Context. Why It’s So Important

Seeing things clearly and objectively in context can be hard from the inside.

This consultation has lead me somewhat away from a story about the beautiful dog herself and down another path. The Dog's behaviour not taken in contextyoung Staffie – isn’t she a poppet – and her young owners with their new baby have been doing brilliantly.

Just a couple of things have recently arisen that trouble them and that they want to nip in the bud. One issue is on walks where she seems to have lost her recall. She has run into fields of cows to chase them and she may sometimes be a bit unruly with other dogs. Now the lady is walking with the baby also, she has even more reason to be able to trust Nahla.

Nahla upon seeing another dog may also lie down and refuse to move! This can be a challenge when the young lady is carrying her baby in a sling. She has to wait it out.

We now have a plan for walk difficulties. They will make coming to a whistle a reflex action by constant repetition at home and when out before letting her off a long line. She loves a ball so they will keep it in their pockets and only throw it after blowing the whistle. Pavlov would love this.

The other more distressing problem is, to quote, ‘Nahla’s guarding behaviour’ around their baby when they visit the young lady’s mother. Her mum has three dogs, a Labrador and two Rotties, one of which, Hector, has been Nahla’s puppy playmate.

Nahla is ‘showing aggression and jealousy’ towards Hector when he’s near the baby.

Nahla, they say, was their first baby! She’s now twenty months old. The are the perfect dog parents. She has had kind, positive training, she eats nutritious food and she shares all aspects of their lives. She is friendly and loving, and at home really the perfect dog.

Baby came along six weeks ago. Everything is fine, due both to Nahla’s lovely nature and to her owners forward planning and love for her.

How can the dog I was with be guarding or aggressive?

Ignoring the context leads to jumping to wrong conclusions. Jumping to wrong conclusions means we won’t be dealing with the issue appropriately – we may not be dealing with the real problem at all but with something else entirely.

Naming something the dog does ‘guarding behaviour’ is only a step away from labeling the dog ‘an aggressive dog’.

Give a dog a bad name.

Without even seeing it for myself, knowing the dog I would stake my life on Nahla’s sudden growling and snapping at Hector having nothing to do with guarding at all. It is so important not just to look at what a dog is doing at the time, but also the build-up, what other things are going on at the time and the whole context including the input of the humans involved.

With a little delving I worked out that this is probably more or less what actually happens:

People obviously are extremely protective and anxious when four large dogs are crowding around a new baby. There will be a certain amount of tension.

The couple, carrying tiny grandson, enter mum’s house with Nahla. Her three dogs, the two Rotties and Labrador, are over-the-top excited to see Nahla who tries to wrestle her way through them to excitedly greet mum. Mum is trying to tell her to get down and to control her dogs using commands. I assume they are ignoring her.

The couple sit down, holding baby, and all three bigger dogs want to have a sniff and hello – they have absolutely no problems with the baby, just curiosity and general excitement.

Obviously a Labrador and two somewhat slobbery Rottie’s (mine was slobbery anyway!) are a bit too much around the baby so mum, who is anxious now, repeatedly shouts at her dogs Leave, Leave, Leave.

Human stressing or scolding can often be the tipping point.

Nahla now has a pop at Hector.

The whole thing is too much for her, she’s not used to all this excitement. Highly aroused and maybe a little anxious too because the dogs aren’t behaving in the peaceful way around baby she herself has been taught, Nahla then redirects her frustrations onto Hector.

I don’t know what happens next, but I guess Nahla, misunderstood, is told off. One can begin to see the direction where this will now be heading if not handled differently.

My advice, then, is either for all dogs to meet out on a walk first and get the excitement out of their system first. Alternatively, when they arrive at mum’s, mum’s dogs can be shut in another room to start with. Nahla can then get over her excitement at seeing mum. The other dogs can then join them one at a time, waiting for calm first.

In this calmer setting, if a dog is too close to baby for comfort, he can be gently called away and rewarded for doing so.

Looked at the affair in context, would we call this pop at Hector guarding behaviour or aggression? I wouldn’t. The wrong diagnosis leads to the wrong treatment. In this case it’s the over-arousal that needs dealing with.

Here is a really good piece by Pat Miller about incidents in a multi-dog household and the importance of finding the stressors, which is much the same thing as examining the context.

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 Nahla and I’ve not gone into exact precise details for that reason. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly, as this case illustrates perfectly.  If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)

Personal Space, the Dog and the Child

Consideration of Personal space is a one-way street for Dijon!

Cavapoo Dijon is a confident little dog in most respects. He knows what he wants – and usually gets it. The one respect in which he’s not so confident is when the lady is about but he can’t get to her. He stresses.

Caverpoo doesn't like the child invading his personal space Fourteen-month-old Dijon is increasingly treating the lady like some sort of resource belonging to himself when the 5-year-old daughter is near to her mother.

