We own a delightful five-month-old Pomeranian puppy, who has taken to being nervous about children in the park where we regularly walk. He will bounce up to them and bark from a short distance away, circling them in the process. He does not seem aggressive at all, just very barky. As you can imagine, we are extremely concerned. Please help.
Nick Jones advises…
Any dog can be uncertain of anything if he hasn’t had adequate exposure to it during the formative months of his life. Ideally, we would begin to make such introductions from the eight-week mark, once you collect your new puppy (assuming he was brought home at that age). At such a young age, a puppy is open to virtually any experience so long as it is carried out safely and calmly, with the dog not feeling threatened or concerned by the event.
However, it’s not uncommon to hear of the behaviour you describe, especially if a dog’s owners have no children themselves and were unable to adequately socialise the puppy to children at the critical time. Your dog is still very young, though, and with proactive efforts to address this behaviour, you should be able to make good progress in due course.
The first step is not to avoid being around children, but to ensure you have total control of your dog until he can be trusted. He should not be allowed to run loose and run up to children and carry out the barking routine you describe. A simple 30-foot training line will enable you to control his behaviour to a much better degree, to enforce the recall when a child is seen, and then for you to carry out a controlled meeting at a distance you feel he can cope with. As he improves, that distance can be reduced as he becomes less reactive, and when he understands that you are directing these events and will not allow him to run about causing concern.
Here’s a basic drill to follow when you encounter children in the park…
With food-driven dogs, I would use very high-value food to enact the recall (assuming he’s away from you on the long line), and then you can simply use the line like a regular lead, allowing the excess length to drag on the ground behind you, or gathering it up if you prefer. Ask him to “Sit” and “Stay” at a distance away from the children that he can clearly manage while taking the food from you. It is this simple act of sitting, looking and feeding that will help change his experiences of children and what they represent.
As you progress, you can gradually reduce this distance while always monitoring his behaviour very carefully and ensuring he remains relaxed. If he starts to get tense or agitated – or if the child is too close, or begins to come towards you – then increase the distance, or simply walk away.
As he improves, and you get nearer to considering allowing a child to approach, you may feel that using a muzzle at that point would be sensible, to ensure there are no accidents. You will have plenty of time for ongoing risk assessment before you reach this stage, but do keep it in mind and always err on the side of safety. Muzzles can later be removed when you’ve had a good stretch of worry-free behaviour.
It may also help to ask a friend with a calm child to make what appears to be an unplanned meeting in the park. Arrange in advance for the child to have a supply of your dog’s high-value treats and the child can drop these from a distance for your dog to come and find, later reducing the distance as you see fit.
Another tip is to sit with your dog outside a fenced-in children’s play area, again at a distance your dog can cope with, and feed him generously for calm behaviour. Keep the sessions short, and move away on a good note.
This is, of course, a delicate process that is not easy – or sensible – to carry out on unsuspecting children and their parents. If you have any doubts about your dog’s behaviour at any stage, please seek the assistance of an experienced behaviour specialist.