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I am the father to a 14 month old son, an only child, and he is pretty much how I would expect a toddler to be. He has an unquenchable curiosity, a need for play, occasional cuddles, intense desires to perform strange focused tasks, and a spectacular display of dramatics when he is throwing a tantrum.

Lately I am wondering if this one behavior is normal and how to get him to stop. He occasionally will just kind of wander around looking for something to do, and when he sees the dog he runs over and just starts to hurt him. He will smack the dog, grab his droopy lips or long Bassett Hound ears and pull on them, sometimes he even tries to step on him when he is laying on the floor. What makes this even more concerning is that he is enormous for his age so his size and strength don't match up with his emotional or mental maturity just yet. He registers 99% percentile in height and 90% in weight according to the pediatrician.

My dog is thankfully incredibly easy-going and extremely patient through all of this. He will sometimes squeal in pain but he never snaps or displays any aggressive behavior. He is starting to become scared of the toddler however and it breaks my heart.

Of course when I see it happen I physically prevent him and try to give him a firm NO! I don't think he mentally grasps the concept of NO just yet or if he does, he doesn't seem to have the impulse control to stop himself. When I stop him and tell him No he more or less seems annoyed. I have also tried positive reinforcement by teaching him how to pet and hug the dog. He will pet nicely and then give a nice big hug and he responds well to praise. He seems pleased with himself when I praise him for being nice, but then I can see his body start shaking like he is about to do something he has no control over and then he starts getting hyper and violent with the dog again.

He is a sweet boy but I am wondering if this random violent hitting behavior is normal in 14 month old boys? Is this a phase? Is this a sign that he might grow up to be a violent person? Also what techniques can I try to help teach him NO and to stop hurting the dog?

  • Have you tried distracting him before he gets to the dog? I always found distracting my little girl with a nursery rhyme or some other sort of interactive play helped stop her from doing things she shouldn't. – LauraJ Jan 13 '15 at 13:34
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    It can be a challenge for some kids to play gently -- whether that's with toys, siblings, pets, or parents. It seems like the soft, fuzzy dog is Very Interesting, and makes Funny Noises when pinched or squeezed just right. Is your son similarly physical with some things that aren't as easily hurt (e.g. a stuffed toy, sticks or rocks, pillows, parents)? If so, emphasize to him that different (restrained and gentle) behavior with the more easily injured dog is important. Toddlers just don't really have impulse control yet, so constant reinforcement and watching is important. – Acire Jan 13 '15 at 15:36
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    Teach the meaning of "soft". Change out the aggressive behavior with softer touches. Interact with the dog and your child. It will teach both of them. – paqogomez Jan 13 '15 at 17:13
  • @Erica Not so much with toys. He is significantly more calm with toys and will calmly sit and try to stack things or put them inside of containers, or take things out of containers. With people he sometimes likes to tackle and wrestle which is fun for everybody but I just have to teach him it is not okay to play this way with the dog. – maple_shaft Jan 13 '15 at 17:38
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14 months is pretty young to learn to be truly nice to another - he almost certainly has very little empathy at this point. He's not trying to hurt the dog; he's pushing a button that makes a bell ring, basically: cause, effect, nothing more. The fact that the dog doesn't react much is a good thing - it makes it likely to be a shorter phase, rather than if the dog did something more exciting.

First off, I'm not surprised "NO" doesn't really work. It doesn't in most cases, unless you're actually scaring him (which is a bad idea for other reasons). That's a short term solution only - it hopefully stops him in the one instance, but it won't work the next time or the next time after that. He needs to see how to properly interact with the dog, and understand why it's important.

Instead, you can try what worked for us. First, when you see him approaching the dog but before anything's happened, sit next to him and the dog, and show him how he can interact with the dog in a positive manner. Pet from head to tail, the easiest motion for the child, and reinforce verbally ("Pet nicely", "Pet this way", "Nice doggie", etc.). Make it fun, and show with your actions how to do it. Do this frequently - it won't work the first or the second or the third time, but after a while he'll be used to seeing you do it.

Second, when you see him doing something he shouldn't, rather than "NO" (which will likely turn this into a more adversarial interaction), go over to him and sit down, and tell him "No thank you, that hurts the dog. No pulling on the ears. We don't pull the tail. Instead, pet nicely", and again show nice petting and go into that routine. This is classic redirection. The "that hurts the dog" probably won't have much effect; but eventually it will, and once he starts to gain empathy for others it'll be something he remembers.

Overall, the main focus at this age is simply showing good behavior. Most of his behavior he learns from watching how you behave at this point. This is good and bad of course - but it's mostly good, because it means you can model good behavior and have a good likelihood of him imitating it.

