Q: My 3 ½ year old loves our dog. We got the dog about a year ago, and he’s 3. Lately, the dog has been growling and snapping at my son when he hugs him or is near him. What do you recommend we do?
A: First off, it’s important to note that most aggression is based in fear and is not necessarily indicative of an aggressive dog. As humans, we love to give affection through hugs and kisses to our dogs. Some dogs learn to tolerate this behavior, and some may even appear to enjoy it. However, dogs typically do not enjoy hugs, kisses, pats on the head, and many other things we think they do. Because adults tend to do these things in a calmer manner, most dogs will better tolerate them from their human adult pack members than from the kids.
It often is even more difficult with younger children (under 7 or 8). Young kids tend to be very animated and often get quite excited about our four-legged friends. This extra excitement and movement can be a bit scary for dogs. They don’t always know what to expect. Growling and nipping is their way of communicating their fear to the human. With kids especially (but with all humans who will interact with the dog), it’s important to approach in a calm, confident manner with hands at our sides. We can then offer the back of one hand to let the dog sniff us before approaching further. Assuming the dog is still displaying positive behavior, start by scratching under the chin or behind the ears. With mom and dad’s supervision, the child can also offer the dog a tasty treat from their flat, open palm. Associating yummy treats with the approach of the child will help the dog to be less fearful.
In this scenario, I would also recommend having the dog’s vision checked with your vet. As dogs age, they can develop something similar to cataracts in humans. This “fogginess” in their vision can make it difficult to see things – especially in their peripheral. The faster movement of children can also be more difficult to see and assess, resulting in greater fear for the dog. This is why we occasionally see older dogs who are great with adults but more fearful and skittish with children.
by Jodi Hoyt, Hoyt Consulting