Dog for 8/7

Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at dogbehaviorquestions@gmail.com.

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Dog Gone Problems,

I have continuous problems with my 4-year-old rescue poodle being aggressive and jealous of my 1-year-old baby.

Bowie was rescued at 6 months old and I've trained him thoroughly. He is reserved but never aggressive. He remains sensitive and somewhat nervous of loud noises or a strangers grab for his poodle Afro, but overall he is a very polite canine citizen.

When I became pregnant last year, I put a lot of effort into prepping him for the baby. I bought a training baby and gave it all of my attention. I played YouTube videos with baby crying and noises. I walked him with the stroller and while wearing the fake baby. Everything!

When we returned home with the baby, Bowie's daily work was interrupted and replaced by going with dad to his solitary art studio and he stopped eating. He didn't eat for almost a month and lost about six pounds from his lithe 45-pound frame.

Bowie now eats, but a year later he still growls incessantly at the baby, who crawls about wherever she pleases in the house.

We do all the things I think you're supposed to. We keep them separated. We make sure Bowie knows he has a safe space in the other room on his mat. The baby cannot touch his toys or his bed. But he's forever worked up about her. I cannot help but interpret his actions as pure jealousy.

Please help! I'd love to know the steps I'm taking are on the path to an ending of the growling — not encouraging it.

Elise

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Hi Elise,

When I encounter a dog who is reacting to something, the first thing I do is make sure there is nothing going on that is reasonable for a dog to dislike or disagree with. It sounds like you did a good job of that, so I'm going to jump straight to my advice.

Creating a positive association is always a good idea when you are dealing with a reactive dog. The key to stopping dog reactivity is to find a scenario where the dog feels safe and is not reacting. Once a dog is reacting — something we call “above threshold” — he or she is basically hysterical and won’t listen or learn anything. So when following my instructions, make sure your dog is calm and non-reactive. Any time he is, increase distance until he can sit and take a treat while able to see whatever he was previously reacting to.

So find a place large enough for Bowie to see the baby without reacting (you may need to go outside to accomplish this), dust off your clicker and get some amazingly high-value treats with a strong scent. With Bowie on the leash and the baby on the other side of the room or yard, give him a sit command and then wait for him to look at the baby. The instant he does, click and then offer him a treat. Say the baby’s name immediately after you put the treat into his mouth. Repeat this until Bowie is looking at the baby often and with loose, relaxed body language.

Take note of the distance you were at before stopping the exercise. Next time you practice, this will be your starting point.

You want to finish the exercise with a really good feeling so get out a ball and play fetch, pet your dog or spend a few minutes in a game or activity he likes. Be sure to invest a few minutes after each session playing with him for his good work.

During your next practice session, find a different orientation but with the same distance you stopped at last time. Dogs don’t generalize well, so practicing in different locations and orientations is important.

Wait for Bowie to look at the baby while he is sitting, then click and treat again as detailed earlier. Once Bowie is looking frequently with a nice relaxed body posture, take one step closer and repeat the process.

Keep practicing until Bowie doesn’t seem to want to sit or take the treat. Some dogs intentionally turn away. This is his way of saying "I'm getting too close for comfort. If you push me, I'm going to start reacting, which is a big no-no."

It will take some time and practice, but eventually the dog will start to have a positive association with the sight of the baby. And the baby’s name becomes a command word for this engagement. If you go slow and keep Bowie from reacting, you will see that he starts to feels good about and look at the baby often and while relaxed and calm.

Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.

David

Submit your pet questions to David Codr by emailing a photo of your dog and question to dogbehaviorquestions@gmail.com. Visit doggoneproblems.com for more from David.

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