Dijon may fly at the child, snapping, if she goes to her for a cuddle.

Dijon has now bitten the little girl’s nose and this was when the lady wasn’t even in the room. She had left dog and child together on her bed for just a moment when the child screamed.

It seems the little girl ‘won’t be told’ where putting her face up close to Molly’s is concerned. She may also invade the dog’s space and he’s a little dog that likes control of his own personal space – though he has no regard whatsoever to the personal space of humans, whether family or people he’s not met before! He flies all over them.

I suggested that just as we are looking for ways to reinforce Dijon for the behaviours that we like, we need to get the child on board in the same way. Her parents say they just can’t get her to listen (much the same as people say about their dogs!).

Motivation is the key.

Dijon on his bedroom sofa

Dijon on his bedroom sofa

One suggestion I use to help young children to observe their dog’s personal space is to pretend that the dog lives in his own personal bubble. They can perhaps draw a picture of what it looks like. If they burst the bubble a terrible smell escapes – children can use their horrid imaginations!

The little girl must not burst Dijon’s bubble. Only Dijon can step out of his bubble and when he does so there is no smell!

She must keep her distance when Dijon is lying down or doing his own thing. They could make little picture stickers for the Dijon’s favourite sleeping places as reminders: ‘Dijon’s Bubble’. It’s much better to be able to remind the child ‘Remember Dijon’s Bubble’ than to have to keep nagging ‘leave Dijon alone’.

So, positive reinforcement for her also. Whenever she is seen observing Dijon’s bubble she should be praised or rewarded in some way and eventually it will become a habit.

It’s fine to touch theBerridgeBubble dog if he himself chooses to come out of his bubble and to the child, but even then the child should learn what sort of touching the dog likes (and doesn’t like).

There are videos for her the parents to watch with her like this and how to kiss a dog.

To ‘cure’ this problem at source needs Dijon to feel better about the child being near her mother, so two things should happen. His relationship with the lady needs to be a bit different so that she is no longer regarded by Dijon as a something belonging to him, and he needs to feel differently about the child herself.

 

The two humans involved, the lady and her little girl, can change things with Dijon

The lady needs to help release Dijon who currently follows her everywhere, all the time. He sleeps in their bedroom or on their bed and doesn’t always take kindly to the child running into the room and jumping on the bed to cuddle her parents.

They will gate the stairs so there is now somewhere that the lady can go without being followed. She should be able to come and go out of sight without it being an issue, starting slowly with very short breaks. Walking out on him can be associated with something nice.

Dijon can be invited upstairs only at bedtime.

When in the bedroom he will learn that he no longer gets on their bed at all.

I’m not against dogs being on beds if that’s what people like unless the dog reacts negatively to any other person (or dog) on the bed.

Keeping him off can be done kindly because there is a comfortable sofa in their bedroom that Dijon also sleeps on. For the child’s safety, management by way of physical precautions is vital. Dijon can be anchored to the sofa area by a lead so he simply can’t chase the child or leap on the bed.

Loving Dijon without bursting bubble

Loving Dijon without bursting bubble

The alternative is to leave him downstairs. They are reluctant to do this because of the panic he gets himself into.

The other thing that needs to happen, in addition to Dijon feeling a bit more independent of the lady’s comings and goings, is for Dijon to feel differently about the child herself.

The little girl is going to learn about counter-conditioning!

When she comes home after school, Dijon jumps all over them with no regard at all for their personal space! They want this to stop. Ignoring him isn’t enough and the little child finds this impossible anyway. She can’t be sufficiently calm and quiet either. Instead, she will be shown something that she can do. She will be given pieces of his dry food. When his feet are on the floor she will drop food. When he’s jumping up she can wait for his feet to be on the floor again. She might even earn a little reward herself.

When she wants a cuddle with her mum, the little girl can tell Dijon. ‘I want to cuddle Mummy’ and as she does so throw a handful of his dry food onto the rug. She can have a tub of ‘cuddle food’ to hand. This will not only help Dijon to associate the occasion with something nice, it will also send him away to the rug – away from leaping up at the her, air-snapping or nipping.

The stair gate is a must. Even when we are in the same room we can’t watch dog and child every second. Shutting a door on Dijon isn’t yet an option. There needs to be somewhere in the house where the little girl is 100% safe and need not be watched.

Like all my stories, this is nowhere near a complete report. I pick an aspect.

A week later I have visited again – with a photo of Dijon printed on a piece of paper. The little girl drew me a picture of ‘Dijon’s bulbble’ around his picture and of herself outside it. Mum will laminate copies of it and put by Dijon’s resting places as a reminder. All off her own bat, the little girl drew hearts, love, from herself to Dijon without breaking his bubble.

 

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 Dijon. I don’t go into detail. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly, particularly where aggression or fearfulness is concerned. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. 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)