My daughter has a love-quake relationship with many pets. If it’s bigger than a bread box, she’s most likely “terrified” of it. Except when she’s enchanted by it.
Cats and dogs are the usual objects of her two-faced obsession. She’s uncertain around cats for a few minutes, but eager to follow them like a shadow. And then it’s love.
As you can imagine, it’s not always mutual.
But dogs? She loves them from afar. Loves them. But once she gets close, all bets are off. A couple of neighborhood dogs that are about her size have moved a little too fast and jumped a little too high, imprinting paranoia on her brain. Even the most docile dogs are now suspect.
I have mixed feelings as a mom: I think caution around strange dogs is a good thing, and I don’t want to teach her that all dogs are friendly (I don’t want her to be too comfortable). I also feel that not having a dog is doing her a disservice (she’s not comfortable enough).
What’s a parent to do? And likewise, what’s a pet owner to do?
I’m learning that parents can help in two ways. First, familiarize your child with common dog behavior. How can you tell when a dog is happy? Scared? Playful? (For a pet novice like me, that means learning myself.)
Second, teach your child the appropriate way to approach a dog. If someone approaches you running and screaming, are you going to feel cuddly? Me neither! A child should approach a dog calmly without making eye contact—eye contact can be perceived as a threat.
Kids should always ask the owner before touching or talking to a dog. If the owner gives permission, the dog needs to meet a child by smell first, while everyone involved is calm and still. When the owner says it’s OK, gently pet the dog under its chin or on its side, not on the top of its head.
In case a dog is overly-enthusiastic and jumps on your child, he or she needs to learn to quietly and calmly turn away from the dog and cross her arms over her chest. The dog should calm down; meanwhile the child is less susceptible to bites. Calmly asking the owner to help is a good idea, too.
Pet owners also can take a two-step approach. Start by socializing your dog around kids who are calm and comfortable, arming kids with dog treats to reward your pup for positive behavior. Regardless of the presence of children, never tolerate growling. Also remember that a dog leaning on you or touching you is dominant behavior—affection should only be given when the dog is calm and submissive. Provide rules and boundaries for your dog, just like parents do for their kids.
Also be prepared to teach kids who meet and know your dog the appropriate way to act around your dog. Parents like me may not know what to do. Educating kids keeps everyone safe.
I understand I haven’t been approaching my daughter’s fears in a helpful way, so I have work to do. I’ll need to work at her pace, but hopefully dogs will soon be among her best friends.