Helping a Child Who’s Afraid of Dogs Through Their Fear

Timid boy is holding of the mother on the garden.About two months ago, we discussed the ‘overly confident’ child around strange dogs….. We discussed teaching them the appropriate ways to approach, and the right questions to ask before petting any dog they did not know. Now I want to discuss the flip side of that….. The shy, quiet, or fearful child. I would like to teach you some skills to help your child through this for two reasons…. The first, no one wants to see their child afraid of something….especially if it is something you might happen to love! The second reason is because, contrary to what might be popular belief, a child who is afraid of dogs is just as much at risk as the child who runs up to a dog they do not know and throws their arms around it.

How is my child at risk just because they are afraid?  Here are some typical behaviors that a fearful child will tend to display that can easily provoke,  stimulate or arouse a reaction from a dog.

  • First – when a child gets fearful, often their initial reaction is to scream and run away. Why is this so bad? There are two reasons:
    • First ….the dog may think they are playing, and give chase, which makes the child scream more, and run faster which usually ends in the child tripping and falling and getting hurt while they are trying to get away, or the dog jumping on them in their excitement, which can result in them accidentally scratching the child, or again causing them to fall and possibly get hurt, (you tend to see this more with puppies).
    • The second reason is not usually as innocent, and can be just as, if not much more dangerous, (you usually see it in older dogs). Have you ever seen the animal shows on television, where they show an animal hunting its ‘prey’? Now I don’t want you to think that I am equating your little loved one with prey, but your child screaming and running away can easily turn on the “pursuit” instinct in a dog that already has a high natural prey drive, like a hunting dog. And your child getting pounced on and pinned will not be something easily forgotten.
  • The next one on the list…. Hiding. Children who are afraid of something will typically look for a quick place to hide…. Which for most smaller children will be a low-to-the-ground hidey hole that they think will keep them safe like under a bed, a table, behind a couch….…. Like playing hide and seek. They think if the dog can’t see them, they won’t find them, therefore they are safe. But children usually do not understand that the dog is relying much more on their nose and ears to find the child than their eyes. Then the dog sticks its (more often than not… curious) nose into their hidey-hole, and we are back to the scream-run-chase scenario.
  • Trying to push the dog away or throwing something at the dog to make it move away can lead to a dog feeling threatened… especially if you do not know the full background of the dog, and if there were any abuse issues… like a dog who came from a rescue group or shelter. A dog perceiving any action as a threat can become a potential threat to your child. Most dogs when threatened go into fight or flight mode. While a dog that “runs off” (flight) will probably not reassure your child that dogs are “safe” to be around, a dog that enters “fight” mode and starts growling may be particularly terrifying, even if they never come any closer.
  • Offering the dog a treat as a friendship gesture, then getting afraid of the teeth when the dog opens their mouth to take it, and pulling their hand away quickly….with the treat still in their hand! This is a typical tactic many parents and well-meaning dog owners will try, “Here…. Give the doggy a treat so he will know you are his friend!”. The problem with this is that we are not thinking like the fearful child at this moment. What is the scariest part of the dog to the child? The mouth which contains the teeth!! So you hand the child something and instruct them to go directly to the most dangerous part of the dog, and ask it to open its mouth to receive the treat…. Thereby showing the child all of those big teeth!!

    “Grandma!! What big teeth you have!!” said Little Red Riding Hood…
    …and the wolf responds, “The better to eat you with my dear!!”

    Crazy right?? The other problem with this scenario is when they pull their hand away with the treat still in it, more often than not the dog will try to jump up to get the treat from them.

So let’s use the Little Red Riding Hood analogy as a segue into the next part of this; What causes some of these fears?

There are many reasons a child might be afraid of dogs. The reasons can range from a simple thing like lack of exposure to them, to the more common one…. one of their parents is afraid.

And then there are things that the kids hear, like the old story of Little Red Riding Hood as I wrote above, or even being in the room when the news is on where they may hear of a ‘child being attacked (or mauled) by yet another dog!’

I have also heard parents say things randomly to their kids that I must admit, shock me…. Because they do not realize the impact the words can have on a young impressionable child. For example, not too long ago, when I was in a pet store, they had an adoption event going on. Mom obviously did not want to stop and play with the pups there at that moment, but the child did. So to make the child leave the pups alone, she said, “If you go near that dog…. It will bite you!” To me, that is the equivalent of telling a young child, “If you act up, the police are going to arrest you” and then wondering why the child grows up with a fear and dislike for police officers! So I caution you to choose your words wisely around kids…. They often take things quite literally and at face value.

