When Nishi, my boxer, was a little puppy, a few friends came over to see her. A couple brought their daughter along. The couple themselves were not very comfortable with dogs. So I once asked why they wanted to meet Nishi. The mother told me something wonderful. She said that she was afraid of dogs and wanted to give her daughter the opportunity to get over her fear of dogs. She did not want her daughter to carry the fear. I thought that was smart then. Now, I think it’s genius!
Children who are afraid of dogs are often very stiff around dogs. Their body language is rather awkward and sometimes intimidating to dogs. Their shrill screams and sudden movements can scare dogs easily. This is an unsafe scenario for both child and dog. However one cannot really be asked to change their panic reaction. I read a wonderful quote that said “In the history of this world, whoever calmed down because they were told to calm down?”. As adults we can perhaps control our panic reactions a bit more. But children can’t. The solution lies in not triggering the panic reaction at all. Get the child used to a dog in a non-threatening, structured way and they will automatically be more controlled in how they are around animals. It’s a safer alternative.
At first, it’s important to pick the right dog. The dog needs to be a calm adult. Puppies and juveniles are hyperactive and socially awkward. They can get agitated easily and can startle children.
Once you have a dog like that, it’s a good idea to meet in a wide space – a park or parking lot. Walk the child and the dog far away from each other. Let them both look at each other from a distance that they both consider safe enough. It’s important not to stand and stare but to be able to casually walk about. If the dog is not calm enough, create more distance.
Gradually allow them to close the distance at their own pace. If the dog is not ready, the child should not push too hard. Adult supervision is required to ensure that the pace is not getting the dog hyper. Once the distance is close enough and assuming both the child and dog are calm too, the child needs to be instructed not to touch the dog. Allow the dog to come and inspect the child. If this exercise is getting to the child or the dog too agitated, just increase the distance again and wait for the time when they can do this exercise calmly.
Once the dog approaches the child and the child too is comfortable with the dog, the child can be taught to pet the dog. Petting has to happen only on the shoulders or behind the ears. Never on the head. Pet for a few seconds and take the hands off. Once the child and dog get familiar they can be more petting involved.
And last but not the least, a child should never hug a dog. This is one of the most critical lessons we can teach children, to keep them safe. Dogs don’t like to be hugged. They tolerate it most times. But it’s never worth the risk, especially with children whose faces are so close to a dog’s face.
This controlled exposure is good because it not only gives nervous kids time and space to calm down but also gives over-eager kids a lesson in allowing the dog to take his time. Neither of them should feel rushed or pushed.