Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fear of Little Boys

Bruno is terribly affraid of little boys-- and naturally, they are terribly afraid of him. I hate to think that he was abused by a child, but he only reacts to little boys of a certain age. His fear is not of children in general, which means its not their size or noise level or energy level, but the appearence of little boys. I feel out of my league in training him to not respond so negatively to them because I don't even know what he has been through.

We are not sure what to do, because now that Bruno has gotten more comfortable in our neighborhood and home and gotten better from his accident, he is showing much more aggression towards kids. In a neighborhood full of families and children, what could be worse?

It is a frightful thing because we don't want to scare children of course, and we don't want people to be afraid of Bruno-who we know to be a sweet and gentle dog. We don't want our landlord to even have to ask us to leave because Bruno is scaring the families. We want to advance the breeds reputation, not hurt it.

The ASPCA  has a great resource for all kinds of behavioral problems, including an entire page on Fear of Children. The ASPCA of course advises avoiding children, which is impossible for us where we live now. If unavoidable, they recommend a muzzel. The problem with this is that it makes him look scary, which is the last thing I want, but of course I understand that ultimately a muzzeled dog is less scary than a barking, lungeing dog.

The ASPCA also advises using the "U-Turn" technique, which actually works well for us outside (We see children coming and we either turn around or stop and make Bruno sit and pay attention to us for a treat.) But this is impossible inside. Near and among the elevators is actually where he is the most aggressive because of the surprise of children when the doors open. The surprise seems to be the worst part of it and the hardest thing to work around, which is why I am seriously considering a muzzel.

Muzzels, however, don't fix the problem but only cover it up. The ASPCA recommends psychological treatment called Desensitization and Counterconditioning (DSCC) and seeking the help of experts.

I am hoping that over the next few weeks the muzzel combined with the U-Turn and treats will be enough to help Bruno, because he is after all a very reslient dog who learns quickly.

The other thing that worries me is that breed profiles and specialists sometimes say that when pit bulls demonstrate any agression to humans and esspecially towards children, they may need be put to sleep, because they are not demonstrating typical or desireable breed temperment.

(See this Rescue Site- "Note: A pit bull that shows unprovoked human aggression, especially with children, is NOT typical of the breed and is showing very poor temperament. Such a dog should be thoroughly evaluated by a trainer or behaviorist experienced in the breed for a final determination of their temperament and recommendation on how to proceed.")

Statistics on Dog Bites/Children:
"Studies of dog bite injuries have reported that:
  • The median age of patients bitten was 15 years, with children, especially boys aged 5 to 9 years, having the highest incidence rate
  • The majority of dog attacks (61%) happen at home or in a familiar place. 
  • The vast majority of biting dogs (77%) belong to the victim's family or a friend. "
Interestingly, although Pitbulls and Rottweilers account for more than half of dog-bite-deaths, they do not account for the same ammount of dog BITES. This means that Pit Bulls are plagued with the quality of being able to cause much more damage than other dogs. (For example, while Pomeranians may bite people just as much as Pit Bulls or even more, they rarely kill. Also, only 1% of bite-deaths occured while the dog was restrained and off the owners' property. (Read more here)Pit Bulls are powerful and are extremely tenacious. We as pit bull owners need to remember that while they may be no meaner or fierer than other dogs, they are capable of much more damage when they do react- (why else would they be used to fighting?) and that is why I am taking Bruno's recent behavior so seriously.

Strangely, Bruno is extremely dog friendly and would never hurt a dog. He also snuggles with us on our bed and loves to lick our faces and gingerly accepts treats and shows no aggression to adults. After how much he has survived, I know that he is going to have a happy life, but I worry about 1) keeping him --because we plan on having children in the next 3-5 years, and 2) giving him up for adoption, because someone might not understand his unique needs and he could end up in the shelter again.

I love pit bulls and I welcome their good and bad qualities. Most of all, I want other people to love them as much as I do. I want to be a good owner who understands my dog's feelings and limitations. Hearing people say they are afraid of my pit bulls is the hardest thing for me to hear, so I need to to everything I can to help Bruno. If anyone has any advice or has dealt with a similar problem, please let me know.


