How To: Teach Your Child To Not Be Afraid of Dogs

by Steve Calechman

They can be loyal, protective and endlessly playful. But dogs can also be intimidating anddog and kidsscary to the young and uninitiated. Amy Marder, VMD, director of the Center for Shelter Dogs at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, has these tips on maximizing the potential for a good encounter between your child and a dog:

• When introducing a child to a dog, pick the canine carefully. A calm one is best, and a friend’s pet is obviously ideal. If that’s not possible and you’ve encountered a park full of dogs, look for two welcoming traits: a dog that sits on command and one who walks on a loose leash. Both are signs of a dog that’s well-behaved and well-controlled.

• Assume nothing and forget whatever you know about a certain breed’s reputation or your past experiences. Every dog has his own disposition, so it’s best to ask the owner before you approach whether the animal is friendly and, most importantly, whether he’s good with children.

• You, the parent, need to take the lead when you approach a dog with your child. Don’t stick your hand out for the dog to smell. That can be seen as threatening. Instead, let the dog sniff you and watch his body language. You want to see positive signs – a happy face and a wagging tail. If the dog tenses or backs up, don’t go any further. It’s sign of fear and this is not a dog to proceed with.

• With positive body language, go ahead and pet under the chin or on the body. Try to stay away from the top of the head. Dogs have become accustomed to this move, but it’s not their natural greeting. After you’ve petted, let the dog sniff your child for a few seconds and then leave it at that. The dog just wants to say hello. Keep it simple and without any physical contact, which can often be too aggressive from children.

• Have your child practice petting on plants or pillows. The motion isn’t innate for any human being, so no one is naturally skilled in the art. Children, in particular, tend to grab, which is not relaxing to any dog. Use the inanimate objects and your kids will learn how to use flat hands and touch lightly.

• Finally, as basic as it sounds, keep an eye on your child, especially at a park. While you may not fear that he’ll run off, he can still wander up to a dog and it’s the surprise meetings that lead to problems. The animal might look like his favorite cartoon character, but it doesn’t necessarily have the same temperament, and the exchange can end up being memorable in a bad way. 

Posted October 2011