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Kid Safety Concerns with Dog lead to Family Drama... can family peace be restored?

Kids & Pets & Family Dog Drama

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I am a longtime reader of your blog and advice column! As a fellow boy-mom and special education service provider, you are so, so relevant to my interests! Glad to see your elbow is on the mend. (Anyway, hi and hugs from a friendly internet stranger.)

So here’s the situation:

My sister, who is in her late twenties had her life take a left turn a few years ago, she was living out-of-state, away from family. She made the decision to come back home and move in with her very serious long distance boyfriend. Her employer agreed to let her telecommute. They boyfriend broke up with her as she was boxing up her things. So she temporarily moved back in with my parents, worked from their couch and figured out a new plan. One thing that she did in the name of self-care was volunteer at a local animal shelter, where she fell in love with a one year old pit bull rescue. She got a new job, a new place, fell in love again and she and this dog have been on their way up ever since.

Now, this dog. He’s been through some things. He had a clear startle response that looks very aggressive. Though mostly sweet, and mild-mannered, he has a history of nipping people, growling and other anxious dog behaviors, especially men when he is nervous. He once came over the fence at a neighbor and the neighbor felt so threatened as to call animal control. My sister has done everything under the sun to work through these issues. He’s been to obedience school, a trainer has come to her house and worked one on one with him. The dog is also on a low dose of prozac.

Enter my husband. A large man who has never had a dog, and has his own issues with anxiety, which he is working on and medicated for. This dog has growled at him, bit him and once, growled at my children. From his perspective, this dog is not to be trusted and is not to be unsupervised around our children. Because I have come to this dog’s defense in previous arguments, he does not trust my ability to supervise the children (six and two) around the dog and feels that his concern is not being taken seriously. We’ve revisited this issue a few times, but this is one of his hard limits. He has asked that if my sister’s dog is somewhere, either he be around or we not attend the function.

I was able to finesse this so that it never became a conversation with my sister, and we were able to peacefully attend functions and visit family for almost a year. However, I see now that I have kicked the can down the line too far, and things have come to a head. At one weekend at the family cottage this summer, I disclosed my husband’s request to my sister, who was hurt, frustrated and defensive. This has definitely put a wedge between my sister and my husband, who have already had a tense relationship at best.

A few weeks later, at the next opportunity to gather, my sister called me while I and my boys were en route to my mother’s house to let me know she was bringing her dog. She stated that she wanted to wait to let me know until I was already on my way so that it didn’t cause a fight with my husband, who stayed home. I was frustrated and angry at the situation she put me in, but for the sake of peace and a good weekend, did not turn the car around or alert my husband or make it a big issue with her. Mistake. My not asserting the issue enabled her to assume this would be the status quo. I cannot continue to lie by omission. Further, my children are very young, are not great secret keepers and asking them to lie to their father is unacceptable.

Now, my boys and I were planning to head to my mother’s again this coming weekend. My sister was planning to visit as well. I asked her if she was bringing her dog. She said she wasn’t sure because her fiancé may be staying home and doing other things. I asked her to please let me know, because if she was, my husband would either need to change his plans and come, or we could not attend. And explosion. My sister has stated that she will always plan to bring her dog, and “I guess I’ll see you never.” My mother has stated that she is so upset with my husband that she cannot comment on the situation.

I understand that her dog is her family. I understand that boarding him is an expense. I understand that leaving him home with her fiancé will be less fun for the dog than hanging out with us all weekend. I understand that she and her fiancé would like to come together to future gatherings, and the logistics around arranging for the dog to be somewhere else are very inconvenient. Selfishly, I really look forward to having some quiet time with my mother and my sister, and my husband enjoys the quiet time when I take the boys to visit and he stays home. I understand that I can’t have everything my way, and sometimes, to respect my husband’s wishes, I will have to miss out on some events.

I am thinking that the way forward means we all have to give. My husband needs to spend some more time around this dog and perhaps learn to feel more comfortable. Unfortunately, the relationship between my husband and family is now pretty strained, which complicates this. Sometimes, my sister needs to make arrangements for her dog so that we can enjoy each other’s company without that stress. If neither of these are possible, we may need to opt out of some gatherings.

But man, this just sucks. Am I missing something? Is there a better way forward? Is someone extra in the wrong here? Help!


(Update from Editor: I strongly encourage you to read the comments below from our smart readers who have additional and thoughtful opinions and legitimate concerns on this topic.)

Ugh, what a mess.

This seems like a situation that has snowballed so far out of control that all players involved share part of the blame, especially since everybody is digging their heels in EXTRA MEGA HARD and refusing to even consider some kind of compromise. Probably because there WAS a time for compromise, but now everybody feels lied to/deceived/insulted/frustrated/butthurt that it’s escalated past the point of everybody just CALMING DOWN and BEING REASONABLE and TALKING TO EACH OTHER LIKE ADULTS.

You asked if someone is extra in the wrong here, and that’s honestly hard to say because mistakes were made by pretty much everybody. On the one hand, your husband is 100% not obligated to like this dog, and your husband’s concerns about the dog’s aggressive tendencies and need for attentive adult supervision are not unreasonable. THAT SAID, I very much don’t like this demand that HE ALONE can provide that attentive adult supervision and the suggestion that simply because you DO like the dog (or have defended it in the past) you can’t be trusted to protect your children? What in the what??

