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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Protecting Your Children

Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, was recently published.


Crucial ConfrontationsQ Dear Crucial Skills,

My in-laws live six hours away, but frequently visit and stay at my home. They have a wonderful relationship with my three young children, but I’m worried because they bring their dog, and in the last year, the dog has started nipping at my kids. Although my husband and I told them in no uncertain terms that the dog is not to be near the children, we found out that my father-in-law sneaks the dog out when we’re not looking. This rule was ignored and the dog recently bit the hand of my oldest child and drew blood.

We recently visited family, and because the dog was around multiple children, I told the mothers that the dog bites and everyone was beyond angry that my father-in-law kept letting the dog out. He knows how we feel, yet refuses to put the safety of his own grandchildren over the coddling of his dog! It has created an extremely tense environment and is affecting our relationships. We have tried asking nicely, stating directly, and are on the verge of an ultimatum. What should we do now?

Mother Lion

A  Dear Mother,

In a situation where we are weighing Dad’s convenience and preference against the safety of children, it’s time for a crucial confrontation. You said you tried “asking nicely” and “stating directly” but your father-in-law continues to sneak the dog out when you are not looking. Your father-in-law is likely seeing this conflict in terms of his “sweet little dog that wouldn’t hurt a fly” and is “practically a member of the family” against some “nervous Nelly” moms who are over-protective. He thinks his little allowance in letting the dog out to play with the kids is a minor infraction that doesn’t matter all that much.

He is obviously discounting your collective wishes and ignoring your fears; he is minimizing the importance of your concerns. The way you motivate others to give your concerns more weight is by helping them understand the consequences that could result from a given course of action. Natural consequences are those that will naturally result without any imposition on your part. In this case, even a misplaced nip from a small dog could result in blindness to a child or life-long scarring.

Imposed consequences are consequences you enforce if others do not comply with your requests. Such a consequence is that you will call animal control. However, I don’t recommend using this consequence. It’s best to talk about natural consequences first.

Talking through the consequences should motivate Dad to consider your concerns. If you don’t get compliance with natural consequences, then carefully consider whether to move to imposed consequences. Damaging the relationship is a real possibility. However, when dealing with danger to your children, Dad’s compliance with your standards may be more important to you than sparing his feelings.

I will assume you shared consequences in your earlier conversations. If Dad still misbehaves, what do you do next?

Verbal persuasion has failed to change Dad’s behavior; the children’s safety is paramount. It’s time to impose consequences. Be respectful! Emphasize that you want to continue the relationship with Dad but not the dog. Begin by factually reviewing how you arrived at this point. Try something like this:

“Dad, we’ve talked to you several times about our concerns with having your dog around your grandchildren. Yet the dog continues to get out, and last time you visited, he bit Jeremy’s hand. Dad, we want you to visit. Your visits with us and our visits to your place are very important to us, but to make them work we have to arrange for the dog to go to a kennel or find a dog sitter. We can help arrange one here or you can find one near your home, but we will not let the dog come to our home or visit your home if the dog is there.”

Use contrasting to prevent misunderstandings. “We don’t want you to shorten your visits or make them less frequent. We love you and your visits. We do want you to make other arrangements so the dog is not present during our visit.”

Listen to your father-in-law’s feelings and concerns, then brainstorm workable solutions. Don’t jeopardize your children’s safety with an unrealistic compromise.

Now, follow through. Be prepared to pack up if the dog is there when you arrive at Dad’s. Be prepared to not let the dog in your house if he accompanies Dad on a visit. Reaffirm your love for Dad and your resolve to protect your children, even if the cost is Dad’s hurt feelings.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

15 thoughts on “Protecting Your Children”

  1. Dog owner

    Instead of running away from the problem, why not ask the father to take the dog to obience class and teach the children how to deal with the dog. Your answer is to run away and not deal with it. When the children get out in the real world and have to work for a boss that “bites” what are they going to do, not show up for work? Now you are making the children affraid of dogs. That is not the answer to the problem.

  2. Jean

    Has anyone monitored the behavior of the children to make sure their actions are not provoking the dog? I volunter for a dog rescue group and 90% of the time, a dog will not snip, snap or BITE unless they are defending their territory. Should have recommended the children get a lesson in doggie manners, too!

  3. Lin

    Isn’t there an intermediate solution? Dad’s attachment to his dog (family for him as well) is clear. Perhaps as part of the solution, a face muzzle would allow presence in the short term. In the long term, animals are responsive to behavioral training. Offer to assist in finding a good trainer for Dad to work with. This removes the focus from Dad’s behavior when in fact the dog is the real source of tension. This could go a long way to improving things,affirming Dad’s attachment while offering a way to support improving the dog’s relationship with all family members. Subjecting Dad to family dissaproval of the dog is not solving the issue for both Dad and your family. Changing the dog’s behavior would provide a solution for everyone.

