My friend’s daughter, Charlie, wasn’t always afraid of dogs. As a toddler, she would go right up to them with enthusiasm.
But just after she turned three, a friend’s small terrier ran up to Charlie and jumped, as little dogs often do. It knocked Charlie off her feet. On another occasion, a neighbour’s pet came over and started licking her face. Charlie backed up to get away, but the dog pushed her over and she fell on her bum into a flowerpot. “She wasn’t hurt,” says her mom, Jill Staveley, of Peterborough, Ont., “but she felt out of control and she wasn’t able to deal with it. She was afraid after that.”
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Charlie is four now, and although Staveley has tried to give her some positive exposure to dogs, they aren’t getting very far. “The littlest thing sets her back,” she explains. “And honestly, some owners haven’t been that helpful. The message we often get from them—as they let their furry friend run up to her—is, ‘Don’t worry, my dog is fine.’ They don’t seem to get that having an animal approach can be very overwhelming for a child.”
Andrea Nair, a psychotherapist and parent educator in London, Ont., says it’s very common for toddlers and preschoolers to develop fears they didn’t have before. Her own son’s fear of dogs started with her sister’s pet. “She is a lovely dog, but when she sees another pooch in the neighbour’s yard she acts very aggressive—she barks and rips up and down the fence. Even though she didn’t come anywhere near my son, it scared him. Then her behaviour generalized all dogs. Now they seem unpredictable and scary to him.” Nair says children can become afraid because of a bad experience like this, but sometimes, kids’ fears can develop for no obvious reason.
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So how should parents support children who are afraid?
- First, be patient. While most kids grow out of their fear (and some will become dog lovers), “these fears seldom go away quickly,” says Nair.
- Take his feelings seriously, but don’t label them. “Don’t say, ‘My child is afraid of dogs’ in front of him,” she advises. “Say something like, ‘My child isn’t ready to meet your dog.’” You don’t want to convey the idea that “afraid of dogs” is his permanent nature.
- Don’t force him to interact with dogs.
- Teach your child to “be a tree.” This is a really useful technique to deflect unwanted attention and give kids a sense of control. Instead of running, screaming or waving their hands (which excites dogs), Doggone Safe says kids should stop, fold in their branches (arms) and look down at their roots (feet) and count until the canine loses interest. Visit doggonesafe.com to watch children demonstrate how it works.
- Look for ways to increase his exposure (with nice, quiet, well-controlled pets) very, very gradually.
- Model positive interaction. This will also help your child begin to understand animal behaviour. For example, while she’s safe with Dad, you can say, “I’m going to go and meet Duke. He’s going to sniff me all over to say hello. Hi, Duke. Hey, he licked me!” Educate yourself about dog body language and behaviour, so you can teach your child how friendly (or not-so friendly) dogs behave and how to interact safely. (Doggonesafe.com is a good resource for this as well.)
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Staveley feels what Charlie needs right now is to avoid more scares. “I want her to be comfortable with dogs, but right now my priority is for her to feel safe.” To that end, she’s bringing Charlie for a visit to my house one day soon, where we’ve arranged that my quiet, kid-friendly dog will be leashed at my side, so Charlie can set her own boundaries about how close—or not—to get.
Tip: When your child is ready to approach a friendly dog (with the owner’s permission), have her put the back of her hand out for the dog to sniff, but keep it low (a dog’s nose will follow her hand movements). It’s better to scratch the dog on the chest or side of the neck, rather than pat its head. And no hugs or kisses!
A version of this article appeared in our May 2014 issue with the headline “Beware of Dog,” p. 54
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