Home for the Holidays

Dear Dr. Maxwell,

My aunt is coming to stay with me for a week at Christmas and she wants to bring her two Yorkies. They are generally good dogs but they’re skittish and they’ve never been around children. We had a baby boy this year and he is now crawling and learning to walk. I’m concerned that the dogs will be fearful or aggressive with him. When I asked my aunt about this, she said she’d keep an eye on them and that they’d probably be fine with a slow introduction to my son, but I’m not convinced. She loves these dogs like her own children and I worry she’ll take it personally if we ask her not to bring them. How can we make sure this visit goes safely and smoothly for everybody?

Christina O.

Blacksburg, VA

The holiday season can be full of joy as well as stress for many families, especially when family members come in from out of town to stay. The concerns you have, Christina, are valid ones. Many dogs who are not introduced to children in a positive way throughout their puppyhood can develop fearful, avoidant, or even aggressive responses to children later in life. Without your aunt having carefully observed her dogs’ reaction to children in the past, she cannot say with certainty how her dogs will respond. And holiday visits are neither the time to test this out nor the time to teach the dogs how to respond positively to children should their behavior be less than ideal.

Dogs don’t necessarily view children as simply younger versions of adults. Children look, sound, and smell different than adults do. Children move differently, act less predictably, and respond more variably to dogs than do adults. Many children may be overly excited about meeting new dogs, while others may squeal and run away in fear or play. Still others may pull tails or ears or startle dogs with sudden pats or hugs. Any of these variables can spell trouble when kids and dogs mix. When you add to this the hustle and bustle of holiday festivities, your best bet is definitely to avoid the situation altogether. Perhaps your aunt has a friend in her hometown who enjoys the dogs, and whom they enjoy visiting. Or perhaps she has a doggie daycare she has used in the past. Alternatively, perhaps there are other accommodations for your aunt and her dogs here in Blacksburg, where they could stay without having to worry about children in the mix. Any of these options are preferable when her dogs’ responses to children are as yet unknown.

If your aunt would like to begin introducing her dogs to children in general, so as to assure they respond positively, she might start by bringing them to a local park this spring, observing their reactions to children at a distance, and rewarding relaxed or playful behavior while children are playing nearby at first. From there, she might seek out the assistance of someone she knows who has an older child first and allow some introductions and treat deliveries from the child, as long as her dogs have shown lots of prosocial, friendly body language and interest up to that point. (If she is at all uncertain about how her dogs are responding to children at any distance, she should contact a board certified applied animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist for an assessment before proceeding on her own.) This is a process that might unfold very smoothly and successfully for her and her dogs, thus allowing for them all to stay at your house next year. But without further information on her dogs’ behavior at this point, you might be better able to focus on the holiday merriment this time around without having to worry about it.

Because of your aunt’s understandable attachment to her dogs, you might frame your request in terms of your concern not just for your son but also for her dogs. If her dogs are already prone to skittishness as you describe, and were found to be especially nervous around your son upon arrival, they may be unlikely to enjoy their travel experience very much either. Some dogs who are somewhat timid or jumpy in new situations are better off staying in a familiar place or with familiar people, even if their owners would prefer to share the holiday with them.

So, Christina, while this year’s holiday might be easiest if it’s dogless, you and your aunt can definitely work on developing a socialization plan for her dogs in 2017 that might allow next year’s visit to be a Yorkie-filled Yuletide after all!