Q: I have a 3 year old neutered Golden Retriever possibly mixed with an Afghan as he is taller than other Goldens. My dog has always been super friendly with dogs and humans alike. Last year, while in the dog park he was being aggressive when other dogs would sniff him and would snap at them aggressively so I left the park. He is always overly excited to see people whether he knows them or not and usually jumps all over people although I have learned to control that. This past summer in a park my dog snapped at a little 2 year old child , I corrected him right away and thought that it was a freak incident. Then it happened again with another 2 year old boy. I don’t think this is normal behavior for any dog especially a Golden. Now I’m afraid of walking my dog anywhere kids or other dogs may be. What can I do to rectify this behavior? Should I get him a muzzle? I don’t want to try fixing this if it involves him being around kids, its the worst feeling in the world when he snaps at them. Luckily the parents were super nice and no harm was done to the kids although they may fear dogs forever now.
A: Thank you for writing in with such an important question. I can totally understand your concerns regarding aggressive behavior from your dog who had previously been friendly towards other dogs and people. Snapping at dogs or children is an unacceptable behavior, although I wouldn’t agree that it is not a normal behavior. (I will get into this further on.)
From what you’ve written, I get the sense that your dog is exhibiting forms of fear aggression. This does not mean that you have an aggressive dog on your hands though, so don’t panic. If he was actually aggressive, then he would have bitten other dogs, and possibly even children. The fact that he didn’t shows that he has a high bite threshold, which is a positive thing! Believe me, your dog knows the difference between a bite and a warning snap.
While I do enjoy taking my two dogs to dog parks, I know that it is not the best place for all dogs. Not all dogs in dog parks have good canine manners, and not all dogs who frequent dog parks like being there either. Which is why I think it might be a good idea to forgo the dog park for now. Not that your dog shouldn’t meet and play with other dogs…because most dogs really enjoy the company of other dogs. Rather that his encounters might be best if they were more controlled. Try enlisting the help of friends who have well mannered dogs, to make some doggy play dates. Try letting your dog meet one dog at a time though, so that he doesn’t feel as swarmed as he might at a dog park. Let them meet in a neutral area, and take cues from your dog as to if he is interested in meeting another dog. If he isn’t, then follow his cue and don’t push it. You can both go for a nice walk instead, with your dogs on the outside of each of you. Even though they won’t be right next to each other, the dogs will be doing something together, and might be a good way to wet your dogs feet wet when it comes to spending time with other dogs.
Most dogs approach each other from the side, in an arc, so some face to face meetings don’t go all that well. Walking together is a wonderful way for each dog to let the other dog know that they aren’t a threat to each other, and is a wonderful way for them to create a bond. This will also be a wonderful way to gradually teach your dog that other dogs are not a threat, and that other doggy friends can be a good thing!
Now to the snapping at young children, which is a much more serious issue. When it comes to children, we have to understand that to our dogs, children are a completely different kettle of fish. They don’t smell the same, they don’t look the same, and they surely don’t sound the same as us adults do. And for some dogs who haven’t been habituated to young children, some dogs can actually be frightened of them. Children are often loud with their laughter and squeals, and are not as controlled in their movements, which can all scare your dog. I don’t know exactly what happened with your dog and the children mentioned, but I am assuming that your dog snapped at them by way of a response, or a warning to stop what they were doing, or to move away from him, rather than an all out lunge at them.
Remember where I said that I didn’t agree that this wasn’t normal behavior for a dog? What I meant is that when a dog is nervous, or uncomfortable about something, they often feel as if they have no other choice but to ‘fight’ which in your dogs case, is a snap. Especially if they are on a leash, or cornered. A dogs natural instinct towards something unpleasant or fearful is usually either ‘fight or flight’. If he was swarmed by other dogs in the dog park, he might have felt trapped. If he was on a leash while in the park with the children, then he may have felt that he had no way to escape. Not that any of this is an excuse for his unacceptable behavior though. I am just trying to help you understand why your dog may have acted that way.
So no, I don’t think that you’ll need to muzzle your dog, but he will need to learn that other dogs and children aren’t as threatening as he thinks they are. So while I wouldn’t suggest bringing him to a daycare full of screaming children, I would suggest bringing him near a park where there are children playing. Make sure to keep him a distance where he feels comfortable though. If he starts to show any signs of stress (drooling, lip smacking, yawning, raised hackles, stiff wagging of tail, lip curls, growls, whale eyes and such) then that is a sign to move him further away where he will be more comfortable. The idea is to keep him stress free. Once he’s far enough away, and is calm, then reward him. Use whatever reward he loves. And I mean really loves. Make it extra special by only using this reward when walking near children, and at no other time, which will make the reward that much more sought after and appreciated. Eventually he will learn to associate children with those wonderful favorite treats of his, and the association will be a positive one.
Gradually, you will start decreasing the distance between your dog and the children. But this needs to be done very gradually. He should be exposed, at a distance at first of course, to many situations involving children. Small groups of kids playing, larger louder groups, and even single children. The more comfortable he gets, the closer you can bring him. But you will have to pay close attention to your dog’s cues and body language, to know how comfortable he is. He is the one who will decide this, not you. So you will have to be patient.
Eventually you’ll be able to sit on a bench with your dog watching children playing on the swings or merry go round. And if a child comes up to you and your dog, do not be ashamed to tell them that it’s not a good idea to touch Poochy today because he is a little nervous, and is not ready to be petted today. Make sure to say this when they are not already too close to your dog. They should stay where they are. (It helps a lot if an adult is present, if not, then move away.) Once your dog sees that they respect his personal space, he will eventually become more relaxed around them. But it will be your job to make sure that his personal space is respected. From there, once your dog gains more confidence, he may even venture closer for a sniff. This is perfectly normal, but do not assume that just because he wants to sniff a child, that he is ready to be pet by one. He may want just a sniff. When he is ready to be pet, he will either lick their hand, or nudge them. One or the other action will let you know that he is inviting a pet.
So all in all, your dog can learn to be more relaxed around children and other dogs. But it will take time and patience on your part. But I know that you can do it!
Good luck and happy training!
Perfect Pet Training