Real Simple etiquette expert, Catherine Newman on how to handle an unruly pet.

Monica Buck

Q. I get along great with my in-laws except for one thing: They have a very large, terrifying dog. In the past, the dog has lunged at me, and I was blamed for it. (I was told that I had "entered the room wrong" and "used the wrong tone of voice.") My in-laws do everything for this dog. They even skip family gatherings on a regular basis so they don't have to leave the dog alone. Personally, I do not feel safe around him. What's more, my husband and I are planning to have a baby, and I can't imagine feeling comfortable having my future child interact with this dog. What can I say to my in-laws?

Name Withheld

A. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 800,000 Americans—half of them children—seek medical attention for dog bites every year. No wonder the CDC advise dog owners to seek professional advice in the event of aggressive behavior.

As you seem to understand already, a dog may be man's best friend, but canine aggression is a real and present danger. If this dog is behaving unpredictably, the fault is not yours, and the responsibility for dealing with it lies with your in-laws.

Let your husband explain to his parents that both of you are eager to spend time with them and that you understand how much they love their dog, but that the dog's behavior is worrying. Or, if you prefer, start the conversation yourself: "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid of your dog. I know he's a really important part of your life, but I need to come up with some strategies for managing my fear because it's going to affect how much time I spend with you."

When you visit their home, can your in-laws shut the dog in another room or put him in a crate? Or can you avoid their house entirely and meet them out for dinner or at your home? There should be a solution that allows you to feel safe now and in the future.

Love (for pets) is blind, and your in-laws might be hurt or offended, but all you can do is communicate your feelings directly and respectfully. The stakes are too high not to.

—Catherine Newman

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