The Fear Aggressive Dog and Children

In the comments on my post about dogs and where to find one, The Momsomniac said she would have been afraid to have Sam around kids and wanted to know how I did it. I’m going to point out, right here, that I am not an animal behaviorist, I am not a vet, and I am NOT advocating that ANYONE attempt to manage an aggressive dog with small children. I was asked what I did and how I did it, and I’m answering the question. That’s it.

Okay, so first thing, before we realized that we had a “problem” on our hands, Sam was around children. She grew up around a sweet little girl (who is now almost 16, OMG) who was very willing to listen to what she had to do when she wanted to be with Sam. One of the strongest, most indelible images I have in my mind is letting her walk Sam (with a gentle leader on Sam), and not going with them. Her father was concerned, but I knew Sam and knew what she would do. The second that the young girl started to lead Sam past a point where Sam could see me, she balked. Sam sat down and refused to move one more step. The little girl shrugged, turned around and started walking back. It was so much that Sam was protecting the little girl as her sense of security has always been wrapped up in my presence. It is very hard for P to take Sam to the vet without me and we try to avoid doing that. Typically, I’m in the exam room with Sam, the vet, and at least one vet tech. I’m the one who mans the “bitey end” because I know what the hell I’m doing with her. Normally, vets discourage you from being near your dog when she needs treatment, but our vet realizes if I’m not at her head, where she can see me, she will fight like a demon to get away and no one needs to experience that. No one.

Also, it is very important to understand that Sam has a diagnosis of fear aggression. She has been seen by behaviorists who do not understand how I’ve learned to manage her as well as I have. She is on medication for thyroid and pain related to two medical conditions that underlie and can aggravate her aggression. I have not labeled her myself and I have not reached the conclusions or the decisions that I’ve made by myself. Our vet(s) have been our partners in treating Sam since the day the first Dr. K figured out that Sam had “a screw loose.”

So, when we found out that we were expecting Ben. I dug out something that I’d picked up in New York a couple of years before — a newborn Cabbage Patch doll. We refer to that doll as Sam’s practice baby. I had read in numerous places that, used properly, you could teach a dog how to treat a baby by using a doll. However, you don’t give the doll to the dog. This is where most people make a mistake. You play with the doll and teach the dog how to be around the baby.

I would sit on the floor once or twice a day with the doll and play patty-cake with it or whatever until Sam got interested and came over to check things out. Then she’d be told to lie down next to the area where the baby was playing and stay. She learned to do that and was very respectful of the doll’s space. I made sure to make the doll make random movements like a baby might and to make crying noises and so forth. I’m convinced these things helped Sam adapt to Ben’s presence more than anything else that I did.

I also read Childproofing Your Dog: A Complete Guide to Preparing Your Dog for the Children in Your Life. This book helped me with the next phase of training both my dog and my son.

Sam loved Ben from the start. She thought he was the most interesting thing, though she quickly learned to be wary of those little arms as they moved without warning. She became more wary when Ben got bigger, but my job was already started. From the time Ben could make self-determined motions, he was cautioned about Sam. Practically from birth, he’s been taught that there are things you don’t do with Sam.

As he’s gotten older, he’s made some mistakes, and fortunately, Sam sees him as her small person so she doesn’t take exception, too strongly, to his mistakes, but he’s gotten that warning grumble that raises the hair on the back of my neck. At one point, when Ben was in the super-dropping toddler phase, Sam was kept behind a gate during meals to keep her from competing with him for food. He would lose. We’re heading into the stage where we’re going to have to do the same thing for Katie.

My kids are never left unsupervised with Sam. NEVER. Since she tends to follow me everywhere, this hasn’t been as large an issue as it might be for some. Sam has her own space and the kids are not allowed in it, no matter what. Sam is given some level of preferential treatment.

Even with all that, she was almost put to sleep a few years ago because she bit again and I was worried that she was going to attack Ben. And, to be honest, had I not insisted that our vet check every possibility she likely would have bitten Ben. But now, we know what one of the underlying issues was that caused the dramatic (even for a dog with fear aggression) change in personality. And there’s medication and it helps her.

Sam is never going to be a calm dog. She’s never going to be a dog who can be trusted with small children. I drug her with tranquilizers when Ben has playdates so she doesn’t fuss up a storm while other kids are over. She can’t be trusted to understand that a small child chasing Ben isn’t a threat to him. I would be in constant terror if I let her loose.

She can be managed. But that management comes at a price. A fairly steep one. She can only be boarded at our vet’s office. And he can only take her when there aren’t emergencies taking up all of his space. Usually, he will find room for her. We don’t have people over as often as we might like because it’s too stressful for her even with the drugs. All the drugs do is force her into a drugged up stupor, but they do not lessen her anxiety over the situation.


She’ll be twelve in March. Hard to believe for me. It still seems like I brought her home yesterday. Again, I would not advocate trying to manage a fear aggressive dog with a young child unless you feel confident that you know your dog and know him/her really, really well. I had eight years of experience with her under my belt before we had Ben, and I was STILL caught off guard when she developed her additional problems. If you think you have a fear aggressive dog, get HELP. There are animal behaviorists who specialize in fear aggression who can help. Ask your vet for recommendations. Do not try to do it on your own.

2 thoughts on “The Fear Aggressive Dog and Children

  1. Thank you for sharing this. As I mentioned, I am somewhat fearful around dogs; I could never have pulled it off. What love, determination, and consistency this must have taken.

    • I understand fear. I’ve been afraid of Sam. I have. I won’t deny it. She’s a tough dog to love, but I do.

      Unfortunately, P did not take some of this as seriously as I did. Until the day she bit him, he believed it was something I was doing due to my inexperience and not something innate in her. Even with diagnosis on my side, my lack of experience made him certain that I influenced her evaluators.


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