Many parents have dogs long before they have kids, and those dogs become their first babies. I had a Rottweiler and an akita at home when I gave birth to my oldest, and those pups were my everything before I had my son. I was lucky that my husband was extremely adept at training them before the baby was born, and never had any problems, but that's not always the case. For many, their babies and dogs just don't mix. But what can you try before rehoming a dog that's bad with kids?
The idea of having to rehome a dog you've grown to love is heartbreaking, but equally heartbreaking is for that dog to harm your child in any way. Kids whose first experience with a dog is a negative one tend to develop a deep fear of dogs that becomes overwhelming in adulthood. There are thousands of bites each year, and around 30 bite-related fatalities, according to DogsBite.org. The top two dog breeds for bite-related fatalities are pit bulls and Rottweilers — the dogs most often associated with aggressive behavior. However, the third highest ranking goes to the Labrador and lab mixes, proving that it's not just the breed that's the problem. However, there are strategies like confinement, therapy, and training that can help in a situation with an aggressive dog.
I spoke with former K-9 trainer and now avid dog foster and rehabilitation specialist, Gerard Shapiro of Brooklyn, New York, and he invited me to his facility to meet some dogs that were considered un-adoptable by the kill shelters. He shares with Romper his techniques for rehabbing pups, and gives some options for stressed parents and dog owners.
1. Know Your Limits
If the dog was in an abusive or neglectful situation, if the dogs are aggressive to you, if you've tried, tried again, got help, and the dog is still aggressive — it's time to rehome. "There are some dogs who aren't cut out for kids, as much as I hate to say it," Shapiro says. "Yeah sure, you might be able to calm it down, or decrease the food aggression, but some dogs, especially old dogs, can't and shouldn't be around children. And remember, even a Yorkie-poo can do damage to a baby."
2. Get Professional Help
"Don't think you can do it on your own unless you're a professional," Shapiro says. You need outside influence and an extra pair of eyes to get a grip on your wayward pooch. Find someone who specializes in rehabilitating dogs who live with children and work with them in conjunction with your veterinarian for the greatest benefit.
3. Confine Your Dog
Keep your dog separate from your child. Fencing, crating, space separation — whatever it takes. While they're learning each other, keep them separate.
4. Teach Your Child How To Interact With Your Dog
This is easier said than done, especially with the littlest ones. Do your best to instruct your child in the proper behavior to have around your pooch. "Don't let your child play near their food, with their toys, on their bed, tug their tail, anything like that," says Shapiro. Mutual respect goes a long way with dogs. Shapiro showed me how to approach a dog, and how to show a child. It's calm, assertive, and you show them the back of your hand to smell first, allowing them to come to you. "Dogs don't like hugs and kisses if they don't like the person giving them. This is a big cause of dog bites," says Shapiro, "and they're usually to the face."
5. You Need To Play With Your Dog
Get on your pup's level. "Play with your dog as much as you can to assure them you didn't forget about them, and to get them used to being played with. If your dog gets aggressive with you, that's another layer of problem that you'll have to deal with. But you need to be the alpha, the leader of the pack," Shapiro explains.
This is a strategy for smaller dogs and for dogs that are primarily just wary and not aggressive. Confine your dog, but in sight of the dog bowl. Allow them to see your child filling the bowl, giving them water and let your child drop a treat to them in a safe way. Then reward your dog for being calm. This lets your dog associate your child with good things. "This isn't for the 150-pound junkyard mutt, even though they can be some of the best and sweetest beasts. This is for the angry Bichon or the Jack Russell who's terrified of your toddler," Shapiro says.
7. Be Extremely Consistent
When you feed your dog, when you walk your dog, when you crate them at night — it should all be at the same time every day. You also need to watch them consistently, play with them consistently, and praise good behavior consistently. Dogs are essentially toddlers and you should treat them as such. "A lot of aggression comes from a disruption to routine. They need it as much as we do. Try to keep it going," notes Shapiro.
8. Know The Warning Signs
"A lot of bites happen because parents don't know what to look for and haven't taught their kids," Shapiro says. He points to a relaxed dog — his tail is wagging, his mouth is open, and his tongue is lolling out in only the way a big dog's can. His eyes are open and shining, and he almost looks like he's smiling. "That's the face of a happy dog. A nervous dog will have a closed mouth, or he'll show his teeth. His tail either swishes slowly or it's down, and his hackles will begin to rise — but that's hard to see on curly coated or silky coat breeds." Shapiro says dogs may look down and away a bit, but they will keep their eyes on the predator. If your dog is asleep or not paying attention, be sure to keep your child away. Your child should not startle or wake a sleeping or relaxed dog.
9. Never Leave Them Alone Together & Keep Yourself Between Them
Never leave your dog and child alone together and always place yourself between them if they're playing in the same room. You have to be the supervision and the buffer between your dog and your child. "You're the dog in charge, as your dog sees it, so you need to be there, otherwise they might think they're in charge in the interim," Shapiro says.
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