When he was a preschooler, Bobby Monks’s son, Cam, never had the family’s chocolate lab, Diesel, far from his side. Cam had no fear around dogs—until the bites happened: three of them, all surprise attacks and all from snappy little neighbourhood dogs.
“After that, Cam hid behind my legs when he saw a dog approach,” says Monks. This was a problem: They lived in a dog-loving neighbourhood, and Monks was a vet tech and dog walker. “We’d always have dogs in our lives, so I had to repair the damage, ASAP,” she says.
There are 7.6 million pet dogs in Canada, so even if your family doesn’t include a dog, chances are, your kid will have canine encounters. While Fido can be a child’s best friend and first teacher of loyalty, love, respect, responsibility and even loss, he can also pose a serious threat to your child’s safety. Around 500,000 dog bites are reported annually in Canada, and three-quarters of the victims are kids under 10. All parents must teach kids how to approach and handle a dog—and when to steer clear.
Monks helped Cam overcome his fear through continued exposure to dogs. When they saw a pooch on the street, she’d ask the owner if it was friendly, and then engage Cam with the animal, at first acting as a buffer, by putting her hand over his hand and wrapping her arm around his waist to make him feel safe, so they could pet the dog together. Slowly, he regained his confidence.
Dog trainer Brittany Hudson, of Kent K9 Training Academy in Rexton, NB, teaches kids to stand back at least six feet so the dog can’t lunge at them if it’s excited or aggressive. Then comes the golden rule: “Ask permission first.” Some dogs are triggered by kids because they’ve been hurt by one before, so however friendly a pup looks, don’t take chances.
“If the owner gives permission, take a few steps forward, then stop and let the dog approach you. Don’t bend toward, stare at or talk in a high voice to a nervous dog,” says Hudson. She advises against extending a hand first, in case the dog snaps. “Ignoring the dog until it has had a chance to sniff you and seek attention from you is the safest way to greet it.”
Also teach kids basic canine body language. “Don’t approach a dog whose tail is tucked, head is low and body is stiff,” says Hudson. Teach your kid to turn or look sideways when petting more submissive dogs, so they don’t feel threatened.
In urban environments, service dogs and dog walkers’ packs are common. Service dogs are working dogs helping their owners with a disability, and under no circumstances should kids (or adults) interfere with their training or job. And, Hudson says, “Avoid dog walkers’ packs for safety and the sake of the walker, who’s trying to keep the dogs tangle-free and calm.”
What about dogs on super-long leashes? “It’s dangerous if a child gets tangled or trips, so avoid them,” says Hudson. And off-leash dogs? “Ignore them and keep walking!”
Some kids are so terrified their behaviour can actually trigger dogs. Toronto mom Mary Luz Mejia says her daughter, Nathalie, now six, was skittish around dogs as a preschooler. “She’d shake, sob and scream if one came close.”
Hudson warns that “high-pitched squealing, running or flapping objects trigger a dog’s natural prey drive. If they see a kid racing around a yard screaming, they may chase them and bite their heels, or if someone flaps a towel, they may try to grab it and accidentally bite.”
Nathalie’s behaviour around dogs was potentially dangerous, and it also intruded on the whole family’s enjoyment. This became apparent on a visit to a friend with two friendly dogs: Toshiro, a Shiba Inu, and Alfonso, a Brittany. “Come breakfast time, when we had to go into the kitchen to grab a bite,” says Mejia, “Nathalie sat on our laps on high stools, and even then, she’d be watching the dogs’ every move.”
One week into their nine-day visit, Mejia had to run an errand, and their host watched Nathalie. Mejia came home later to find her daughter in the kitchen, standing next to the two dogs, laughing and patting their heads. Her friend explained he’d sat outside with Nathalie, and when the dogs approached, he’d said, “If you’re scared, hold onto me really tight.” As Nathalie clutched his arm, she observed him petting and talking to the dogs and came to understand they were loving creatures. Half an hour later, Nathalie reached out to pet the dogs too. She was so proud of herself for overcoming her fears.
These days, Mejia is happy to report that Nathalie loves playing with her auntie’s dog, Ginger, a standard poodle, and her grandmother’s little guy Coco, a fluffy mutt. And as for Cam? Now age seven, he sometimes helps Monks with her dog walking pack. And after grieving the loss of Diesel, who passed away in 2015, he has found a new BFF in his successor, a playful young Lab named Finn.
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