If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, I'd be a millionaire: "The behavior came out of nowhere. One minute the dog was fine, the next minute he was jumping/biting/barking (insert inappropriate behavior here)." Truth is, the dog was showing so many warning signs, but the people either weren't watching the dog and thus didn't see the signs, or simply didn't know what signs to look for.
My parent's recently adopted Rottie, Copper, has been in the family since late summer. She's shown a little bit of fear around strangers, and has growled on occasion if someone has approached her too quickly or tried to give her a hug. So today, with a house full of strangers (to Copper), I was on red-alert for any warning signs.
She was doing terrific — wagging her tail, approaching all the relatives that came in, just really enjoying herself. We'd never seen her around kids, though, so when my little 3-year old cousin came bouncing in, I intensified my observation of Copper. I also increased my management of her, as well. When Copper wanted to visit the little girl, I made sure I sat between Copper and my little cousin. I didn't watch my cousin, but rather I kept my eyes glued to Copper.
Where were her ears? Was she leaning forward or away from my cousin? What did Copper do when the little girl moved quickly? Or squealed? Or reached for her? By paying this much attention to Copper, it was very easy to spot little tiny warning signs.
Copper was very good as long as the little girl was sitting on her dad's lap — the little girl was quiet, and not moving around very much. I saw Copper's demeanor change, however, as the little girl got more active and vocal. As soon as the movement started, Copper started to pay much more attention. And she was more difficult to distract. Once, when the little girl squealed, Copper took a leap toward her.
Time for the leash — I didn't want to give Copper the chance to get in trouble. I didn't see dangerous behavior in Copper, but I did see a lack of self control that could wind up getting her in trouble. I didn't want Copper to get a label she didn't deserve — aggressive, unpredictable, or mean. Because she's not those things, but if left unattended, that's definitely what people would say about her because she would have surely knocked the little girl down.
So I put Copper on the leash to prevent her from getting too close to the little girl. I wanted Copper to pay more attention to me than to my little cousin, as my little cousin's antic's ramped up. So I got some food treats, sat in the same room – but far enough away from my little cousin – and fed Copper goodies so long as she paid more attention to me than to the little girl.
A few of my aunts and uncles asked why Copper was on a leash. When I explained, they pooh-poohed my observations and said to just let the dog get used to the little girl. That's what gets dogs in trouble — the "let them work it out" attitude that some people have.
Other people at the house couldn't see Copper's questionable behaviors even when I narrated and pointed those behaviors out. If not managed, Copper would have gotten too exuberant, knocked the little girl down, and would have gotten in trouble. When it really wasn't Copper's fault – she doesn't know how to behave around children, so how could we hold her responsible for her behavior. If anyone should be to blame, it would be the people — for letting Copper run amok.
So. For some of my family members, I overreacted. For other family members, I was seeing things that just weren't there. But the little girl stayed on her feet, Copper didn't get to practice inappropriate behaviors, and she's still labeled a "nice girl." So I don't mind the criticism from my family – I'd rather be criticized than the dog.