  4. Katharine White

    Another important aspect is to acknowledge the Father-in-law’s feelings for his pet. Many pet owners love their pets as if they were their children and he may mistakenly think enough exposure will result in better results.

  5. Sipho Zondo

    The kind of an advice to this parent is very good. Sometime one is forced to put one’s foot down. As it ‘crucial skills’ has put it, it is important to also guard against damaging the existing good relationship. It takes a lifetime to build and maintain a good relationship, but it takes a minute and a few words to destroy all that. You may not have another ‘lifetime’ to rebuild what you could have saved from destruction.

  6. Marta Paras

    While I agree that the children’s safety is paramount, there is too much information lacking in what was presented to start imposing constraints on Dad’s dog IN HIS OWN HOME. In the childrens parents’ home is a different story. Questions the parents need to ask themselves are: Did the children provoke the dog by teasing, hanging on it, pulling hair, etc. Education is a two way street and while Dad does seem to be downplaying what could happen, the children also need to be educated about behavior around an unfamiliar animal. I hope “Mom” listens to Dad’s side of the story on this.

  7. Steve W

    The husband, who is the son of the father, ought to be taking the lead in this situation. The relationship status in various situation is important. There are solutions, such as taking the dog for a walk, that should work. If dad ignores the son and will not work with you, then banning the dog from the property and then dad are the next steps. Not visiting dad again has to be put in the mix. While these might be last resort, some people are absolute jerks. I know most of the time, the conversations in here are gentle to match the tone of crucial conversations, but sometimes you must have a conversation that holds an ultimate threat when we are talking about something this serious.

  8. Jon Gray

    On the dog around the children issue — put a muzzle on the dog when it is around the grandchildren or visiting in the house. I see that as a compromise that lets the dog out and protects the grandchildren.

  9. animal and child lover

    The fact that young children do not understand that what they do can result in dog bites is the key here. They are too young to protect themselves. It is not the dog ALONE that is the problem – as evidenced by the phrase – “in the last year”. Dogs age, have aches, pains, and get grouchy, and this results in associated changes in behavior.

    You failed to include the behaviors of the young children that put them at risk. They think they are playing but they may be hurting or scaring the animal. They cannot read the actions of an animal that wants to be left alone. Parents of children need to address their behavior, and be responsible for it as well. This is a problem that requires equal responsibility, accountability, and action.

  10. Ralph

    I don’t mean to pile on here, but my question: is this a huge dog, or a tiny yappy one? If a tiny dog punctures my child’s hand the world will not stop turning. I don’t advocated for that experience, but the risk might be overblown.

    That said, I cannot yet understand why some pet owners insist on taking their dogs into people’s homes that do not have pets. I’m guessing you don’t or the drama level would be lower. If you have a “no pets inside” policy for your family, it’s certainly reasonable to expect that to be honored as well. One idea might be to assigne one of your older kids to “help grandpa” by taking the kennel to the garage and taking care of the dog there. Physically remove the dog to a space that keeps the youngest free from accident, teach all the kids how to treat dogs, and make the “play with the dog” moment available but in a safer/more controlled environment. Working with Grandpa on this allows him to share his love of his dog with the grandkids. I don’t think you should go down the sucker’s choice road. Find a third alternative.

    If the dog is big and posed real danger to your child, more drastic steps need to be taken. As a child I was bit above the eye and got some really cool stitches. The second time that dog did that we “retired” it.

    Good luck and best wishes!

  11. #11

    We had a similar situation with my parents’ dog when my children were little. The understanding we came to was that the animal was confined to a part of the house via a baby gate. That way the dog was still comfortable and the children were safe. They are now 20, 18 and 17 and the dog is long gone, the children were not bitten, (although each of my parents were at one time or another) and the children were taught to appropriately respect the dog and his space. I confess I would have felt better not having the dog around at all, but this compromise protected our relationship with my parents who we visited weekly. Some dogs just don’t do well around children, some dogs are territorial and protect their owner or act jealous about their owners, and some dogs are just plain mean — that may weigh in on your decision. :0)

  12. Laura Moen

    Umm – I had a different take on this. Is it possible that the father-in-law is beginning to develop some type of cognitive impairment that causes him to be unable to either remember the event or express concern about the feelings of others? Has he exhibited any other personality or behavioral changes that might support this possibility? Just a thought. I hope everything works out OK.

  13. Joe Lehman

    I agree with Laura Moen. This could be the very first sign of some physical or emotional problem and begs looking more closely at dad’s behavior in other areas.

    If he checks out ok then the crucial skills are in order.

  14. Concerned Gama

    I have a situation where I am concerned that the dog my daughter has is too big and may be harming our grandchildren. She treats the dog like a baby and it is very territorial, It has scratched, nipped and wrapped its leash around my granddaughter who is only 5 years old. I think her priorities are not right and the dog should be removed. How do I approach? She already knows we do not like the dogs behavior. The dog is a pitbull who weighs more than the children at 50+ pounds.

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