An incident: Pyrrha nips a kid

So. The worst part of our recent holiday weekend was this:

Pyrrha nipped my 10-year-old cousin, M., and it wasn’t playful.

I supervised their first introduction, and Pyrrha was actually great with her. M. is a tall girl, and I think that helped; she isn’t small and high-pitched. Pyrrha let M. pet her, drape her arm over her back, and she was very relaxed about it. I told M. that Pyrrha was fearful and not that fond of children, as a warning.

The last Fourth of July
The dogs on the zip line at my grandparents’.

Some hours later, however, M. was walking up from the lake, toward the dogs, who were on leashes on a zip line. She came straight up to Pyrrha with her arms outstretched, and Pyrrha barked and growled at her, and then grabbed the back of M.’s shirt. She scraped M.’s skin with her teeth, but there was no blood.

I quickly rushed Pyrrha inside and then went back out to check on M. She was tearful and frightened, naturally, but she was OK and rather brave about the whole encounter. But then I started to cry a bit, too, feeling really terrible about the whole incident.

I think I was so upset because it was the first time I’ve seen Pyrrha demonstrate fear aggression toward a human. And the fear aggression resulted in a warning nip to a child.

As my dad pointed out, it wasn’t a bite; if Pyrrha had really wanted to bite her, she would have. And it would have been serious. This was more like a scrape than anything else. But I knew it was not coming from a playful place, and that was what made my heart sink. And I should have prevented the whole thing from ever happening. Thankfully, my uncle and aunt were pretty relaxed about the whole incident. I felt so terrible, though.

I was honestly astonished that it happened, particularly as Pyrrha was so relaxed with M. for the first half of the day. I’m still not sure what the trigger was this time; I think it was a mix of M. coming up from the lake, Pyrrha not recognizing her, M. coming straight for Pyrrha with her arms out, and Pyrrha feeling trapped by being on the zip line. But I was surprised and saddened, because the rest of the day, she was in a very relaxed state, untroubled by people coming and going.

The incident has made me seriously renew my commitment to Pyrrha’s fear issues. I admit I have been lax about training with children, because we don’t have any children and children don’t visit our house regularly. (If they do, Pyrrha is always very closely controlled.) But we want to have kids one day, and Pyrrha’s behavior really frightens and distresses me. Is it stupid to think that, with gradual training, she would be OK with having children, our future children, in the house 24/7?

I’ve always known she isn’t comfortable around children, but this incident has made me wonder if she will ever be. It’s something I’d like to revisit with our trainer. I’ve talked with her some about it, and she recommends the classical conditioning protocol we’re following with her leash reactivity toward dogs (and applying it to children in proximity).

So. There’s that. I didn’t really want to write about this, because it makes me sad.

What do you think? Do you have a dog who is fearful of children? How have you handled it?

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14 thoughts on “An incident: Pyrrha nips a kid

  1. A kid running up to Silas is my #1 park phobia. It’s scarier to me than Silas getting off leash.

    We had a near-bite incident with an adult (a jogger, who threw his arm out to pat Silas on the head while we stood on the edge of a trail), and even that left me rattled for days. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling.

    We solve all of this ourselves by having no intention of having kids, but that doesn’t help you.

    1. I guess I can at least be comforted by the fact that no one will reach out to Ruby while she is spinning and barking maniacally…

      Ruby loves all people in our home and inside stores, etc., so I’m convinced the majority of her issue is frustration-based (and herding/motion based if there is fast movement involved).

      1. Yeah, ironically, I was thrilled that Silas had let two or three guys jog by on a very narrow section of trail, and then WHAM. It was so fast I couldn’t even say anything.

  2. I always share the story of my mom’s first dog, a tri-pod grey & white hound mix that she adopted in college and before I was born. He did not like children and growled at them all. My mom thought that it would be different with her own, but it wasn’t – he growled at me my whole life, even when feeding him daily was one of my chores. He didn’t ever nip or bite me – I learned early on to respect his space, and rather than make me fearful of dogs, it was just a part of normal life. This both demonstrates the level of dedication we have to animals in my family, as well as a situation that, while not ideal, can be worked around. I definitely understand your fears – it’s the worst one. I know several people who’ve rehomed dogs when children came along because they couldn’t fully trust the dog.

    The whole dogs/kids thing *always* makes me nervous, and I’ve started to arrive at a fairly extreme position of thinking maybe (most) people shouldn’t have both. It just seems so many are given up when kids arrive, either for lack of attention or time or incidents that may or may not indicate a serious problem. Ruby made a little girl cry last week going berzerk over the girl’s razor scooter – she was on-leash and nowhere near her but the boys told me she was already afraid of dogs – Ruby was not a good ambassador.

