Hearing your dog growl at your child is a heart-stopping moment for any parent. Your reaction may well be to panic, punish the dog and then start to consider options like re-homing. But stop…breathe…it may not be as bad as you think.
So what should you do?
First thing first, calmly SEPARATE the dog and the child. Either by calling the dog to you or by calmly removing your child. Don’t be tempted to try to lift or physically move your dog or you could risk a bite yourself.
Secondly, DON’T PUNISH THE DOG for growling. Does this sound like crazy advice? Surely he needs to learn that growling at children is wrong? If he’s not punished won’t he growl at them again? All behaviour happens for a reason and growling is no different. A growl is an early warning system that a dog is uncomfortable or anxious about the presence or behaviour of the child. We should be glad that he has given us a chance to intervene and defuse the situation before things escalate. If the dog is punished for growling we run the risk, not only of disabling that early warning system, but also of creating further negative associations with the child. Trainer Ian Dunbar likens punishing a growl to taking the batteries out of a smoke alarm. It’s a warning that we should be thankful for.
Next, try to IDENTIFY THE TRIGGERS. Was your child sitting on the sofa with your dog? Petting the dog? Playing rough & tumble with the dog? Was the dog sleeping? Eating? Playing with a toy? If you are aware of and understand what lead to the growl then you will be better able to prevent the same situation happening in the future.
Increase SUPERVISION. Appropriate supervision of kids and dogs is the easiest way to keep everyone safe and happy. That means either proactively managing the environment by using gates, crates, pens etc if you can’t fully supervise interactions or being actively involved in supervising interactions by fully engaging with both the children and the dog. Being in the same room simply isn’t enough, especially with young children.. If you can’t supervise, separate. This graphic from Family Paws Parent Education is a great reminder of different levels of supervision.