Teaching a Maltipoo to Stop Growling at Children

By: David Codr

Published Date: March 24, 2016

Charlie Multipoo

Charlie is a four-year-old Maltipoo in Omaha who is starting to act aggressively to young children who approach, especially if his guardians give any attention to the child. This behavior became more serious when Charlie started to growl when the family’s 10 month old baby moves towards him.

Many people mistakenly think that a growl itself is aggression and correct or punish the dog for doing so. But a growl by itself is simply a communication. It’s the dogs way of saying that it’s uncomfortable. In this case it’s uncomfortable with the families baby moving in its direction.

If you punish a dog for growling in that scenario, it’s very easy for the dog to associate the punishment as being related to the approaching child. My preferred method for dealing with this sort of behavior is counterconditioning. But before we can get to that, we needed to establish a foundation of acceptable behavior.

I got a few clues as to Charlie’s perception of self when I arrived for the session.

To dogs, the higher that they stand or sit, the more status or rank they have in conjunction to their peers. Charlie repetitively jumped up on the furniture while he barked at me in an attempt to get himself some additional status.

I gave Charlie a couple of minutes to try to settle himself down while I asked his guardians a few questions about his daily routine. I could see some signs of insecurity as he liked to bark at me from behind his guardians whenever possible or he would retreat after barking.

Unfortunately one of his guardians tried to reassure Charlie by petting him while he was in this agitated state of mind. But when a dog is in an unbalanced state of mind and we pet it, we are actually reinforcing the exact state of mind that we are attempting to change.

I used a leash time-out to help Charlie settle down. Once he had returned to a somewhat calm and balanced state, I showed his guardians how they can reward desired behaviors rather than encouraging those they do not want.

It’s going to be extremely important for Charlie’s guardians to alter his mindset when it comes to his authority. If Charlie feels that he has the same status as the family’s mother and father, then it is entirely appropriate for him to growl and disagree with the child if he does not condone what the child is doing.

Applying rules and enforcing them consistently while also petting Charlie with a purpose are great ways to change the dog’s perception of self.

Because Charlie was showing some signs of insecurity, I advised his guardians to teach him a few tricks and commands to help boost his self-esteem. Because Charlie had a tendency to run away when given the opportunity, I decided to show his guardians how they can practice a simple recall exercise to accomplish this.

Not only will conditioning Charlie to recall on command help prevent him from running away, it will also teach him a skill that he can feel good about. Just like humans, dogs feel a sense of accomplishment when they master new skill. The more tricks and commands Charlie’s guardians can teach him, the more confident he will become.

While it is not a direct correlation, confident dogs are less apt to act out in situations they do not understand. I also like the dynamic that develops when a human is teaching a dog a new skill. This mentor / protégé relationship can go a long ways towards building up the dog’s respect for the humans as authority figures.

Now that we had added some structure and Charlie was already starting to identify as being in a follower position, I had the guardians bring their child into the room so that I could show them how they can help the dog feel more comfortable with the baby’s presence.

It was great to see Charlie have a “no big deal” reaction when the baby entered the room. I was observing to see if he would stare at her intently or give any other indicators that he was in disagreement with her arrival. The only signs that I read from Charlie was some lip licking which can be a sign of stress or a calming signal.

If the guardians notice Charlie licking his lips as the baby approach or is in close proximity, this is an indicator that should direct them to keep a close eye on him or have him move away from the baby by tossing a treat in another direction. Lip licking is not an indicator of aggression, its simply the dogs way of saying that he is a little bit uncomfortable.

In the video, we tried to re-create a situation where the baby approached where the dog was. In hindsight, having the guardians pull out food was not an ideal choice. Dogs consider food a resource and having a baby approach a human with food while the dog approaches the same human at the same time can very quickly turn into a confrontation. It was OK in this specific situation because I was present, but this is a scenario I would advise the guardians to not repeat. In fact instituting a rule that the dog needs to be at least 10 feet away from any human with food would be highly advisable.

In my opinion, the best rehabilitation method for Charlie is going to be the counterconditioning that I showed the family’s mother towards the end of the above video.

One thing I neglected to mention in the video is the guardian should retract her hand and the treat any time the dog places his paw on top of her arm. This is the dog’s way of attempting to dominate her or control the situation. The appropriate consequence for this should be to withdraw the arm and treat or reward each time the dog starts lift his paw or places it on her arm.

By providing a positive reinforcer while the dog is looking at the child, we can help Charlie start to associate positivity with the arrival of the baby. His guardians will need to practice this when the dog is in a calm and balanced frame of mind and with a great amount of distance between the dog and the child. Each repetition they should be able to get the child closer and closer to the dog without the dog reacting.

The key is to stop the exercise before the dog reacts. The two tests I use are putting the dog into a sitting position and offering it a treat. If the dog has difficulty sitting or does not show interest in the treat, it’s a signal that the stimulus, in this case the baby, is too close to the dog.

The goal is to have the dog practice the baby approaching while good things happen to it, i.e. getting a treat. If this is done consistently over the course of a couple days or weeks, eventually the dog starts to associate treats falling from the sky when the baby approaches.

It was great to finish the session with the dog completely calm while the baby was crawling around on the floor a few feet away.

It’s going to be very important for the guardians to continue to enforce rules and boundaries as well as rewarding the dog for desired behaviors rather than any time he demands their attention. Over time, this will change the dog’s perception of self into that of a follower. Combined with counterconditioning, Charlie will soon have a positive association of the child and not feel like he has to compete or be responsible for her.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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