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May 17, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Trainer Q&A: Dogs and kids

kathyeffie0003.JPGKathy Sdao, an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in Tacoma, pictured above with her dog Effie, answers this week's question.

Question: A young couple adopted a dog as a 1-year-old. The dog has some obvious separation-anxiety issues, but is a sweet animal. The couple have discovered, by taking the dog on walks, that he doesn't like kids. He growls and acts aggressive. The couple want to start a family and are concerned about the dog harming a baby or toddler or their child's friends. What advice can you give the owners?

Answer: Good news. This is one pair of prospective parents not in denial about the possible risk their dog poses to kids.

All dogs - young or old, sweet or shy, big or small - can bite. And all young kids behave unpredictably at times. So even if this dog behaved like Lassie on walks when kids were nearby, I'd urge the couple to learn everything they can about dog body-language, proper socialization, positive training and humane confinement options.

That said, I'd bet good money that this young dog's unpleasant behavior on leash around kids isn't an indication he doesn't like them. More likely, he's ignorant. Or intimidated. Or both.

The dog probably has spent little time interacting with young humans in situations that create good will: ones where his owners have ensured the dog will develop pleasant associations (i.e., the presence of kids = treat, play, praise) and have given the dog some control over his proximity to the kids.

Instead, the leash has limited the dog's behavioral choices. While a leash is necessary on public walks, it doesn't provide the ideal opportunity for learning fluent, nuanced social skills, unless the owners are careful to prevent it from getting taut and to avoid using it to deliver punishment (i.e., leash pops or "corrections").

The presence of a leash may actually set up the dog for inappropriate socialization attempts. Owners may compel the dog to get closer to kids than the dog prefers.

I have dozens of video clips submitted to me by dog-owners showing them restraining their "iffy" dogs on a short, tight leash or holding them by the collar while a child approaches.

These dogs typically display all manner of please-make-this-stop behaviors, despite the owner's useless chants of "It's OK" or "Now be goooood." Then, as the child does not stop (approaching, leaning, staring, reaching, poking, shrieking, toddling, etc), the dog growls or snarls.

"See, clear evidence our dog is bad," says the owner.

No, I suggest, evidence that this animal, with no words to shout "Stop!" nor hands to gesture "Stop!" nor freedom to flee, is left to respond to this perceived threat with a threat of his own.

I'd suggest these concerned owners spend a couple of months gathering more information about their dog's ability to learn to relax around kids. Ethically and legally, they'll have to ensure the safety of any kids involved in this process.

One option is to have the dog wear a comfortable basket muzzle (I prefer Baskerville muzzles) when kids are nearby. (Make sure to condition him to be thrilled about wearing this new "jewelry" at home first.)

Another is to expose him to kids who are playing or hanging out behind a chain-link fence; it will serve as a barrier if a kid races up to hug him, or if he lunges.

Yet another is to sign up for a training class with an experienced positive trainer who can arrange for safe socialization opportunities.

Kathy Sdao

Kathy Sdao, an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist in Tacoma, has trained dolphins at the University of Hawaii and for the U.S. Navy and was a whale- and walrus-trainer at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium . Since 1998, Kathy has owned Bright Spot Dog Training, which provides behavior-modification services for pet owners. She teaches about a dozen workshops annually, for trainers around the world. Her first book, "Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace", was published this year.

Friday: Is there a correlation between people raising well-behaved dogs and raising well-behaved children?

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Do you have a question about pet behavior? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local trainer in an upcoming post.

Read earlier Q&A columns here.

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Great article - and cute photo!! When Thomas was on his way I used a book called Tell... MORE

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