and you can get past this with time and work, but most dogs do have a couple of things that never really go away (I had a 14-year old dog who spent his entire life looking for the liver treats we put in his bowl when he was 2 months old to get him to eat dry kibble; he probably didn't even remember what he was looking for, only that he had to look) and there may always be a little trigger left here, it'll be your job to watch for it.

It's worth your kid and kid's friends learning how to be kind and respectful to animals, because it's not instinctual (and empathy isn't instruction), but also because you've probably used up your one free pass, if you get one, on this.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:52 AM on June 14, 2020 [30 favorites]

This could be a good time to teach everyone involved that animals have feelings and can be not just physically but emotionally hurt by "aggressive" play, even if it's unintentional.

It sounds like your dog (like lots of dogs and lots of people!) gets upset by kids squirting water in his face. The way it happened taught your dog that some kids will do this to him and that he can’t trust you to watch his back and stop it for him. So, now he’s attempting to protect himself by warning the kids not to upset him (the growling).

You need to rebuild his trust that your kid won’t try to squirt him and that you’re looking out for him. I’d recommend playing a nice water-free game with the dog and your kid and his friend, something your dog particularly likes. Next time the group of kids is over, I wouldn’t let him run free around the water fight, but you could leash the dog and bring him to observe it with you, showing him that the kids won’t squirt him and you’re in charge (of course, you have to make sure the kids will obey).

This will happen from time to time with a dog! There are a lot of complicated books and shows about interpreting dog thinking, but once you get to know your dog they’re pretty easy to read because they have feelings just like people do. I know dogs that would love nothing more than to be squirted with water, but mine would hate it just like yours does.
posted by sallybrown at 11:52 AM on June 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

What can we do to help him feel safe so that he can enjoy kids again?

don't try to convince the dog that nobody is going to run at him screaming or squirt a water gun at him if you don't have complete control over every child situation & complete confidence that this is true. I am not about to accuse you of gaslighting a dog but like. that's what it would be. it would be a cruel trick to make him feel safe if he isn't safe.

so no water guns in children's hands while he's outside, at all. and no stranger kids in his home territory who you don't know and absolutely trust.

if he growls at a kid, take it as an opportunity to educate the kid about why he does that (specifically; tell the story). most kids think of themselves as members of a put-upon and powerless class of person, which they are compared to adults, but which they are not compared to animals. they might not understand what a threat they can represent even to a dog as large as they are. actually they definitely won't understand that if they haven't been told.

not everyone thinks of a dog as a person, entitled to the courtesies we give persons, and that's fine. but some people think of a dog as a mobile entertainment system, a summertime amenity like an ice-cream truck, and that's not. a dog that isn't fun for kids isn't at fault for anything and if it needs to be helped, that ought to be for his sake and not to make him a better performer. a super important lesson for kids to learn as early as possible.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:08 PM on June 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Couple of clarifications: it should have been clear above, but since it may not have been, our kid never sprayed him.

The dog doesn't growl in the mere presence of children, only if they attempt to pet him when he doesn't want. We noticed this and for the time being insist that kids give him his space, again, as stated above.

His only interaction with kids at this point is by his own choosing, as he still is excited to see kids and approaches them with tail wagging and friendliness. He just gets sort of wary of them pretty quickly, as though he is remembering he holds a grudge but with a delayed reaction. The growls themselves are mild, roughly equivalent to Marge Simpson's trademark noise. No one has ever done anything but leave him alone when he makes the noise.

At all times except these moments, he is the same friendly goofball. He does not seem upset or sad and relishes playing, at least with the three of us.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:35 PM on June 14, 2020

Best answer: A lot of people don't know that approaching a dog sideways can be really helpful. I used to foster dogs a lot, and almost all of them come with some trauma, so there are always behavioral issues to address. I did a lot of reading and watching dog stuff, and one of the things I learned was that coming alongside a dog and not looking directly at it when it's in alert mode (or is exhibiting fear aggression) can give them time to calm down, to relax. So maybe when he approaches, before any sudden, clumsy kid-style interactions (I had a few fosters like that, where they were fine in all other respects but the sudden jerky kid movements and loud voices would turn their space-issue dials up to 11) could happen, I asked the kids if they could turn sort of sideways and hold their hand out palm up, not far, and see if it was okay to pet.

It was also the way I introduced some of them to guests, because it gave the dog time to sniff and decide if humans were okay or not. For a lot of dogs, direct eye contact and facing forward seems to be a threat, and even just looking away while you hold a treat, not staring directly down at them, helps. It wasn't always 100 percent successful, but I've seen a lot of dogs who were absolutely terrified or ramping up aggression get mellower when I just sat beside them, or turned slightly away while I was leashing them, or whatnot. If you watch any dog rescue videos, you will often see rescuers doing this, too.

I think if he's excited to see kiddos, asking them to turn slightly away and listen for that growl to know if it's okay to get closer, giving high value treats, etc., slowly and without a lot of high-pitched noises, just quiet kind of sideways behavior, might help a lot. Dogs have short memories, yeah, but they hold on to certain things, especially painful experiences, sometimes. Or even good things--one of my fosters found some sparerib bones on the side yard once, and forever after it became the place we had to stop to see if new rib bones had magically dropped down from heaven. Every freaking day. Getting him to start associating only good things might take some time, so whatever helps motiveate that--toys, treats, couch time--quietly, nonconfrontationally, could help.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:57 PM on June 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: What you are describing about a delayed reaction is very normal - he likes kids enough to want to interact with them, but then he's like "wait are they gonna spray me?", this is when you get to step in and call him away and reward him for being a good boy.

