My two boys are scared of dogs. I thought maybe they’d grow out of it with time. They didn’t.
Their dog-related nervousness makes things awkward at social events such as birthday parties and playdates, as well as in public places like parks or beaches. Although we don’t own a dog and don’t plan to (my husband is allergic), I am trying to a take a more proactive approach in helping my kids overcome their fear. Here are some strategies we’ve tried, and are still trying:
- Be conscious of your own actions.
As in most new situations, children pick up behaviour cues from their parents. “Parents should be aware of their own behaviour around dogs,” says Kim Spitzig, co-founder of Pound Dog Rescue, a non-profit organization based in southwestern Ontario. “If a parent seems uneasy or inadvertently makes negative comments about dogs, kids will pick up on that.”
I don’t think I was doing my kids any favours in this area, because I am, at best, neutral when it comes to dogs. I didn’t grow up with one and neither did my husband. I don’t really know how to behave around them since they are so unknown to me. Lately, I have tried to make an effort to have brief interactions with dogs we know. I purposely avoid phony, transparent comments like “Oh, look how fun it is to pet Lola!” and instead aim for a relaxed vibe of “it’s no big deal, it’s just a dog.”
- Expose your kids to dogs in other ways.
My younger son loves animals, and I sensed that while he wanted to like dogs, he was just a little spooked by them in real life. So we played with dog stuffies, pretending to care for them and feed them. We sought out images of dogs and puppies in picture books, sticker books, cartoons and movies. We were on such a roll that I even ordered him some shoe labels with a dog icon on them. I know it might sound ridiculous, but those little things helped him start to view dogs in a positive light.
- Introduce them to the right kind of dog.
Through her rescue work, Kim has extensive experience with dogs of all ages, types and sizes. For nervous kids, her best advice is to first expose them to calm, well-mannered, non-threatening dogs. “Senior dogs can be a great choice because they typically have a more mellow demeanour,” she says. “Compared to younger dogs, they are less likely to exhibit excitable behaviours such as barking, licking or jumping up.”
The other day, my kids and I were in a pet store admiring the fish (a pet we could conceivably have someday) when an owner came in with an enormous malamute. Eager to continue my positive-dog-interaction-role-model streak, I said hello to the owner and inquired about the dog. It turned out that Ben was a 13-year-old gentle giant who sat patiently while my younger son gave him a few tentative strokes and asked the owner some questions. It was a huge achievement (literally and figuratively).
- Remember that observing is valuable, too.
While my younger son shyly petted Ben the wolf lookalike, my older son stood cautiously with his back pressed up against the aquariums. Quite simply, he is going to need more time.
Many well-meaning people have insisted that my kids pet their dog, as if that will somehow get them over the hurdle once and for all. This pressure situation usually just adds to the stress, especially for my older son. He will reluctantly touch the dog for a millisecond to get the whole thing over with, then pull back with his worries unchanged.
Kim suggests that fearful kids start by simply being in the same area with a dog to observe it. “Kids should not be forced to pet or interact with a dog,” she says, “but the hope is with more exposure and the parent taking the lead, they will be encouraged to participate eventually.” In this way, I’m pleased that my older son witnessed his brother interact safely with big, furry Ben. The same thing has occurred with Maggie, our relatives’ golden retriever. She is impeccably trained and will not bite even if provoked. While my older son is still intimidated by her, it has been a positive experience for him to watch his cousins – kids of a similar age who he knows and trusts – confidently interact with her by using signals and voice commands.
- Know the right behaviours.
A dog/kid meet-up won’t go well if either side feels threatened. “When petting a dog, it is best to keep your hands low and pet the underside of a dog’s chin or the side of its body,” Kim advises. “Coming from above and trying to pet it on the top of its head can be uncomfortable or scary for a dog.” She also suggests that kids avoid petting or pulling on sensitive areas like a dog’s ears, tail or feet.
If approached by an unknown dog, Kim says that children should remain calm, stay still and keep their hands at their sides. “A common reaction is to raise their arms up, which encourages a dog to jump,” she explains. “Kids should never scream or run away, as this can overstimulate the dog and activate a chase reflex.”
- Communicate openly with dog owners.
If we’re out for a walk and my kids spot a dog, their instinct is to grab my hand and retreat to the edge of the sidewalk. Most dog owners are thoughtful and intuitive, shortening the leash and passing us with a quick smile.
There have been a couple of exceptions. One time, a gentleman walking a springer spaniel openly reprimanded me, saying it was regrettable that my kids had a needless fear of dogs. Another time, my older son had a fearful reaction to an unleashed dog that bounded on to the baseball diamond where he was playing. The owner, trailing behind, called out: “Max won’t hurt you – he just wants to play.” When I went over and explained that my son was nervous around dogs, the owner said I should “cure him” of it, presumably by having him play with the exuberant Max. After I politely declined and they left, it made me wonder if some of these owners were taking my kids’ reluctance as some sort of slight against their dog and by extension, them. Now I always preface my explanation with “I’m sure your dog is very nice and well behaved,” making it clear that it’s our issue, not theirs.
- Set up a controlled interaction with a dog you trust.
The problem with the random, unexpected encounter with Max was just that: it was random and unexpected. Consider planning a dog interaction where you and your child can prepare in advance. We are lucky to have wonderful neighbours with a miniature schnauzer named Ollie. When my younger son seemed ready to be around a real dog instead of a stuffed one, we asked if we could take Ollie for a walk. The first time, I held the leash the whole time and my son simply watched Ollie’s antics (we learned that peeing on every second tree is his specialty). The next time, my son took a few turns with the leash and grew more familiar with Ollie’s routine. With every walk, his comfort level has increased exponentially, and it has been a remarkable thing to witness.
I don’t want my kids to be permanently afraid of dogs. Based on what we’ve seen from the ones living with our friends and families, they are a wonderful source of companionship, unconditional love and comic relief. Even though we’ll never have our own Ben, Maggie or Ollie, I’m grateful that we’re getting to know them better.