    Freya nipped at my “little sister” (my Big Sisters Little Sisters charge, a girl from Myanmar) once and I know the range of emotions that entails. You are right that nips are warnings, but scary ones at that. I’m so sorry this happened – it’s discouraging and makes you feel like the weight of the dog world is on your shoulders. It’s terrible to think that you have “that dog.”

    Pyrrha has made a lot of progress and demonstrates that she can be relaxed around children – I think you are right to revisit some training and bet you can make great strides.

  3. I’m so sorry. I understand why you’re worried.

    Luckily no damage was done and you’ve renewed your commitment to continuing to work with Pyrrha’s fears. That’s the best possible outcome.

    Although I don’t have kids, I’ve spent a lot of time training Honey to be tolerant of kids. It’s a million times easier, though, when you’re starting with a puppy.

  4. I can understand your sadness and uncertainty. I think your cousin’s body language and the fact that Pyrrha was restrained on the zip line were a toxic combination. Pyrrha did something that came nature – a warning nip. Could have been worse. So live and learn. You’ve already identified that she needs to continue with her training and I think you will always be wise to watch her around children and make children understand what is considered threatening. Keep up the good work, you’re a great Dog Mom!

  5. My sister has a dog that is fearful about a variety of things, including some adult strangers, and also including children. Children on bikes and roller skates, scooters, etc. are particular triggers, and in her neighborhood they are myriad. I know he would bite if he felt cornered – and although ordinarily he is one of the sweetest, gentlest dogs alive, you have to be aware of this side of him, which I am always mindful of when I watch him and I have to walk him. Training is important, but there is also management, and the two can’t be mutually exclusive. You should never stop trying to train more relaxed, appropriate responses, (with careful attention paid to keeping everyone safe of course) but especially if you are planning to have children, you can’t underestimate the necessity, possibly ongoing, of careful management as well. Many dogs do seem to understand the difference between “their” kids and other kids, but once the kids get to a certain age and have friends over, that is a whole other can of worms. It’s something that can be dealt with, but it does have to be carefully managed. So sorry this happened! đŸ˜¦

  6. So sorry this happened. I always worry about dogs and kids…even with dogs that aren’t fearful, it s combustible mix because both can be unpredictable. I’m glad you’ve reached out to your trainer – I would lean on them heavily for advice and direction.

  7. I am so sorry this happened. I would have cried as well. Running, screaming children make my girl nervous. Calm, relaxed children are ok with her. I do not have children, but I do have the children of friends, nieces, and nephews at my house regularly. They know that one of my main rules is no running and no screaming if they are around the dogs.

  8. So sorry to hear about this, but as you already know, a mix of things led to Pyrrha being uncomfortable, and as your Dad pointed out, if she had any true aggression there would’ve been a bite and not a nip. I think that points to a situation that *can* be fixed with training and desensitising – you’re lucky that you already know the exact wrong mix of environmental factors! Now that particular situation won’t happen again!
    You’ll probably always have to be careful with kids, but remember to also tell children not only that Pyrrha is fearful, but also that when you hear a dog growl to ALWAYS immediately stop, turn, and move away – that growl is the very first warning sign and way to avoid any future nipping or biting incidents!
    My reactive dog has yet to be around younger children who are playful because I’m also scared of what might happen! Thank you for posting this as a reminder to us all that training with reactive issues is always ongoing!

  9. Oh, I am so sorry. My heart sank when I read this. I fear this too. Please keep sharing your story. I keep hoping you’ll have a magical solution. If nothing else, it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

  10. Awwwww, I’m sorry you all had to go through that. And I’m glad no one was too physically harmed. Here is the good news, Pyrrha gave a warning. That is half that battle with any living creature. She growled and unfortunately (don’t beat yourself up), humans didn’t pick up on it soon enough. Maybe she gave the warning and the nip happened quick, either way, her issuing a warning is a good thing. A dog growls for a reason and it really is good news that she was willing to issue a warning first, she didn’t chase the child and attack. So you will work with her and you will learn her signs and you will teach her how to get out of those situations (even on a zip line). A few years back, my niece was crawling towards Melvin and I immediately knew he was uneasy about it. He issued her a growl and I got up and calmly walked him out of the room. I didn’t reprimand him for growling, I want him to always give me a heads up/warning. So I worked with him on a decision he always has (he uses it a lot with Jake): if he’s uncomfortable, he is to get up and leave the room/area. That gives him an out and I can reel in the annoyance he is fleeing. If Jake is bothering him, Melvin relocates and I hold Jake back from following him. I call it taking the high road. Now when kids come over, Melvin hangs out but when they get jumpy or excited, Melvin gets up and goes into another room and I explain to the child that Melvin needs a time out. YOU WILL GET THERE!

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