That he's bouncing back so quickly is a great sign. It sounds like he's not sure how to feel about the whole thing which means that the more guidance you give the better - what do you want him to do when kids are rowdy and running around? (I'm a big fan of getting dogs to carry a ball in this scenario because it occupies mouths.)

I would caution you to watch for discomfort around rowdy, excited, and energetic kids for the time being. I would review "no hugging, no holding legs/tails, no chasing" with kiddos too just to be safe. If the kids want to play tag or have another water fight, bring him in and give him an amazing snack to keep him busy.

You want multiple short excellent experiences with kids. If you're standing there going "hmm it's going well but it feels a little long... maybe I should..." go ahead and call him out for a little break. Breaks are good!
posted by buteo at 1:00 PM on June 14, 2020 [7 favorites]

Goodness, what a fine-looking dog.

YMMV: Sacrifice one of the water guns. Show your dog that it's no longer in the house.

1) Call dog into kitchen
2) Give dog treat, praise
3) Show dog side of water gun (not pointed at him; two-finger pinch on top of barrel)
4) Throw gun in kitchen trash bin
5) Give dog treat, praise
6) With dog at your side, take out the trash
7) Give dog treat, praise

Then go on being gentle with him, keeping the kids well away until he's seeking them out again. And if your kids ever want to use their remaining (stored away when he wasn't watching) water guns, the dog isn't present for it. Maybe your new socially-distanced group play activity is Frisbee.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:33 PM on June 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Another pic of our very good boy, Rango.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 3:37 PM on June 14, 2020 [7 favorites]

Whenever kids (especially the kids with the guns) come over to your house, get them to give your dog treats and praise. No more water guns around him! Eventually your dog will hopefully associate kids with good things and look forward to seeing them but it will take a bit of work.
posted by Jubey at 4:25 PM on June 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Bonus Rango: rolling in the grass.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:27 PM on June 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

You've gotten great advice here already but just chiming in to say that water is used as a light aversion tactic by some dog trainers (I've even known positive reinforcement trainers who used this sparingly.) The idea behind it is that the dog will connect the behavior just prior to the spray with the thing they don't like.

It sounds like in this situation he was being subjected to something he disliked without any way for him to create a cause-and-effect connection that might explain why it's happening and how to avoid it, which is stressful and confusing. I agree with the comment above that says he probably doesn't know what you want him to be doing in this situation!

If he likes chasing balls, having your kids play (supervised) fetch with him would be a great replacement for water fights and would help him rebuild trust in kids in general and continue to bond with your kids specifically.
posted by superfluousm at 7:01 AM on June 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

Being sprayed with water was seen as a punishment or even an attack by the dog, some dogs have no problems with water being squirted on them & some do, they're a bit like people like that. So he is rightly cautious of the kids as he wasn't having fun he was in his mind being bullied and harassed.

A lot of the dogs confusion is that when dogs play together appeasement gestures if one hurts the other even accidentally are a very big part of play. Dogs "apologize" & respect other dogs boundaries unless being aggressive By continuing to squirt Rango, in Rangos mind these are dangerous beings that kept being aggressive when he asked them not to, they didn't offer appeasement gestures so what other bigger scarier things might they do even if he asks them politely not to. He is still being a good boy & still trying to politely ask, just in a way he thinks is clearer. "He's saying very clearly, please don't touch me you are too unpredictable.

It is very sumountable.

Have them sit quietly on the floor, sideways or back to the dog holding delicious tasty best ever treats. Have them quietly throw the treats on the floor between them & Rango, without looking directly at him. If he seems fine with that & everyone is calm, have they throw the treats slowly closer & closer. Have them then hold out a treat on the flat of their hand, let him come & take the treat if he wants it. Have them slowly start talking to him & then move to sitting on a chair, still giving treats. When he is used to taking treats from their hands without signs of stress or growling let them work up to patting him. Do not let them pat his face at first. Butt or body coming in from the side is a lot less stressful Dogs can be surprisingly forgiving if the misadventures aren't repeated, time, gentleness & treats go a long way. Let him decide how & when he approaches the kids, just make the kids the holders of the tasty best treats & let him have a safe kid free space that they leave him alone in, be it a bed or a crate in a quiet room.

This should take place over many days/weeks in small 2 or 3 minute sessions several times a day under adult supervision.
posted by wwax at 9:39 AM on June 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

My dog does reading therapy with kids of all ages. I just thought I'd pass along something we were taught in our certification classes. They taught us that we are our dogs advocates. We must watch for early signs of distress like yawning or drooling or excessive panting. We need to de-escalate a stressful situation immediately and the surest way to do it is to remove the dog from the situation.

I suggest that for the time being, an adult who knows the signs of oncoming doggy stress, must always be around when kids play with your dog. If the dog becomes stressed it's time to take the dog elsewhere and do something fun with him that will help him relive his stress energy. Definitely do NOT remove the dog and throw him outside by himself or lock him in the garage by himself, or anything the dog may view as punishment, or the problem is likely to get worse. What you're going for is redirecting the dogs brain to something fun and happy for about 10 mins. Then just let him go about his business, no kids for awhile.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 3:27 PM on June 15, 2020

Response by poster: We let doggo have his own space when kids were around for a while and coached the kids in our bubble to give him space and leave him alone when he grumbled. He was back to normal within a few weeks, with our son's extremely kind bff being the first to be be allowed back in. These days, he loves all kids again. He's back to being a big ol' marshmallow.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:47 AM on August 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

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