Canine Behavior/dog growling at children
I have a male dog who will be 2 in April. I have had him since he was 8 weeks old and he has grown up around my son as well as my niece and nephew, and several other children in the neighborhood. Over the last few months, he has developed a strange anxiety when around children. He will stop wagging his tail, lower his head, and put his ears back. He also started growling. At first, I only noticed it around my son, but lately he's been growling at any and every child who comes anywhere near him. All they have to do is enter the room with him. They don't have to touch him or even come very close to him to trigger the behavior. He even growled at my 6 month old who was playing on the floor near him this morning. He is over 100lbs and could seriously injure a child in a matter of seconds if this problem were to escalate. I don't know what to do. No one has hurt him, he has a very good life, and I don't understand why this suddenly started. I have heard several recommendations like make sure that we give him and the kids equal attention, let my son be the one who feeds him, don't punish him for growling and instead praise him when he's behaving...none of it has worked. I don't want to have to get rid of him but I'm scared that he will hurt someone. I hope you can help. Thank you.
Because there is a child safety issue at play, I can't ethically offer you suggestions in this forum in that if I give you instructions for an exercise to do and it's not followed correctly, or adjusted in the moment given the circumstances and responses seen by the dog, the fallout could be fatal for both a human and the dog.
What I can say is that the first order of business must be a complete medical workup. This should include a full blood panel and a complete thyroid panel - the detailed one that is sent out to one of the veterinary schools, not the simple one done by the office (or locally). Many times a medical condition - injury, illness, disease, chronic condition, neurological condition) will manifest with behaviors ranging from appetite, energy changes to aggressive displays. Dogs don't have words and can't tell us what's wrong. They can only react in ways that help them feel safer. Growling is one of the most clear signals a dog can give to create space for himself. It's actually one of several "Distance Increasing" signals as its purpose is to create distance, which allows the growler to feel safer. The information you heard - don't punish the growl - is exactly right. He's growling to tell you he feels unsafe. If we then scold, wag a finger, isolate him to another space - or worse - swat/hit/poke/punch, etc, then all we're doing is confirming for him that he's absolutely right to be fearful.
I also don't recommend ignoring a growl. Instead, I encourage respecting the growl. In the moment, if the dog growls, understand that he's telling you he needs space. Give him space and allow him to feel better, then assess what was happening to see if you can figure out what made him nervous and then avoid that in the future.
Children don't have to physically hurt a dog to make them uncomfortable. And things that humans find cute may in fact be uncomfortable for many dogs. If you look through the internet for photos of kids and dogs, you'll find tons. And most are posted with oohs and aahs about how cute it all is. But if you look at the dogs, they are saying as clearly as they can (while still being polite) that they are not comfortable. Ears pinned back, whale eye (when you can see the whites of the eye showing), mouth clamped shut, tension in the face and forehead, tail down, looking away from the kid &/or the camera. They are not soft and relaxed. They are not happy. But unless you know what to look for, you may completely miss that these are signs of stress - and most parents do miss those cues.
Kids also tend to grab ears and tails, lean on, push/nudge, take toys away, tease and taunt all in the name of kids playing. But the dogs don't enjoy it.
Without a proper consultation, I can't begin to know what has caused your dog to be suddenly concerned. If his health is cleared on all counts, then we have to look at dynamics and what has happened to make him nervous. It doesn't require abuse or intention to cause harm to have done something to make the dog fearful or to feel threatened from his perspective.
And this is where you need a professional in your area to come out. You want to work with someone who has a clear understanding of fear-based aggression as the body language you described is absolutely fear. You want to find someone who is a force-free/positive reinforcement trainer. Ideally someone who is well familiar with protocols such as BAT (behavior adjustment training) and understands the process of counter conditioning, desensitization and the process of helping the dog feel empowered to make choices about engaging and disengaging from things that scare him.
You MUST ALSO MANAGE THE SITUATION
. At this time that means that children and dogs are not in the same room. Period. If they are in the same room, the children must be sitting, quiet and not engaging with the dog at all. This is a safety issue. I'd be saying it as well if he were a 3-lb toy poodle, but it's more of a safety issue with a 100+ lbs dog. Tragedies occur in a fraction of a single second, even when adults are present. Until you have some in-person assistance to determine what is triggering him - and more importantly, to guide you in appropriate protocols to help work through this, it's best to just not allow the dog in the same space as the children. This will not only serve to protect everyone, but also give the dog a proper chance to recover from the stress he's been under for the last few months.
When one experiences stress, adrenalin and cortisol (stress hormones) are flooded through the body. It can take anywhere from 4 - 96 hours for those hormone levels to return to normal - depending on the individual and the amount that was flooded through the body. This is true for all mammals, including humans.
So if your dog was stressed and his body was flooded with stress hormones, then a few hours later or the next day he was stressed again, but his hormone surge from yesterday wasn't yet back to normal levels, then this new flood occurred while there was still an elevated level of hormones in his system and so now he's more stressed than the first time. This cycle can create an escalation of reaction for the dog as he pushes closer and closer to his breaking point.
Think of it like bad winter storms where the rain brings floods and the water level in the local river rise. Then before the levels get back to normal, another storm passes which dumps just as much water as the first storm. This time, the water level was higher to begin with, and so the river rises higher than during the first storm. Then a third storm passes and this time, because the water levels were so high to begin with, the river breaks it's banks and the town gets flooded. This is what's happening with stress reactions if the individual isn't given enough time to recover between stressors - the river breaking its bank and flooding the town is equivalent to the dog reaching his breaking point and biting.
It's crucial that you don't allow him to reach that breaking point and the best way to do that until you get some in person help will be to create a safe space for him, give him loads of love and attention and good things to do, and just don't allow the kids to be in the same room as him. This does NOT mean locking him away and never letting him out. It means management. He's out when the kids are at school, but in his safe place when the kids get home from school. No play dates at your house until this is resolved (too stressful for the dog and far too much liability for you), while the kids are doing homework in their rooms or at the kitchen table, the dog can be in other parts of the house. Once the kids are asleep, the dog can cuddle the adults and have play time, etc.
You can do a google search for a veterinary behaviorist in your area - a vet with a specialty in behavior. They will be able to offer suggestions for management and behavior modification as well as medication if it's deemed necessary. They work with you and your regular vet, they will not become your primary vet.
Or you can search for a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB, or ACAAB). They have graduate degree in an animal related field and have apprenticed under others in the industry.
A Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) is another option.
Or you can search for someone who is certified as a BAT instructor (CBATI). I'm not sure if there is anyone in your area, but these are good places to start. And if you find someone who is not quite close enough, contact them anyway as they may know others who are in your area that they trust and respect even if they lack the letters after their name.
Good luck. Be safe.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist