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Dogs and Babies

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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The Dominant Dog

The dominant dog is that somewhat pushy, overconfident and willful individual whose behavior often ranges from independent to demanding. Features of dominance include possessiveness over food, toys and other objects, resistance to petting, nail trims, and discipline, and space guarding.

These apparently moody dogs are fine 98 percent of the time, but in the other 2 percent are downright irritable or frankly aggressive. Their response to certain interventions from the owners ranges from a growl to a lip lift, snap or bite, and occurs when there is competition over a resource or in response to challenging gestures or unwelcome demands. The actual expression of this condition may be as mild as an occasional growl in a few specific situations all the way through to a dog that has so many signs of dominance that even the owner can diagnose the problem.

Dominant dogs are rarely a problem with newborns, though it is highly recommended that they be introduced only under strict supervision, just to be on the safe side. Typically, the dominant dog's response toward the infant is one of mild interest or even indifference. Indifference often prevails for the first year or so of the baby's life until he starts to ambulate confidently and presents an annoying challenge to the dog. Some dominant dogs don't appreciate the arrival of the newborn and may sulk, compete for attention, or even start urine marking.

However, they are usually not a frank threat, at least until the toddler delivers the first challenge. Sometimes the toddler's "transgression" is completely inadvertent or a miscommunication from the child to the dog (i.e. kissing the dog on the muzzle or giving him a hug around the neck). A slightly older toddler may purposely push the dog to his limits by grabbing him by the ears or tail or attempting to ride the dog like a horse. There comes a point in any dominant dog's life when, if challenged at the wrong time or by the wrong person, he will react. The reaction may take the form of a warning growl or may be as severe as a bite directed towards the face. The response is fast, short-lived (a few seconds), and afterwards the dog might appear contrite or remorseful.

Dominant dogs are very sensitive to the circumstances under which a challenge occurs. Their response may vary depending on the time of day, the location of the perceived insult, and the level of the challenge. In general, they are more aggressive in the evening, when they are tired, when they are in possession of favorite food, and when they are in an elevated position with respect to the child. A combination of such circumstances is frequently responsible for triggering an aggressive event.

To paint a picture of this type of aggression, imagine a child approaching a dog lying on a couch. The dog has a bone nearby. The child suddenly throws his or her arms around the dog's neck and kisses him ...on the muzzle. As innocent as this scenario sounds, it is a behavioral "full house" for a dominant, protective dog.

Dominant dogs should always be supervised in the presence of children and should always be separated from them when close supervision is not possible. Devices that come in handy are X-pens, dog crates, baby playpens, outside runs and so on. Once the child is old enough to follow directions, around 6 years old, the adults in the house can teach the "Nothing in Life is Free" philosophy to the child and then assist the child in implementing it. This will elevate the child into her rightful social position within the home – above the dog.

Predatory Aggressive Dog

There are two situations in which predatory aggression is likely to pose a threat, one much less probable than the other. The least common situation is that of predatory aggression directed towards a very young newborn baby, usually during the first week, and almost invariably during the first month of the child's introduction into the household. Even if the initial introduction has been conducted properly, these dogs may take some days to recognize the flailing newcomer as a new member of the family and in the early days may make the terrible mistake of regarding the human infant as wounded prey. In such cases, a predatory attack may occur with unthinkable consequences. If dogs show any signs of enhanced prey drive (i.e. they are completely obsessed with chasing cats and small creatures, constantly chase any moving objects, or show an intense interest in the infant), it is vital that the two be strictly supervised until a bond can be established.

The second situation in which predatory behavior can become a problem is when older children are running around screaming and yelling in "packs." This type of behavior can awaken the predatory instinct in the dog that will join in the play often nipping and biting at children's' hands and legs. A more sinister and deadly version of this behavior can occur when a child, riding a bicycle or running, stumbles across a pack of two to five dogs cruising a neighborhood. The combination of a moving target, high prey drive and the packing or group aggression instinct can lead the small dog pack to attack the child with serious or even lethal consequences. If your dog has a high prey drive, make certain that he is never allowed to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. The only way to deal with dogs of such disposition when they cannot be supervised is to make sure that they are properly secured by means of a properly fenced enclosure.

The Fearful Dog

Dogs that are purely fearful are hardly ever a risk to children in their household. They often adore children they know but are easily intimidated by these children's' friends, particularly the noisy ones, and they will cower, retreat or hide away until the menace is gone. Problems arise when dogs that are fearful of children also have a measure of dominance and take a pro-active stance toward dealing with their nemeses. Aggression occurs toward children who overstep certain preset limits. When approached or petted by such unwelcome visitors, dogs of such persuasion will often back away while growling or barking, or will lunge. For the expectant mom, the fearful dog can be reliably predicted to present little or no problems regarding the new baby, even as the baby grows up. It's strangers that are the main concern in this instance. Grandparents with a child-fearful dog face a problem when their grandchildren visit. Treatment of fear-based aggression is multi-factorial and includes the following:

  • Provide an enriched environment for the dog, plenty of exercise, an appropriate low protein diet, and protection from unwanted infiltrators.

  • Obedience training to enhance control.

  • Proper supervision and restraint of the dog.

  • Systematic desensitization to fear-inducing children. This is easier said than done but can be tried using a head halter for control and a muzzle for protection. Systematic desensitization involves gradually exposing the dog to the presence of children at progressively closer distances and for progressively longer periods of time, ensuring that the exposure is always pleasant (at least, not disturbing). This process must be ongoing, as dogs with learned fears relapse if the training is discontinued.

  • Anti-anxiety medication can help to relax fearful dogs during desensitization and they may expedite the dog's rehabilitation and even help to keep it on an even keel.

    Dogs that are extremely fearful of children and highly dominant present the greatest challenge and probably should not be exposed to children.

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