DEAR AMY: My sister recently lost her job. I let her and her 21/2-year-old daughter, "Mariah," move in with me while she gets on her feet. I have a 9-year-old toy poodle, and he's gentle and great with children. The problems began when Mariah started biting the dog. My sister refuses to do anything about it. She says biting is a normal part of toddlerhood. And I know she lets Mariah be rough with him when I'm not around. I thought I had a system worked out -- I made sure he was always with me when I was at home, and I put him in his crate when I was at work. However, the last three days when I returned home the dog was outside the crate. My sister admits she let him out, though she won't say why. I understand this is a very hard time in her life, but something needs to be done now. She refuses to cooperate or compromise. I don't want anyone to get hurt. What can I do?Worried
DEAR WORRIED: Biting is not necessarily a "normal part of toddlerhood." It is, however, a very common toddler reaction to stress. You can assume this little girl is very confused and stressed. It also sounds as if your sister is not doing a very good job with her. You should try your best to teach your niece appropriate behavior around pets. You are right that this is an important safety issue.
Teach her how to be gentle. Teach her to stand still while the dog dances around her legs. Teach her to pet the dog on the top of the head, and encourage her to help you by pouring water into his bowl.
Tell her, "Always be gentle. Never put your hand near his mouth and never touch him when he is eating." Always watch the dog and toddler when their paths intersect.
Your sister is a mess. It is up to you to decide how much of her own toddler behavior you can tolerate, but this matter with the dog should be nonnegotiable. Tell her that unless she can respect your very reasonable boundaries, she'll have to find another place to live.