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I try to pay a regular visit my grandparents once a week, and on special occasions like their birthdays. Most of these visits coincide with my aunt, uncle and cousins being there as well. They also always bring their dog, let's call him Fifi.

Fifi is a small/medium dog (depending on your definition of dog sizes), and he's really misbehaved. He continually begs for food and attention, rubs himself against your clean pants (hair everywhere), ruins your nylons with his nails, sits on your feet, walks in front of you when you stand up and barks/whines a lot. Fifi's owners can't control him, they let him roam free through the living room, encourage the begging with snacks and act like he's being funny when he barks or ruins an outfit by talking baby-talk to Fifi (or offering more snacks).

As a result, both my grandparents and the rest of our family have made regular, serious requests to leave the dog at home on family gatherings over the past 6 or 7 years. Apparently, this is not an option, for reasons unknown to me. What I do know is that my grandparents/rest of my family would never put up with this if there wasn't a really, really, really good reason.

Fifi causes problems. We can finally have a good talk going with each other, one that's more interesting than just the regular 'he died, she's got cancer, they're getting divorced' remarks my family is so keen on making, and either Fifi acts out in a way that needs attention, or one of his owners starts talking to/about Fifi in a way that ends the interesting conversation prematurely.

So far, we've tried getting these conversations back on track (or not to end them in the first place) in a few ways:

  • Saying 'just a sec' when Fifi's misbehaving is bothering someone, taking Fifi's collar, guiding him away/making him sit in an appropriate spot and then just continuing the conversation. This almost always end in one of his owners baby-talking to Fifi, calling him from across the room, and/or mentioning someone's name in the process, taking over attention and causing us to have to interrupt our conversation.
  • Asking Fifi's owners to take care of him, then continuing the conversation. Same problem as the other approach: owners start calling Fifi from across the room, and most often we have to act anyways to actually get Fifi to stop misbehaving because he doesn't listen.
  • Just keep talking. There's instances when one of his owners will shout across the room 'FIFI! Did you just fart?!', drawing everyone's attention and then start a monologue about how we shouldn't give Fifi anything to eat when he's begging because now you can smell what happened (or something similar). We've tried to just keep the conversation we're having going or turning back to it as soon as possible, but so far it has had really low success rates, as it's kinda difficult to keep your attention to something when someone else is trying to take it too.
  • Attempting to ignore Fifi and his owners hasn't worked so far, as Fifi just keeps begging, rubbing or scratching, and his owners keep paying it attention, and in such a way that they demand our attention as well and we can't keep the conversation going.

So, given that:

  • Fifi can't be left at home (for whatever reason),
  • His owners can't control him (and themselves) at family gatherings,
  • We've tried to address this with Fifi's owners and neither Fifi nor his owners seem capable of changing their behaviour.
  • Either I or the person I'm talking with regularly need to interrupt an interesting conversation to save pants, nylons or food because ignoring Fifi and letting things happen is no option,
  • We can't just pick another time to visit when the dog won't be there.
  • Fifi's owners aren't causing trouble on the rare occasions that we meet them without Fifi (e.g. only my aunt will be there, and uncle will be home watching Fifi)

How can we keep an interesting conversation going or recover it, when Fifi and his owners are present at a family gathering?

  • When Fifi begs for attention, what do you physically have to do to reward him this attention? How does Fifi react to, for example, petting? – Jesse Nov 14 '18 at 23:54
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    Family members have asked them to leave Fifi at home during these visits, but has anyone ever told your relatives exactly why Fifi is such a hassle before now? Like some parents with disruptive children, IMOE some dog owners can be wholly ignorant of their dog's behaviour unless it's directly addressed (and even then, they might not take it well). – user8671 Nov 15 '18 at 8:35
  • Can you schedule an occasional visit to your grandparents when your other relatives won't be around? Say once a month to have some uninterrupted time with them? – DaveG Nov 15 '18 at 13:54
  • @Jesse I've so far tried to not reward Fifi any attention at all, so no pets or food, just ignoring or in case of him hairing all over my clothes taking his collar and making him sit somewhere else (e.g. next to the chair I'm sitting on). I've seen other family members reward with pets, food or speaking, and to me it seems to make it worse. If you do offer any attention, he'll keep picking on you. – Tinkeringbell Nov 15 '18 at 17:31
  • @Kozaky Yeah, owners are aware of the behavior, the reasons for the request to leave Fifi at home were made clear and we do point out misbehavior from Fifi often (asking for 'help' from the owners is another thing that may cause the conversation to be disrupted) – Tinkeringbell Nov 15 '18 at 17:32
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It sounds like Fifi is a chow hound. I had a lot of experience with my dog, who was also a chow hound, although apparently much better behaved (at least, in my opinion).