  • Thanks for the good answer, it sounds as if I started doing the right thing so I will double down on redirection and positive reinforcement for petting nicely and gentle hugging. – maple_shaft Jan 13 '15 at 16:12
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    +1 for demonstrating good petting technique and redirecting bad petting technique. My toddler loves gently petting the cat (which she loves), which gets him so happy and excited that he wants to GRAB AND FIRMLY HUG the cat (which she hates) -- so both approaches need to be used simultaneously :D – Acire Jan 13 '15 at 16:18
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    We finally got our now 22 month old to pet the cats nicely, but it took a lot of this and took him realizing the cats STAY when you pet them nicely... – Joe Jan 13 '15 at 16:22
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    I think that showing the good example is always the most suitable solution, and as usual with kids, be VERY patient and keep repeating until he gets it... – Laurent S. Jan 15 '15 at 9:21
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I have a similar situation, except my kid is tiny, and my dog is a 73 kg great dane. So the dog doesn't really register the kids "abuses" unless the kid sticks his finger in the dogs eyes or up his nose. Fortunately for us as well, the dog is totally mellow even in those circumstances.

Every kid is different, so your mileage might vary, but the following works pretty well for me for most behavior I want to stop.

  • As long as the kid is doing stuff I approve of, he lives in a sea of attention and love.
  • If the behavior isn't dangerous or disruptive, I just ignore it. I don't have to like everything he does.
  • If the behavior is dangerous or disruptive I get close to him, and I say in a very calm but assertive voice "No Scotty, you mustn't do that", or words to that effect. At the same time I try to present or guide him to an alternative.
  • If that's unsuccessul, I remove him from the situation.

here are a few examples:

With the dog, it's generally been enough to come to him and say "No Scott, we pet the dog gently like this..." and show him how to pet the dog, or guide his hand in a good petting motion. My wife and I had to do that some 6-12 times, but I haven't had to step in in about a month now, so I feel like that behaviour is mostly corrected. If he didn't want to play along with the modified behavior I just took him away and did something else.

As you observed with your child, Scotty would also pet well for a while, and then at some point escalate to more of a bam-bam motion. I always attributed it to poor fine-motor control. I see the same behavior when tries to use a fork for example. If you have tried to learn something that requires a lot of coordination, like playign the guitar, you should be able to relate to it. When I am learning new stuff on the guitar, I get this annoying itchy-brain feeling until I've trained my neurons sufficiently that the motion becomes automatic. I imagine that for Scotty everything* feels like that, and it's easy to be sympathetic.

When that happened (good petting migrates to bam bam), I just repeated the process, usually with a chuckle (I just can't help myself). Eventually the kid would get bored and wander off, or I would have enough of the process and I'd take him with me to do something else.

We had a similar problem with him throwing his food and plate to the floor. That was harder. At first we tried reallly stern "NO", but that totally failed. We switched to the same calm and assertive approach, and after three or four offenses we took his plate away for a few minutes. Since he's underweight we always gave it back after a short interval and tried again. After three or four repetitions of that we would end mealtime. After a few days the problem was largely corrected. We tried the stern NO's longer without success.

I'm happy to say that worked really well. He now has a healthy appetitite and only throws food the to the floor very infrequently.

At a family gathering I couldn't get him to stop playing with a power outlet, so after 3 verbal corrections (with attempted distraction), I finaly picked him up and took him to our room. He screamed for a couple of minutes, and I just talked to him in a calm way, explaining that in life you can't always do what you want. I don't the explanation is helpful, but I think hearing my calming voice was helpful.

This is a little off-topic, but I think it's helpful as well. In public places he has a habit of vocalising pretty loudly, in a way that others would find disruptive. He likes to go Aaaaaaaaa for long periods of time. On the train or plane that's pretty disruptive for others. My wife came up with the idea of putting her hand on his mouth and moving it back and forth, make a noise like a child pretending to be an indian (i.e. a wah wah wah). For some reason this is a lot less irritating for people around us, and both bystanders and the kid find it hilarious. After a few minutes he loses interest and we do something else.

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Have you ever thought of just spanking the kid? Whenever I was young, that taught me pretty quickly what was acceptable and not. Joe's answer seems like another solution that you would work (It is essentially how you train an animal). Just how I was brought up, and I seemed to grow up fine.

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    Yeah, just spank him, that will show him how a good father you are and how much you love him. Irony – Nova Jan 13 '15 at 23:59
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    I don't think that would be helpful in the long run. – user13208 Jan 14 '15 at 0:56
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    I am not a parenting expert, and I am not necessarily against spanking, but I really don't think he would understand why I am spanking him. I feel like spanking should only be done as a proxy for painful or dangerous things. – maple_shaft Jan 14 '15 at 2:07
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    Yeah. Like a 14 mo-old could learn anything from it other than "Dad's dangerous". – Stephie Jan 14 '15 at 4:47
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    Spanking a 14 month old is not helpful to anyone. The child might associate the dog with a spanking and stay away from the dog, but there are much better ways to approach this. – anongoodnurse Jan 14 '15 at 7:55

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