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Conquering fear children can have towards dogs

By HELEN PLAMER

K9 Corner

The question today is very serious, and although I am not a psychologist, I will tell you what worked for a number of children who were brought to my dog training classes, way back when.

“…My child is afraid of dogs and the fear seems to be intensifying each week. How can we help her?” is a typical complaint.

First, I ask the age of the child and note if he/she is a toddler or nursery school age. Then I ask if there is a dog in the neighborhood that could have frightened her. If the parents say there are nice friendly dogs close by; I pause to think. Babies are born without fear and need a frightening encounter before reacting to a given situation. It can be as mild as a dog yawning which exposes all the teeth to the child or it could be just the size and speed of the animal that frightens her. If a dog has actually knocked the child down by accident, that is a strong possibility.

My experience in dealing with mild fear is to expose the toddler gradually to dogs. In a more extreme case, I recommend the parent hold the child while they watch a small to medium size dog play quietly with an owner. I am very selective about which dog I use in these circumstances. I found that a soft, furry dog with large eyes and a calm manner seem to attract fearful children faster than a short haired dog or one with small eyes.

Scamp, one of my border collies, was perfect for this job. Scamp was timid herself because of abuse before I got her, she seemed to sense the fear in the child and would sit quietly until the child came to her. She was my choice for this job for as long as she was able to work.

Once the child has stopped screaming and clutching the parent and starts watching the dog play with its owner, I progress one step. With the toddler standing between her parent’s feet and leaning for security against the parent’s legs, I made my dog sit about six to ten feet away facing them.

Then I would kneel down beside the dog and stroke her head and neck while cooing, “Isn’t she soft? Isn’t she pretty? Wouldn’t you like to pet her?” I avoid staring directly at the child at this time. Instead I look at the dog and glance in the direction of the child.

Normally it takes several minutes before the child will even move a muscle, but when he/she does, the parent lets go and crouches down as the child comes (usually hesitatingly) over to touch the dog. Occasionally the parent will have to follow because the child is clutching a finger, that’s OK too. Once the child has experienced something pleasant with a dog such as stroking a soft, furry coat, the parents can continue desensitizing at home.

This kind of fear can be conquered at home if caught early. However, ingrained fears and fears from a traumatic experience take professional counseling; older children often need that.