You may be able to turn lemons into lemonade by using Fifi's chow-hounding and your relatives love of her into the solution. Do a little research and talk to your relatives about the variety of dog toys that dispense treats. In my case, I found several dog puzzles (sliding block games etc) that were quite useful in keeping my dog's attention. Frozen peanut butter kongs also were a hit. The only issue would be if Fifi has resource guarding issues, in which case such items are a bad idea.

The great thing about this approach is that you should be able to get your relatives into it. If they are dog lovers they will enjoy loading up the puzzle / kong / toy and watching their dog get involved with it, while you have the opportunity to have an adult conversation with your grandparents.

After almost 16 years of dealing with a chow hound, I can definitely say this approach works, and will also keep your relationship with your relatives happy.

I located the current version of the sliding brick toy that my dog loved at Nina Ottosson Dog Brick. This looks like a newer version of what I had, as the bricks themselves also open up to dispense treats. I fed my dog by loading up the toy and then it was quite fun to see her working the puzzle with nose!

  • This answer doesn't seem to explain what "chow hound" means? I've never heard this term before, and a simple Google search doesn't return anything related to dogs. – Apologize and reinstate Monica Jan 31 at 15:43
  • @only_pro I found a bunch of definitions online referring to someone who likes to eat. it actually comes from the fact that many dogs love food and are very food motivated. – DaveG Jan 31 at 15:58
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I think the technique depends on who was interrupted.

If you were speaking: you'll want to get the earliest word in as soon as the situation improves. And depending on how upset you are, it can something like "So before I was rudely interrupted...", or you can simply change the target of your conversation to anyone who isn't addressing the dog.

If it was someone else who was speaking, wait for the earliest moment you can to ask about a detail in conversation. It kind of rewinds the conversation a bit so that you can get back to where you want to be. "What were you saying about [this topic]?"

The over-arching idea is that you want to single out a listener that you can keep the conversation moving with. If the owners or the dog insist in stealing attention (The dog is physically interrupting you, or the owners are requesting assistance), then let them know they have to deal with Fifi, because you're having a conversation. "Uncle, can you take the dog, I'm trying to have a conversation."

As an aside, if someone cut me off in the middle of a serious conversation to talk about a dog fart, I'd be pretty upset. With a poorly behaved dog, some interruptions can't be helped, but many interruptions can. I also would guess the dog can't be left home because it is so poorly behaved.

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It sounds like this is a situation best handled by whoever is throwing the party, in this case your grandparents. They need to set and enforce a hard boundary. If they don't want the dog there, and have expressed that multiple times, the dog shouldn't be there. Period. Full stop.

When aunt and uncle show up with the dog after being specifically told not to bring the dog it's entirely reasonable to put a foot down and tell them to take the dog home.

But...

This is a family, and most families have issues with boundaries. Or rather "there's one or two in every family" that seem to constantly push the boundaries, and the family ends up weighing how much they're willing to tolerate in order to maintain the relationship.

With my own family, our large family gatherings tend to allow people to sort of gate their exposure to boundary pushers by location. As in, loud cousin is holding court in the living room, so people who want a more relaxed conversation will adjourn to the kitchen, or back porch.

So... You might be able to limit your exposure to the dog by relocating conversations. If the dog is the center of attention in one room, move to the other.

Or... Lean on your grandparents to get a bit more serious about the "no dogs allowed" policy.

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To be honest, you could just as easily tell this story but replace the badly behaved dog with a badly behaved child. If someone in your family has a naughty kid they will persistently disrupt conversation and the parents just end up talking about their kid and excusing their behaviour.

Just as there are different styles of parenting, with some parents "leading" the way for their kids and others allowing their kids to dictate what happens, when, and how, there are also different kinds of dog owners. Most responsible and informed dog owners know that a dog's happiness is intrinsically linked to their behaviour as a pack animal. Strict training and discipline teach them that you are the alpha, and they derive happiness and satisfaction from being obedient. But then there are the others who bought a dog for company, not really knowing how to train it, and as a result spend all their life telling others "this is just how he is" while others struggle not to roll their eyes.

Going back to the child comparison - people who don't actually "train" their children are usually of the belief that they will find their own way eventually, and tend to give them whatever they want, or whatever pacifies them in the short term, for example candys/sweets. If this dog is badly behaved there is a good chance they haven't used feeding times as an opportunity for training, and it will probably act extremely selfishly with food. If you give it a treat, such as a bone, or something else chewy that it has to take its time over, it will probably grab it, disappear into a corner and stay there. It will probably growl at anyone who attempts to go near it, and its owners will probably say "you best just leave him" or something like that.

Sorry if giving a chew treat to a dog doesn't sound much of an interpersonal skill, but your interpersonal goal is to have a better conversation with your family, and this could well be the solution. And if I'm right, and this is how the owners treat their dog anyway, by doing this you'll be "speaking their language", that is going along with the choices they have made for training (or not) their pet.

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