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Canine aggression toward children (Proceedings)

Article

Dogs these days are treated as children. They are expected to be social, and to have good manners. Unfortunately, some dogs are just not comfortable with children. Puppies purchased from breeders as well as adults adopted from shelters may present for aggressive behavior toward children.

Dogs these days are treated as children. They are expected to be social, and to have good manners. Unfortunately, some dogs are just not comfortable with children. Puppies purchased from breeders as well as adults adopted from shelters may present for aggressive behavior toward children.

When owners bring their puppies for their first wellness examinations, they should be educated about the value of socialization. It may not be possible to overcome a genetic predisposition to be fearful of or aggressive toward children. But if there is a chance to do so, that chance occurs during the sensitive period of development. This period ends as puppies approach 16 weeks of age. Encourage clients to attend puppy socialization classes and to bring their children along.

Even with adequate appropriate exposure, dogs may begin to exhibit aggression toward children as they mature. When aggression is directed toward non-household children, some owners carefully supervise or routinely separate the dog from visiting children. They don't mind leaving the dog home when they attend social events. If households maintain a laissez-faire open door policy, safety cannot be assured. Rehoming may be the only option.

It is more difficult to manage aggression that is directed toward household children. There are multiple opportunities for interactions on any given day. In some cases, owners have unreasonable expectations. People are often unaware that many routinely exhibited, normal behaviors of children appear threatening to some dogs.

Many dog owners are unable to interpret canine body language. Subtle threats such as stiff postures or even snarls may be overlooked. A normal dog will gradually increase the intensity of a threat until it perceives a response by the recipient.

Another dangerous situation can arise when a dog is punished for exhibiting distance-increasing postures. Not only can punishment increase fear, but a dog that is punished for signaling will abandon the signals and instead, bite without warning.

Children of any age may be targets of canine aggression. It is easy for humans to forget that dogs, even coddled lap dogs, are predators. Infants, particularly for the first 3 months of life, are treated by many dogs as prey. Dogs that have been successful predators may need to be removed from the home during this high risk period. Infants may be killed when owners underestimate the ability of a dog to seek and find prey.

Many dogs tolerate children from 3 months to 18 months of age. During this period, the baby begins to resemble a person yet with only limited mobility, the child is not very threatening. Most dogs present clinically when crawling and toddling begin. A behavioral work up should reveal the nature of the aggression. A physical evaluation will identify medical conditions that can exacerbate underlying aggression.

A common diagnosis for aggression toward children is fear-based aggression. When owners are asked to describe the posture of the dog as the child approaches, they may report that the dog exhibits erect posture with ears up. This might be interpreted as assertive behavior. More questioning may uncover a history of a dog that initially attempted to hide or move away from the toddler, perhaps snarling or growling as he retreated. When those postures did not successfully yield safety, the fearful dog may have learned to exhibit more offensive behavior. As previously suggested, offensive aggression can also stem from inappropriate punishment for signaling.

Other common diagnoses for aggression toward children include resource guarding, conflict- related aggression, and dominance related aggression. In many cases, there is a history of aggression in these contexts toward one or more household adults. Body posture may reflect confidence or ambivalence rather than fear.

Before attempting to treat aggressive behavior toward children, it is imperative that stringent safety guidelines be established. These cannot be negotiable. Adult supervision will be needed at all times. In some cases, gates or muzzles are needed to assure safety. Owners that cannot understand or implement these rules should be encouraged to rehome the dog.

In all cases, the prognosis should be discussed so that owners can make an educated decision for their household. Bear in mind that often, the dog was the first child. Parents may initially be more attached to the dog than to the new baby. Guidance from an appropriate health care professional should be encouraged, particularly if the prognosis is poor. The veterinarian can offer to board the dog so that the family can spend some time considering the difficult choices.

The behavioral treatment plan for aggression toward children will be generated based on the diagnosis and the nature of the triggers. Common provocative situations should initially be prevented through meticulous management. Adults must be educated so that they can identify subtle signs of fear or arousal. Children can learn how to behave appropriately and respectfully when in the presence of a dog. Behavior modification may include desensitization and counterconditioning to reduce a dog's reaction to the normal activities of the child. If applicable, dogs can learn to relinquish objects and resting places through reward-based training.

Clients will inquire about the use of psychotropic medication. The choice to use a mood-altering drug should not be made lightly. Anxious dogs may relax and learn more effectively with a medication on board. However, drugs designed to reduce anxiety can cause the unwanted side effect of increased anxiety, or even increased aggression. There may be reduced tolerance of manipulations such as hugs, or being dressed up in clothing. Since any drug selected will be prescribed as an extra label medication, written informed consent is suggested. Physical and behavioral risks should be clearly outlined.

The relationship between a child and a dog can improve substantially, particularly as the child becomes an important human in the dog's life. The risk of serious injury should not be underestimated. The veterinarian, as a trusted advocate for the dog, plays an important role in counseling clients regarding realistic expectations.

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