Mom is Sick. How to Avoid Kids & Dog Taking Charge

Professional dog trainers talk a lot about being the ‘pack leader’ and setting solid rules, boundaries and guidelines for our animals as well as our kids. We discuss the importance of being consistent so that our kids and animals know what to expect and what is expected of them. But what happens when we are not at our best due to illness or injury? What sort of dangers or difficulties may we encounter during these times? Especially when we are the primary rule makers and enforcers?

The number one ‘reaction’ I have repeatedly encountered with both children and animals is Insecurity. The ‘unknown’ can be scary for all of us and can make us worried, fearful, apprehensive, and a host of other feelings we might go through. And as parents, it’s instinctual to want to shield your children from these unpleasant feelings. We try to smile and act like everything is okay, and for a little while, it may work. But no one can hide these feelings forever. You suddenly find yourself short tempered, frustrated, weepy, etc. And often, it is over silly insignificant little things. So, you started out trying to ‘protect’ your kids, and now you are snapping at them and everyone is walking on eggshells.

Now let’s look at the family dog: You can ‘paste’ that smile on your face and tell them that everything is okay, but they can see right through the facade. Or more accurately, they can see, hear, smell and feel right through it. Words have little to no value to dogs. If you said to your dog, “Rex, I’ll let you out in a few minutes, then we’ll go to the park and practice “SIT” and “STAY”, what they heard was…“REX, blah blah OUT blah blah PARK blah blah SIT blah STAY.

Why? Because they don’t understand words like we do (except for the ones they have heard repeatedly.) They communicate through scent, body language, voice inflections, and gestures. A good example is the sentence “What did you do?” If you smile and say it in a happy excited voice, the tail will wag furiously, and they will circle you for pats and love. However, those same four words said with your arms across your chest, a scowl on your face, and in an angry tone will have them running to hide! When your entire demeanor shifts involuntarily, they feel it!! They know when something is wrong.

So, how can this inconsistency affect your household?

I can best answer this question by sharing with you a recent experience I encountered:

I got my dog Reilley at 3.5 months old. He had a few negative behaviors even as a puppy, such as resource guarding his toys and food around other dogs (see my article Recognizing a dog’s body language before your child gets bitten’ to understand what resource guarding is.) I had to work hard to help him overcome this. I run a dog boarding and training business… it simply would NOT do if MY dog had issues that could potentially put a client’s dogs at risk! So we worked on socializing Reilley with kids and with other dogs.

All was going well and according to my plan, until I needed surgery on my leg. And although I did my best to act like the surgery was no big deal, I was scared and nervous. I saw a few subtle changes in my dog’s behavior, but nothing that overly concerned me. When I came home from surgery, I was lying in bed recuperating and I enjoyed having Reilley lying on the bed next to me keeping me company and cuddling with me. My mom had come to town to help and Reilley’s care was taken over by her and my husband. Everything seemed relaxed and my recovery was going well.

It did not take me long to realize that something big had changed for my dog. This dog who had been social and outgoing with every dog and person who arrived here was suddenly standing back, guarded, and growling at dogs and people! I had seen dogs react negatively to change before, but it had always seemed to affect their behaviors (actions)… a previously housebroken dog starts having accidents, or they are not listening to commands they know very well…. But this was a huge change in his personality, and I did not understand it. So I asked for help. I described what I was seeing to my dog trainer friends through the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and sought their guidance. Although their advice made total sense to me after the fact, I must admit I was a bit surprised at first with what they all had to say.

  • Prior to my surgery I was the primary rule maker as well as the rule enforcer. Not that Reilley grew up in a prison, but there were a number of rules we had set that we lived by every day, and they worked for us (e.g. I poured his food and he sat and waited for permission to eat). My husband on the other hand, was a “dump the food in the bowl and walk away” kind of guy.  And Reilley, like a lot of kids who hate rules but in reality, NEED them, didn’t do well when the rules actually went away. My inability to enforce the rules he was used to living by had left my dog feeling insecure and unsure
  • Because I was the ‘pack leader’ in my house, I was the person in charge of welcoming guests into our home – I maintained order. With others caring for me, I was no longer the “leader” enforcing calm and overseeing who had permission to be there. I was no longer the protector. In the absence of my leadership, he became confused and began to question our roles…I was the sick and injured member of the ‘pack’, maybe it was HIS job to protect me and not the other way around.
  • Finally, because dogs can be so child-like in their actions and reactions, seeing his leader so scared and vulnerable made him very nervous and insecure. (Not so dissimilar to a child realizing for the first time that a parent is fallible or does not always have the answers.)

