A while ago Harry started quietly growling when touched by the two young boys (7 and 9). It was when he was either lying on his chair or in his crate. The attention they give him is likely to be rather over-enthusiastic and he’s a delicate little toy poodle.
Harry is two years old, a perky and intelligent little dog. Very friendly.
This sort of behaviour usually escalates because what the dog is trying to say politely – because his other signs of anxiety like lip-licking and looking away haven’t been recognised – is ‘I don’t want you to do this just now’, and this is ignored.
Many people believe that dogs should like being touched whenever and however we want to touch them, but many simply don’t – or else they only like ga certain touch like chest tickles.
Harry’s soft growls were met with scolding and being put outside. He was discovering that polite gentle growling wasn’t acknowledged so the growling has been getting louder and more frequent. Now he may even also sometimes growl when the parents touch him when he’s lying down or asleep. If the boys rush into the room he may tell them in doggy language to Go Away. If the growling is disregarded or punished, what choice does that leave him? The next step may be to snap.
Some days Harry is more tolerant than others. Imagine you stubbed your toe as you got out of bed in the morning, then the phone rang as you were about to leave for work with a sales call, then the car wouldn’t start and by the time you got to work you had a raging headache. Then someone knocks into you. You may well shout at them.
There are things in little Harry’s life that can contribute to a build up of stress, more some days than others. The boys, being boys, can make a lot of noise which he doesn’t like; he goes mental when post comes through the door, he barks when people walk past the house and if he hears a car door slam; some days when he’s left alone it is in the garden where he no doubt will be barking most of the time. On walks when too near people and dogs he gets scared and barks. Imagine how he may be feeling later, lying somewhere peacefully where he should be ‘safe’, and attention is forced upon him.
It is a tribute to the little dog’s restraint that he’s not yet snapped. They realise this is only a matter of time which is why I was called.
Harry is now going to lie down in an imaginary bubble (which if burst will let out a revolting smell – the boys can decide just what that smell should be!). This bubble surrounds him whenever he lies down. We caught Dad, unthinkingly, touching a snoozing Harry as he walked past so, boys, how can we remind Dad and how can you remind yourselves?
They will design some stickers which they can then stick on the places where Harry likes to sleep – maybe pictures of a bubble? When they want to touch him they can sit a few feet away and call him to them. This way Harry gets a say in the matter. But why should he want to come to them? What’s in it for Harry? Not for a hug, that’s certain or for anything too boisterous. They have been thinking about what Harry would like. Play? Food?
In order for Harry to be more tolerant, in addition to the family being more tuned in to his feelings there are several pieces of the jigsaw missing which, when in place, should make him a less reactive dog in general. These include not leaving him for several hours alone in the garden when they are out, helping him out when he barks at people going past, installing an outside letter box, making his crate a sanctuary that nobody goes near so he has somewhere to escape to when the boys get rowdy, putting more distance between him and other dogs when out, and doing everything else they can to keep his stress levels down.
By fitting in all the pieces of the jigsaw, along with the boys (and Dad!) allowing Harry some choice in the matter of being touched, they will reverse the downward spiral I’m sure.
A couple of weeks later: The children are doing really well. They want to cuddle and give Harry love all the time but are learning to do it in a different way. They respect the “bubble” and say it automatically when they go near his bubble. Brilliant. They call Harry to them when they want to give him a fuss and have learnt to do it in a calmer manner, not to excite Harry too much. If Harry doesn’t want to come, they try using food and it works every time. Always a short fuss and not more than Harry wants. We have all started to recognise his signals.
NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Chauncey, which is why I don’t go into all exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good, particularly important where either aggression or children are involved. 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).