When dogs growl at children but not at adults, this usually comes about as the result of inadvertently inappropriate behaviour on the part of the child, either at that time or at some point in the past that the dog remembers. It can also be due to bad experiences with a different child entirely, but regardless of the reason, having a dog that growls at kids is cause for concern, and is also often very alarming and worrying for the parents.
But before you panic and seek to rehome your dog or take other drastic measures, consider if you can get to the root of the problem and correct the behaviour before it gets out of hand. Providing that your dog has never bitten, nipped or snapped at your child (which is another degree of severity that may require a different approach) you stand a very good chance of being able to work with your dog and your child to get your household back on an even keel.
Read on for our advice.
It is important to identify the trigger that causes your dog to growl at your child, and work out if it happens only in certain situations. Common trigger points are if your child disturbs your dog while they are sleeping, gets too close to them or tries to interfere with them when they are eating, tries to take their toys off them, or does not know when to leave your dog alone.
Sometimes, your dog may be playing happily with your child but then gets overexcited and carried away, leading to too much stimulus and growling in response. Also, it is very common for younger children to not know how to handle or touch your dog correctly, meaning that the dog is expecting to get poked or have their tail pulled or face some other form of negative stimulus when your child is around.
If you have any concerns whatsoever about the behaviour of your dog around your child, it is vitally important that you absolutely never leave the two of them together unsupervised, even if they appear to be getting on well or ignoring each other.
While both your dog and your child will have a tendency to possibly behave rather differently towards each other when an adult is around, observing the two of them together without interfering may help you to identify the cause of growling, or one of the trigger points above, and help you to address it.
While tackling growling and establishing to your dog that this is not ok, it is also vital to train your child. Make sure that they know the basics such as not waking the dog up, not trying to take their food or toys, how to pat your dog, and the things that your dog does not like.
Many children between the ages of three and seven will go through a naughty phase where they might know that pulling the dog’s tail or otherwise annoying them is wrong, but they will do it anyway. If your child is going through this stage, it is important that you correct their behaviour, and that they are simply not allowed to play or interact with the dog until they can learn to do so appropriately.
Your dog’s training is vital too of course, and they should be generally obedient, follow commands,and not be out of control or unruly. Train the dog and the child simultaneously, giving a sharp “no!” command (to the dog!) when they growl, and a treat when they interact with the child and play nicely.
Any time that your dog growls or displays a negative response without reason, tell them “no” and then put them on a time-out for half an hour or so, so that they learn that growling is bad and will get them nowhere.
If you are at a loss as to why your dog is growling at your child and cannot connect it to a certain event or circumstance, the chances are that either your child behaves differently with the dog when you are not around and the dog has learnt to expect this.
Try to expose your dog to the presence of other children who you know are good with dogs (and their parents are on board with this idea!) and see if your dog growls with them, or if it is restricted to your own child.
If your dog has taken to growling at your child, the chances are that the dog does not trust your child, and if your child is old enough to understand that growling is a warning, your child might not trust your dog either.
You will need to go back to basics with both your dog and child, starting with introductions, small amounts of time spent together under supervision, and getting your child to give your dog a treat and some form of reward so that your dog re-learns that your child is not a threat or the source of negative stimulus.
It can take time to re-build trust in both the dog and the child, and you should not seek to rush the process or skip stages, or assume that because the child and dog get on well on one occasion, they will be ok together in the future. Ultimately, your dog and child should learn to get on, respect each other’s boundaries, and not get grumpy when they play together!