So if you have a fearful child, how can you help them to overcome this? There are many things you can do to help your fearful child overcome a fear of dogs.  Arrange a “meet and greet” with a neighbor’s or a friend’s dog – one where you know the owner (is attentive) and the dog (is relatively calm).

  • I do not recommend your child’s first experience to be with a puppy or a giant breed dog. As adults, when we think of puppies, we think of harmless playful babies that our kids will enjoy. But for the fearful child, this is not ideal for a few reasons. For one, they are very unpredictable and usually full of much more energy than an older dog. They also tend to jump up on you a lot causing some accidental scratches on young tender skin. happy family with labrador retriever dog in parkAnd their rapid quick movements may frighten your already fearful child more than help them. Also, don’t forget they are teething, and will nip at or on anything to relieve the pain… which usually ends up being fingers.  Of course a giant or large breed dog may be intimidating to a small child just because of their size alone. For these reasons, I recommend their first encounter with a dog be with a quiet middle sized breed of dog who has had some training and manners. One that will be calm and gentle with your little one.
  • Talk to your child before the meet and greet. Make sure they understand some simple rules such as no screaming or running around the dog. If they change their mind about the meet and greet at any time, or become afraid or uncomfortable, let them know it is never too late to stop it, and that all they have to do is calmly tell you they want to stop, and you will hold their hand and calmly walk away with them.
  • Make sure when the initial ‘meet and greets’ are done between your child and dog, that the dog is on a leash. Even the most well behaved, calm, older dog can spook or react incorrectly to something, so to protect your child, remember…. Leash equals control!
  • If lack of exposure is the reason for their fear, remember to start off slowly. Don’t push them too far or too fast when they are not ready…. Again, you do not want to make the fear worse.
  • If one parent has any fear at all of dogs, I recommend that they not be present during the initial meet and greet. Our kids look to us for cues quite frequently when they are not sure how to react to something, if they see you afraid, they might become afraid too.
  • When you bring your child up to the dog, do not walk up to its face. Remember… the face contains the mouth which contains the teeth. However, the tail and back of the dog carry no threat to your child. So have the dog’s owner put their dog in a DOWN/STAY position, and have them sit next to the dog distracting him, while you accompany your child around the back. Make sure the owner knows it is okay for the dog to look, and not to hold the dogs head. This is an unnatural thing for the dog and may make them want to pull away from being restrained, scaring your child with their sudden movement in the process. Now, let your child gently stroke the dogs tail. You can ask them some age appropriate questions, like for a young child, “Is the tail soft? What color is the tail?” Or for an older child, check in with them, “Is this okay? Are you feeling comfortable?” etc. If they are comfortable, you can encourage them to gently move their hand up to stroke the back, then the neck, etc. Do not bring them around to the face of the dog unless you are sure they are comfortable with all of the other things.
  • The last thing you can do is make sure the dog knows how to gently take treats, and then place a treat in the palm of your hand, fingers spread out wide, and let them see the dog ‘lick’ the treat from your hand.  Then ask if they want to try it. If they do, assist them with it by holding their hand in yours. What this will ensure is that they don’t pull their hand away with the treat, making the dog jump up to get it back. If they say they don’t want to, praise all the work they have done that day and tell them how proud you were that they were so brave, and try again soon.

Remember this is something they will get comfortable with over time…so take the time to practice with them, gradually introducing them to different dogs. Keep in mind, you always want to check with the owner how the dog is doing “on that particular day” before you start or resume practicing.   Even the sweetest, gentlest dog can have an “off” day…(read more about recognizing dog’s body language here) and the point of this is for your child to be comfortable, so remember to check in periodically with them during the process. Better to walk away feeling great and with a sense of accomplishment, then to stay and feel disappointed.

About the Author

I trained as an EMT in NY, than recertified in Atlanta. I loved being an EMT and was involved with it for several years. I worked on the “Rainbow Response Unit” at Egleston’s Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, and when not on a call, worked in the PICU and NICU, which was both a blessing as well as a heartache because I learned and saw so much. Helping to create a child safety seat for ambulances was my way of making sure children who were already compromised health-wise, would not be put in any more danger. When I realiized I could no longer be an EMT due to medical reasons, I found an alternate outlet for my desire to nuture and protect; I became a dog trainer...something that was always a second love and passion for me. Now, whenever possible, I combine my passion for children and canines by working to make the world a safer place for both. Suzanne is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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