Buzzkill: Dog Teaches Baby to Jump

The short story:

The baby is bouncing in her jumpy chair, casting a moving shadow on the ground. The dog, Dakota, is also jumping while staring at the ground. Dakota is “teaching” the baby to jump. The family captions the video and understands that Dakota is not “teaching” the baby, she is jumping at the shadow. I’m not a monster, and I can understand why the video is cute: baby is giggling, and dog is hopping like a fox, seemingly entertained.

“Ally & Day, Dog teaching baby to jump” from YouTube

What’s really happening:

Caveat: I’m not this dog’s caretaker or behavior consultant, and I am not a veterinary behaviorist. I cannot diagnose this dog with any disorder, nor professionally suggest a behavioral problem.

When professional dog trainers and behaviorists observe animal behavior, we often also see the potential range in which these behaviors could mature or magnify — and this probably goes double for those working with serious fear and aggression. This can be the cause of a huge disconnect between practitioner and client — our deep concerns seems overblown compared to the evidence in front of our eyes.

Dr. Chris Pachel of Animal Behavior Clinic illustrated this at the 2016 IAABC Animal Behavior Conference. He played a clip of a young dog barking at and chasing a young boy on a skateboard. When polled, nearly the entire audience agreed that this was a serious problem. But are the behaviors in the actual video a problem? Barking? Chasing (there was no nipping, and body posture was aroused but not stiff)? Not really!

Imagine the disconnect between client and practitioner, the client seeing potentially playful behavior, and the practitioner drowning in warning bells and flags. This highlights the need for understanding your audience’s perspective, and using that to effectively communicate your message.

Now that I explained the above, I hope you won’t think I’m totally crazy for my concerns with this video, despite its benign appearance:

  1. High arousal behavior around a small child
  2. Potential display or development of OCD behavior

Why does this matter?

  1. Pouncing is a relatively high arousal behavior, and I liken it to the old adage “it’s all fun and games until someone pokes their eye out”. Just like kids (and adults at sports games), high levels of excitement can lead to regrettable behaviors. Interactions between dogs and kids are best when actively supervised and kept calm. (Check out the fabulous Family Paws Parent Education for more support for parents or to find a trainer.)

2. When we share how “cute” this dog is, we’re also neglecting the conversation that this type of behavior can be a precursor to, or already has become, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in dogs (sometimes called Canine Compulsive Disorder). OCD can greatly reduce the quality of life for your pet. Many owners accidentally encourage OCD behaviors, instead of interrupting them and addressing the root cause. Other OCD behaviors can include barking at mirrors, chasing tails, laser pointers, light reflections, licking or sucking or biting at his own body, ingesting non-food items, and so on.

Dog chasing his tail

The science says:

“ These cases not only underscore the importance of not leaving young children unattended in the presence of pet dogs, but also raise the possibility that mobile swings may trigger a predatory response in dogs and thus may represent an additional risk factor for dog attack.”

Admittedly, this presents only three cases, and the topic is difficult to study for obvious reasons. However, when the risk is high (injury to a child), I’m willing to take extra precautions and keep the baby swing separate from the dog.

“Given… the probability of profound deterioration if left untreated, young animals should be routinely screened for OCD and treated appropriately early… In Step 1, clients were to cease even unintentional reward for the undesirable behavior.”

Overall, Karen L., and Arthur E. Dunham. “Clinical features and outcome in dogs and cats with obsessive-compulsive disorder: 126 cases (1989–2000).”Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 221.10 (2002): 1445–1452. Click to download PDF

Behavior professionals recommend that you don’t encourage any behavior that could trigger or develop into an OCD. Instead, the animal should be redirected so that it does not perform the behavior, and the environment should be managed (as much as is possible) so that the animal isn’t triggered to perform the undesired behavior. This also includes husbandry and care procedures to ensure that the animals needs are met with regard to exercise, nutrition, health, and enrichment. Pharmacological interventions may also significantly improve the welfare of some animals with serious OCD behaviors. If your dog may be showing OCD-like behaviors, consult with a professional right away.