This is the fourth installment of my Bringing Home Baby series and I’ll be discussing the important topic of dog body language and the importance of not punishing your dog if or when he growls to communicate he’s uncomfortable or upset. I know, you might think I’m crazy right now, but stick with me. You love your baby and your dog and you can’t understand why your dog doesn’t also love your baby (or toddler, once they start moving). But for many dogs, babies and especially toddlers, are scary. They’re loud, unpredictable, they smell weird, they scream out suddenly – they’re not trusted, predictable, familiar adults. And unless you did a spectacular job socializing your dog during his socialization window (the first 14 weeks of his life) to teach him babies and toddlers are safe, chances are, your dog might be afraid of your baby.
How do dogs communicate when they’re afraid or upset? They can only tell us through their body language. They use their body posture and other forms of dog communication – things like the position of their ears, eyes, tail and muzzle, how their weight is shifted, whether they choose to stay, avoid or freeze and growling, snarling, lip curling or, yes, biting.
Dogs very rarely “bite out of nowhere.” More commonly, early warning signs have been ignored, or in some cases, punished. When this happens the dog escalates their communication to be heard. If we punish the dog for growling, we take growling out of his communication toolkit and force him to bite as his only way to tell us he’s upset. If you need some help on understanding dog body language, you can download my free infographic seen here.
I get it. Growling can be very upsetting to an owner and often our knee-jerk reaction is to yell “no” to the dog, in an attempt to stop this “undesirable” behavior, especially if our dog is growling at our baby. I’m here to say, even if that’s what you want to do, what I’d like you to do instead is happy talk, and create distance between your dog and baby, and tossing food to your dog, thanking him for clearly communicating he’s upset. I know that feels counterintuitive, like we’re “rewarding bad behavior” but hear me out. We’re not rewarding bad behavior – we’re helping him feel better about a situation that he’s clearly upset by. If your dog growls at your baby, yelling at him for growling is adding more stress to a situation where he’s already upset. What’s he thinking when this happens? Maybe something like “There’s a scary baby and now mom (or dad) is yelling at me – this baby really is bad news!”
So what do you do instead? First, always ensure safety. Use management like baby gates, tethers and crates to prevent your dog from having access to your baby or toddler until training can be worked on and your dog feels safer. Next, you’re going to need to work with a qualified trainer to help you learn how to help you help your dog feel safer around your baby. We don’t focus on making the growling stop, because that’s an outward symptom of a deeper problem. We have to focus modifying how your dog feels about your baby and change his underlying emotions from upset to happy. When we help him feel better about your baby, the growling goes away on its own, because he’s is no longer upset, scared or worried. This is real behavior modification, not just suppression of outward symptoms. If you have a dog who is growling at your baby (or anyone!), schedule your fear and aggression consult today.
If you’re expecting a baby but your dog isn’t showing any signs of aggression, schedule your pre-baby prep session where we review management, enrichment, training, homecoming plans, reducing attention seeking behaviors in addition to receiving lots of handouts with important information on making this transition safe and happy for everyone in the family and give you an opportunity to ask questions relevant to your specific situation. Schedule your session today!
And a reminder that I’ll be doing a free Facebook Live Q&A on dogs and babies with my special guest, Katherine Davidson, CTC, CSAT and Owner of Dog Inspired, on Wednesday March 24 at 8PM ET. Submit questions ahead of time to get your questions answered!