You may be thinking, ‘what’s the big deal, your dog growled at some other dogs.’ But consider this… what if there were children that he was growling at? An insecure or fearful dog can be an unpredictable one.

So what if you, as the primary care-giver suddenly became ill or injured?

How do you help your family (including the family dog) acclimate to this time of crisis?  How do you help them through it when you are in pain or feeling miserable and are temporarily unable to be the ‘enforcer’?

The two most important answers I can give you are preparation and communication.

I. Preparation:  Obviously this applies more so when you have to go for surgery or something similar that you know about in advance. But even though injuries and illness are often unexpected events, there is still some planning you can do ahead of time, so you are ready if the need should arise.

  • Spend time talking with your significant other, or, if you are a single parent, chose one or two family members or friends you trust with the health and well being of your kids and pets.
  • Make a full list of schedules and routines that include……
    • what time the kids get up, head out for school or the bus, get home from school, and when homework is typically done,
    • what time and day each child has an extracurricular activity, what time they eat supper, approved and not-approved snacks, and what time they need to be in bed. You can also include how much screen time they can have, and approved ‘viewing’ items.
    • Make sure you include things in your list like how you personally reward your child for a job well done or correct or discipline your child for not doing what they are supposed to. (e.g. do they earn stickers on a wall chart or cookies with milk?)
  • While it is a child’s job to push boundaries and try to get away with stuff, even though they think they want these ‘perks’, in the end, it can be quite unsettling for them to suddenly get their way because it varies from the normal routine which can again make them insecure and fearful.
  • Remember to update this list frequently, as schedules and routines may change or vary.

Now, as for the dog:

  • Do not assume just because the family pet is like another child to you, that everyone else will feel the same way. Make sure the person who agreed to stay and help with the kids is also okay with taking care of the dog.
  • Create a similar list for the dogs that you did for the kids, with the dog’s regular routine.
  • Include in the list behaviors that you approve of and do not approve of so that they can follow through (ie: allowed on furniture, allowed to jump up on people when greeting people, etc)
  • Do some research on local boarding facilities just in case it is too much for the person caring for the children to care for the dog as well. This way it is a comfortable choice and not a last-minute decision that keeps you up worried.

II. Communication is vital for all parties involved… whether it is being honest with your kids about what is going on (within reason and age appropriate of course) or talking very openly with the person you have entrusted your kids care to. This reduces so much stress for everyone involved…. Including you! The last thing you want if you become sick or injured is to worry about your household becoming an unruly chaotic place. This can cause the kids to act out, and this is especially important if you happen to have a special needs child whose life is all about the schedules and routines they have come to depend on. And since the family dog tends to feed off the emotions of the family, why risk him being on edge and nervous or fearful…. Which can lead to behavior changes ranging from accidents in the house, to all out aggression.

So I will wrap this up with one last piece of advice: If you are on the other end of this, meaning you did not see this list prior to this scenario happening, and you find yourself now dealing with a chaotic household, heed the advice of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music when she says,  “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start”…

Don’t be afraid to go back to basics with both the kids and the dog. 

For the dog, it might be going back to some crate training and basic commands to remind them you are in charge; for the kids, same thing.  😛  Just kidding…for the kids, it may be being very strict about routines. Whatever you did when they were young to have your house chaos-free and running smooth, repeat until you are back there again. It will not be a lengthy process to back-track a bit, but it may be very useful to help get everyone back on track. The ‘basics’ bring with it a familiarity that everyone may need for now.

About the Author

I trained as an EMT in NY, than recertified in Atlanta. I loved being an EMT and was involved with it for several years. I worked on the “Rainbow Response Unit” at Egleston’s Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, and when not on a call, worked in the PICU and NICU, which was both a blessing as well as a heartache because I learned and saw so much. Helping to create a child safety seat for ambulances was my way of making sure children who were already compromised health-wise, would not be put in any more danger. When I realiized I could no longer be an EMT due to medical reasons, I found an alternate outlet for my desire to nuture and protect; I became a dog trainer...something that was always a second love and passion for me. Now, whenever possible, I combine my passion for children and canines by working to make the world a safer place for both. Suzanne is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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