  1. Jessica - I feel very deeply the same emotions you're experiencing now. It took Emma a few months to settle in with me, but once she did she began exhibiting reactive behavior towards any people who showed any type of behavior that she perceived as aggressive (this including waving arms, people throwing balls, raised arms, raised voices, sudden movement, in other words, a LOT of behavior!). She never lunged at people or seemed like she would bite, but she would bark and take a step or two towards them. I stopped taking her anywhere, as I needed to keep her as calm as possible, and keep her away from her triggers.

    I then embarked on a SERIOUS and intense CC/DS program with her, I enlisted the help of my younger brother (14 years old) and used people on the street/in the park as our training tools. I even used myself, as her first reaction ever was to me snapping my fingers near her head. It took a few months but she's much calmer now. She will still react if she thinks someone's getting too rowdy (like a group of kids screaming and running) but she can comfortably be near people throwing toys without getting upset, which was impossible before.

    Your situation is a little different, but I strongly recommend seeking professional help and embarking on your own DS/CC program. As for meeting kids by the elevator, I'm afraid my only advice is to only take him out when kids won't be around (super early morning, or after they're already in school, midday, and late night) and consider taking the stairs. If you do use a muzzle, make sure you DS him to it, so that he's comfortable wearing it. You may want to get him on a head halter so you have more control of his head (also needs DS before you use it outside).

    Honestly, and you may not want to hear this, if he's not 100% happy with kids I wouldn't bring kids into a home with him (in reference to your desire to have kids) unless you're able to keep them separated at all times. On a dog training list I frequent there was just a discussion about a dog who put 14 stitches into a girl's face. Mom was in the same room with child and dog. Mom must have turned around for a second, child startled dog, dog was never 100% comfortable with child, had poor bite inhibition, and did some serious damage. I'm not saying that your pup would act the same way in this situation, I just think it's important to keep in mind - what if you have a boy? If you're really serious about having kids, you may need to rehome him if you won't be able to keep them separated.

    OK this is really long, sorry.

    Also, do the boys need to be doing anything for him to react, or is it react to boys on sight? What age range? What's his reaction?

  2. UGH. I wrote you a very long response. The program said it was too long and deleted it!!!!

    The short of it is that Emma had issues with perceived aggression in people and DS/CC worked miracles for us.

    You should consult a professional and work out your own plan.

    You may not be able to have a home with your pup and a child, unless you can separate the two at all times.

    If you use a muzzle, make sure you DS him to it. You may also want to consider using a head halter for more control, also needs DS.

  3. Hi" I actually did get your longer comment! Thanks so much for the advice. So far the muzzle and treats have been working well but if we decide to keep him he will definitely need some more help.

  4. Hi there! I found your blog through "A Poodle and a Pit Bull" and Ettel offered you some GREAT advice. I have a fearful dog, Mayzie. Luckily, for me, she's not fearful at ALL of people but she is fearful of new situations and other dogs.

    I'm not a trainer but I have done a lot of research into fear-based behavior in dogs. There's a huge difference in a dog who is truly aggressive and a dog who is fear aggressive. (I hope that makes sense.) While Bruno may be showing some aggressive displays, it sounds to me like they're based in fears - not his genetic predisposition.

    The thing is that ANY dog, regardless of breed, can show fear aggression due to their background and/or lack of socialization. Dogs are individuals and, like us, they are shaped by their previous experiences (or lack thereof).

    It's great you're getting such help from the ASPCA. If you can afford it, I would definitely enlist the help of a behaviorist. I also hope you'll check out this yahoo list that's been a HUGE help to me. There are some very wise and wonderful people on there who will give you wonderful advice and support: (Even though it's called "Shy K9s," it's for people with dogs showing any fear-based behavior.)

    In the meantime, you're main objective is to keep Bruno and children safe so you really do need to keep him muzzled out in public. As you know, there's absolutely no tolerance for any missteps when it comes to pit bulls.

    Good luck!! And thank you so much for rescuing!