Also on one hand, your sister does sound like a very loving and responsible dog owner who has done everything she can to help with the dog’s aggressive tendencies. But…honey, not everybody is going to love your dog, calm down and stop taking it so personally. Just like not everybody is going to love my children, or be happy with me if I bring them to a 5-star fancy restaurant and then insist that the kitchen find a way to serve them chicken nuggets after they’ve thrown food on the floor. She should not have put you in the position of lying by omission, and she also shouldn’t be using her dog as a pawn in the weird power struggle she and your husband are now locked in. “I’m ALWAYS bringing the dog JUST to PISS HIM OFF and I guess I’ll SEE YOU NEVER” is just…frankly pretty childish. And I have to wonder if this poor dog really IS happier being dragged to all these family gatherings rather than staying home with a familiar human/the fiance, or is being unnecessarily triggered by unfamiliar people and places.

(Full disclosure to anyone having a kneejerk reaction to the fact that the dog is a pit bull. I have a rescue pittie mix myself and am a huge lover/advocate for the breed. They are wonderful, wonderful dogs and if the husband here was/is overreacting out of pure breed prejudice, I would smack him down to next Sunday. But no matter what the breed, any dog with abuse/neglect in his past and nervous behavior issues in the present is not going to be well-served by being dragged into triggering situations out of spite.)

But if the dog is going to be there, and everybody else is okay with the fact that the dog is going to be there, I do think your husband needs to quit with the insistence that HE and HE ALONE can be trusted to be the responsible adult/lone protector of your children. That’s…really kind of insulting, seeing that you are THEIR MOTHER. He obviously feels like everybody else thinks he’s overreacting to the dog’s behavior (and maybe he is in general, but he is the person who did actually get bit by the dog) and nobody is taking this four-legged threat to his children’s safety seriously, but…that’s probably anxiety talking. His children are surrounded by adults who love them at these gatherings and presumably watch them closely at all times. What does HE do, in particular, that keeps them safe that no one else is doing already, other than obsess/fixate on the dog situation the entire time?

(Second full disclosure: I also have terrible anxiety! I know me some anxiety! I have absolutely made similar mental deals with myself over triggering situations! And surprise! THEY ARE NOT ACTUALLY REASONABLE OR HELPFUL.)

You do owe him an apology (if you haven’t given him one already) by letting your sister pull you into a deceitful situation, which yeah, was 1,000% going to end with him finding out and making everything so much worse. (I get that your sister put you in a tough spot, as did he, but unfortunately  the way you handled it just further entrenched his beliefs about your judgment, so it’s best to own that one.) What SHOULD have happened, if we’re looking at 20/20 hindsight here: You should have pushed back on the “I have to be there if the dog is there because I question your judgment” rule, and insisted that yes, you are aware the dog has some behavior quirks/issues and are fully capable of both liking the dog and PROTECTING YOUR OWN CHILDREN. You also should have spoken more honestly with your sister about your husband’s fears and brought her in as an ally — i.e. “Does your trainer have any specific suggestions on how we can get them to have some successful interactions, given Fido’s mistrust of men?” — rather than “finesse” the situation.

(I bet you five bucks that an actual dog trainer would suggest something gradual and controlled [and involving lots of treats], and would absolutely NOT suggest “oh just keep bringing the dog to a ton of big family gatherings until the adult male with dog anxiety and the dog with adult male anxiety just magically get used to each other.” That’s a bad plan!!)

But what’s done is done, and honestly I DON’T know how to easily fix things, since the two people who are actually capable of fixing things don’t want anything to do with each other, and are far too entrenched in Being Right About This. I do think you can (and should) push back on your husband’s rule/belief that you can’t be trusted around both the dog and your children. Ask him what it is, exactly, that you think he does around the dog that keeps them safe and that you do not. (Be prepared to hear a justification for obsessing/fixating.) Offer to join him for a therapy session or two to work through the situation there. (I am hoping he is in therapy in addition to medication? If not, this situation is worth moving in that direction, both as a couple and him individually.) Try to make peace with your sister, explain that your husband is working through things and really didn’t intend for her to take everything so personally, but you understand now why she did, you should have spoken to her sooner, blah blah.

And then make it VERY VERY CLEAR to BOTH OF THEM that you are no longer getting put in the middle of their crap. You are no longer Switzerland here. If you believe the dog does not pose a threat to your children and that you are capable of ensuring their safety in the dog’s presence, then you are going to whatever family gathering you want to go to. If you believe your sister is being irresponsible and bringing the dog into situations she shouldn’t, then you are going to stay home. If she’s mad at your husband and he’s mad at her, they can fix their own damn relationship. If the situation continues to put strain on your marriage because of your husband’s anxiety or refusal to budge on anything, go to therapy, because that’s the relationship you CAN do something about.

And of course, continue to teach, demonstrate and reinforce how to safely interact with dogs — including familiar ones like your sister’s — with your children.


Photo source: Depositphotos/graphicphoto


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About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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