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My dog, Covid, is very protective of me, which is good to an extent. But he won’t even allow my 16-year-old and 20-year-old kids to hug me without getting defensive toward them. I’m not sure if he is just intimidating them or if he will really attack them, but I don’t want to find out. What can I do to prevent this from happening? — Amanda
This is a scary problem to have, especially when kids are involved. The truth is, it’s also a hard question to give a straightforward answer to. A lot depends on your dog’s motivation. Is your dog protecting you? Is he resource guarding? Is he in fear of the kids? I’d also want to observe your dog’s body language while going toward your kids — is he barking and growling? Is his hair standing on end?
In general, I would focus on utilizing a “stay” command in this case, ideally through a barrier like a baby gate — but not something as obstructing as, say, a tall fence. Have the dog do a “stay” command, then have your kids approach. Give them a hug, move away, and give Covid a high-value reward. Repeat this many times. What you’re trying to do is change the dog’s emotional association to people approaching and hugging you. You might want to start with actions smaller than a hug, such as a handshake, or just talking in close proximity.
As far as Covid’s behavior toward your children, if it seems truly scary and aggressive, you’ll need to expose him to increasingly challenging versions of the things that stress him out. I’d wager that this isn’t the only thing that makes Covid wig out. There’s something called a “relaxation protocol” — the Karen Overall Relaxation Protocol — that you can find online. I’d start with that and have some of the last things you do involve family members approaching for a hug. If there’s true danger, I would make sure there is space between the family and the dog while doing this.
Sometimes, people train a dog to do a “stay” command through a barrier, and the dog still reacts when they’re right next to their mom, even if they don’t have a problem from five feet away. In this case, you would have to practice in closer and closer proximity.
At that point, while practicing, you might want to consider a muzzle to make sure we’re keeping everybody safe. Keep in mind that muzzle training is its own separate task — you shouldn’t just slap a muzzle on a dog. You would need to go through muzzle desensitization. I recommend The Muzzle Project for help doing this. Work on training — the “stay” command and counter conditioning toward family members — while doing muzzle desensitization. Then, as you’re getting closer and closer, you can combine the muzzle and the training protocol.
Best of luck solving this problem. Remember to always prioritize safety, and be patient with yourself and your dog.
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Robert Haussmann, CPDT-KA
Robert Haussman founded Dogboy NYC in 2005 to help pets navigate the urban jungle that is New York City using creative, practical, and humane training methods. Haussmann is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant, specializing in helping dogs overcome behavioral issues including fear, phobias, anxiety, and aggression. He advises owners on the best practices for making their dogs feel safe at home and beyond.