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My friend Al from the dog park told me a story the other day. He had Hannah out for her evening stroll, and a woman was walking by with a little girl, probably about four years old. Upon seeing Hannah, the toddler ran over to her, grabbed her around the neck, and proceeded to hug the daylights out of her. Al was horrified. “That kid should have been on a leash!” he said. “I mean, what if she tried that on a dog who didn’t love kids the way Hannah does?”
It’s frightening when kids are too eager to approach strange dogs. It’s sad, though, when they’re afraid to approach even when assured that the dog is friendly. So, why are some kids afraid of dogs, and what can be done about it?
You know how it is – some kids embrace challenges, while others are more reserved. A child who is confident about trying new things is less likely to be fearful than one who approaches everything with an eye toward the worst that could happen. And children who are not exposed to dogs are more likely to be fearful.
Sometimes, too, parents can be the problem. If an adult is afraid of dogs, then a child is likely to pick up on that fear, and assume, not unreasonably, that dogs should be avoided.
Of course dogs can be afraid of children as well. Kids are small and loud, and often right at eye level with the dog. They also move erratically. What’s not to fear, right?
So, if your child is afraid of dogs, and you desperately want to have a dog in your family, you’re going to have to work through it. Following are some tips for helping your child to become comfortable around dogs.
Often, the most well-meaning parent can inadvertently aggravate a child’s fear of dogs while trying to overcome it. If you say to a nervous child, for instance, “Make sure to only pet under the chin at first so you don’t scare the dog and make him bite,” pretty much the only word that is really going to register is “bite”. Also, telling a child to ask the owner if a dog will bite is pretty counter-productive. Try “Always ask first if it is okay to pet the dog” works much better.
You don’t need to take your kid to the dog park right away. Start the exposure to dogs with movies, books, and then maybe a visit to a friend who has a nice, child-friendly dog. It’s usually best to start with an adult dog, too – puppies can be very rambunctious, and of course they have those little milk teeth that they just love to fasten on hands and toes.
You could also think about taking your child to a therapeutic reading program at the local library. The child can interact as much or as little as makes them comfortable, and the dogs are invariably polite.
Once your child lets you know that he or she is ready to try interacting with a dog, make sure that they know that they will be sniffed, and possibly licked as well. Explain that this is the dog’s way of trying to get to know you.
Having devoted a good deal of time and effort to accustoming your child to dogs, it may be tempting to think your job is done. It’s not. Even if your child becomes totally at ease around dogs, things can go south rapidly if they are careless. So make sure they know to always treat dogs kindly and gently, and never to hit, shove or tease a dog. And it can’t be stated often enough, make sure they know to always, always ask before they approach a dog that they do not know.
So, now you know what to do to help your child get over a fear of dogs. There is one thing that you definitely should not do, though, and that is to get a dog thinking that your child will get over the fear more quickly. This is not a good idea. In fact, it’s kind of the equivalent of throwing your kid into a pool to teach him how to swim. And if your child never gets over his or her fear, then what are you going to do with the dog? You’ve made a commitment, one that I’ve talked about often, and most recently in A Puppy for Grading Day, and it’s not right to get rid of a dog because you weren’t ready for him in the first place.
Most of the time, with a bit of a helping hand, nature will take its course and your kid will become comfortable around dogs. After all, kids and dogs are meant to be together! There are few things more heartwarming than watching a child play with his four-legged friend.
I’ve found that when it comes to toys that both can enjoy, kids and dogs have the most fun together with a nice, solid ball like the Indestructa in blue, yellow and green. These are colors that are very appealing to children, and they are also colors in the spectrum that dogs can actually see. It ordinarily retails for $14.99, but you can get it from Amazon for just $9.99. It’s good both indoors and out, and if your kid and his best buddy love romping in the yard, you’ll appreciate the free mosquito repellent bracelet that’s included with each purchase.
Just take it slow and easy, and remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It may take some time to help your kid get over his or her fear of dogs, but it will be well worth it in the long run.