From the moment they can communicate, baby humans put their arms out for a cuddle or for comfort. It’s the human way of demonstrating love, possibly also something to do with us having hands and arms. I believe monkeys do the same.
Hugging, cuddling and stroking isn’t, however, the natural way for a dog to demonstrate affection so not all dogs want too much physical petting. The nearest thing would be humping which is most likely to do with control or over-arousal of some sort. It’s a wonder that so many dogs actually put up with being hugged, particularly when it means being disturbed from their dreams in what should be the peace of their own bed.
In a situation quite similar to the lady in my last story, it’s a young girl age ten this time who has such overwhelming love for her beautiful dog, an adorable nine-month-old Springer Spaniel called Freckles, that she simply can’t leave the dog alone and this has now resulted in the child getting a bite on her mouth. It could have been a lot worse if Freckles had really intended to hurt her rather than merely get her to back off.
I can imagine that the already slightly nervous dog feels under siege by the little girl in particular and her defensive, growly behaviour is mostly directed at the child and is now spreading to some guarding of resources when approached. Over the months she will have done her best to give all sorts of signals that she feels uncomfortable or has had enough – looking away, yawning, licking her lips, freezing and so on – but as is so often the case the signs have been ignored or mis-read so she went on to growling. This, too, wasn’t sufficiently heeded.
It took one moment the other day when the little girl was bending down over the dog’s bed, touching the already growling dog, when in getting ready to stand up she bent further forward. The dog probably mis-read this, snarled and bit her on the mouth.
With a child bitten in the face, life for the family and for the dog will never be quite the same again.
Freckles has now discovered that the reliable way to make a child back off is to snap.
The other ingredient in the situation is excitement. The young children can get very excited around the dog, as children do, and Freckles also becomes highly aroused. In this state she has a lot less self-control and like many young dogs when over-excited she will charge about like a mad thing, jumping up and grabbing clothes.
The situation is tragic really because the child’s feelings are deeply hurt. In order to keep their adored dog little girl, in particular, has to change the way she behaves around Freckles. She wants total involvement in every aspect of the dog’s life, and a dog – particularly a working dog rather than bred as a lap dog – is an independent spirit and needs space.
Firstly, certain safety-management strategies will be in place like having a room Freckles can be in where she’s not freely with the children or their friends when they are not carefully supervised – I suggest it’s gated so that she’s not totally cut off from the company and the fun.
Secondly everything needs to be done to keep Freckle’s stress levels down with ploys to occupy both her and the children at certain explosive times of day like when they arrive home from school with a lot of excitement and squeals when welcoming of Freckles.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the young girl needs a different way of interacting with Freckles that still gives her involvement with her beloved dog. How are we going to stop her forgetting herself and going over to the dog in a rush of emotion and affection?
I asked her to pretend the dog was lying in the corner of the room and show me how near she could get before the dog would start to growl. it was about four feet. So, Freckles will be surrounded by an invisible bubble of four-foot diameter which must not be broken by the children (we can imagine a revolting smell escaping or lots of spiders!). It is, however, fine for Freckles to walk out of her bubble and approach the children. If she comes to them of her own choice then they will have nothing to worry about because Freckles can escape if she wants to.
The child can set up hunting games which aren’t hands-on or too exciting and which Freckles, being a spaniel, will love.
I suggested the dear little girl could also write a journal by hand or on computer. Her dad said he would love to read it and so would I. She can report what happens on a daily basis with Freckles and how she feels about it. She can list the things she does which are good and things she realises she could do differently, along with any ideas for activities that don’t involved stirring Freckles up or handling her.
The lady puts a lot of time and love into training and giving quality to young dog’s life and is deeply upset at the possibility of having to give her up. In a couple of year’s time both dog and children will be older and less excitable. Some dogs simply don’t like being handled too much, and this has to be respected throughout their lives.
I have received this email one week later: ‘I must just say, that since your visit, Freckles has not growled once at any of us – a real achievement. It’s amazing how much a little training and better understanding on behalf of the humans can impact so massively on the dog’s behaviour’.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Freckles. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good particularly in cases involving potential aggression. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).