    Amber (mayziemom)

  5. I've been thinking about your post all day. Lots of good advice already coming your way, I can see.

    I do want reinforce that this is nothing to do with the fact that Bruno is a pit bull, though it's easy to process the information differently because he is. Can you imagine a "breed specialist" saying, "We may have to put this Golden Retriever down because he's atypically not good with children"? It just doesn't happen. They would say, "This dog would do best in a home with adults only" the same way some adoption postings say, "This dog would do best in a home without other dogs." So the trick is to help him manage his fears before he gets to the point that he hurts someone - of any age - because then it's too late.

    You know that Bruno is afraid of young boys. You don't know why - maybe young boys used to throw rocks or bricks at him; maybe he was hit every time he got near a young boy wherever he lived previously. Could be anything. And it's hard to desensitize a dog to children without using actual children to do so.

    I do agree that your first step should be to bring in a professional. Most rescue groups work with behaviorists and yours may have someone who does some pro bono work to help their dogs make the scary transition that moving into a new home can be. Most shelters also have a list of resources they can recommend. Worst case - get on Yelp and see what you can find in your area. I like Yelp because you know how people really feel about their experience as opposed to the testimonials that businesses put on their websites (of course no one posts the negative feedback they receive, right?).

    Keep working on the U turn. It can be tedious and sometimes embarrassing, but it's a distraction. And you'll get better at it. You'll also get better at spotting trouble headed your way before it gets too close. You may also work on proactively saying (while people still are a bit far off), "My dog is afraid of kids, so he's not very friendly." That is also embarrassing, but I always prefer to head a problem off than clean one up. Sometimes when I couldn't go the other way when Téa would get wound up (leash aggression toward other dogs), I would use a high value treat and we would spin in circles in the hopes that she would focus on the chicken rather than the dog. It can work...though it's not fail-safe. And it's also embarrassing (I'm starting to see a pattern here I hadn't noticed before!).

    If you know the people in your building, you could ask the parents to help you out while you're helping Bruno get over his fear of young boys. Explain that he's afraid, not angry, and ask them to do a good deed by being super calm when they see you and Bruno headed their way. No jumping, quiet voices, keep moving past you rather than stopping to talk. Remind them not to look at him, or if they do look at him to please look at his ears or his tail rather then his eyes (so many people don't know how aggressive that is in the dog world). If you start to see progress, maybe you can hand out baggies of kibble and ask some of the older boys to toss him a bit of kibble from a distance if they seem him behaving calmly (only reward the good behavior). They might enjoy watching him catch it, as long as he's more focused on the food than them, and that would begin to show him that young boys can mean good things (treats).

    This is a workable issue, though maybe not solvable. I can tell you know that. There are so many resources out there and so many people who have been where you are with Bruno - reach out to see who and what is available in your area to help Bruno learn that he's okay now and that you've got his back. When he trusts you as his pack leader, he'll have to worry less about defending himself.

    Good luck and thank you for putting the time in to help this dog be the best dog he can be!

  6. I was told my post was too long, as well, so I'll try to be brief this time.

    First of all, I can see you're already getting a lot of good advice. Fantastic!

    Second, this is not a breed specific issue, even though it's easy to process it as one. No one is going to say to you, "We may have to put this Golden Retriever down because he's atypically bad with children." Doesn't happen. Bruno may be labeled as a dog who "would do best in a home without children," as long as you can help learn to manage his fears before someone is hurt.

    There are resources. You need an experienced behaviorist to help you with this - connect with your rescue and with local shelters to see who they recommend or if someone does pro bono work with fosters. Scour Yelp - you'll get honest reviews there about people's experiences.

    Connect with the people in your building, if you can. Explain that Bruno isn't angry, he's afraid. Ask them to help you by being very calm when they see you with Bruno, walk slowly, no loud voices. Ask them not to look him in the eyes, but instead focus on his ears or his tail - or even better: not to look at him at all. So many people don't understand how aggressive this is in the dog world.

    I have other ideas, but I don't want to run out of room. You're doing good work here. His problem is workable, if not solvable. When you can help him understand that he's in a good place and you've got his back, he won't feel so much like he has to fend for himself with the kids. Good luck and thanks for working so hard with Bruno!


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