Tilly, a 16-month-old Labrador, lives in a family with three children age 5, 10 and 13.

Their dilemma is whether Tilly is the right dog for their family, and whether they are the right people for their well-loved dog.

They ‘got Tilly for the children’.

Growling at the kids

Recently Tilly has been growling at the children. It began when the youngest went over to her bed, wanting to cuddle her.

She didn’t feel like being cuddled just then. She will have looked away, probably licked her lips or maybe yawned. All these polite signals were ignored, so next she growled.

The danger here is that growling is scolded, so what might happen next? She’s not yet bitten, but it is a matter of time.


Being a Labrador, Tilly likes to be involved when food is about! She likes to be beside them when they are eating or preparing food.

Now when a child approaches, Tilly might growl.

The young dog hasn’t yet bitten, but if things don’t change she will soon. The most recent incident which brought things to a head was a couple of weeks ago.

A young son entered the dark room to discover Tilly breaking into the dog-food pack. The lady heard the boy say, “Are you growling at me Tilly?” She arrived as the growling intensified with Tilly’s demeanour becoming increasingly aggressive.

She managed to break it up, but now she’s understandably seriously worried.

They have a dilemma. A decision to make.

The lady in particular doesn’t want to use management. She wants a dog she can trust to mix freely with the children at all times, in all circumstances.

This is impossible, so what are the feasible choices? Is it too much responsibility?

To keep her, they will need to give Tilly’s life more enrichment and also impose certain management rules – stricter than they have at present.

They should consider on one hand how enrichment and, on the other, over-arousal affect Tilly’s emotions, behaviour and tolerance.

The bigger the change in what they themselves do, the bigger the change they will see in Tilly.

Rules to obey

  • When food is about, have Tilly the other side of a gate. Always.
  • Look for signals of unease like looking away or licking her lips. Acknowledge she’s feeling uncomfortable. Try to stop before she feels she needs to growl.
  • Listen to growling, and STOP immediately. Allow her choice.
  • Kids don’t invade her space. They call her to them instead.

I suggest they work hard together in a consistent way for a couple of weeks, enriching Tilly’s life differently, avoiding her unnecessary stress and sticking to the new management rules. Then ask themselves:

Has it made a difference to Mabel?

How do they feel? Can they cope with this?

Can they keep it up always?

Then they can hopefully make a unanimous decision, whether to keep her or whether to let her go.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ and is always written with permission of the client. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog it can do more harm than good. Click here for help