A Big Bad Wolf? - Helping children overcome a fear of dogs.
Most kids I meet see my dogs as exciting, interactive play things. The possibilities for fun are endless; they can play fetch for hours, hide and seek, learn tricks or just lie down for a furry cuddle.
But sometimes we meet a little one who doesn’t see a dog shaped adventure. They see an animal with a heavy coat, piercing eyes, quick movement, claws and sharp teeth! My dog, Oscar, has dark brown shaggy fur and a big mouth and bright white teeth - I could be describing the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood! Instead of running towards him, the poor child wants to run away.
Oscar has never heard of the Big Bad Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood. He just wants to meet, greet and play. But what should we do when a child is afraid of the doggie?
Neither extreme is advisable.
Forcing a child to ‘make friends’ when they are clearly uncomfortable is not a good idea. The child is already on the alert for any movement from the dog that may be interpreted by the child as dangerous and even the dog moving towards the child or giving a friendly lick can result in panic and screams.
On the other hand. Allowing the child to hide behind our legs and shake is not helping them understand that they have nothing to be afraid of and are missing out on what could potentially be a fun experience or even an important relationship.
But, do they have nothing to be afraid of? Really! What do they have to fear?
Well, as it turns out, it may be quite a lot. From a child's perspective a dog is able to cover us with slobber, knock us down, bark at us and even take our ice-cream right out of our hands!
When getting a dog-shy child to meet a dog for the first time it needs to be remembered that manners need to go both ways. The dog should not be able to move into the child’s personal space uninvited, they should be able to greet peacefully. When meeting a dog shy child I make sure Oscar is in a drop (he has been taught to hold that drop under high distraction), allowing the child to make their way over in their own time.
If I had a dog with less training I would make sure that dog is on leash and under control. Or the greeting could be done through a gate, where the child is safe. If the dog cannot be reasonably controlled, maybe this is an opportunity to teach your child about giving some dogs safe distance and asking the owner or handler if unsure.
Getting children to build confidence around dogs can be a rewarding experience for all involved. But remember, if an untrained dog is able to frighten the child, they may do more harm than good, causing lasting fear. I mean, I’m still frightened of The Big Bad Wolf.
Does anyone else have some great tips for helping children overcome a fear of a friendly pooch?
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